Most people can withstand some degree of relational ambiguity, and not be entirely consumed by worrying about potential rejection. When we argue with our loved ones, we can later bounce back from the negative event. When they are not physically by our side, we have an underlying trust that we are on their mind. All these involve something called Object Constancy, the ability to maintain an emotional bond with others even where there are distance and conflicts.
Object Constancy originates from the concept of Object Permanence — a cognitive skill we acquire at around 2 to 3 years old. It is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, touched, or sensed in some way. This is why babies love peekaboo — when you hide your face, they think it ceases to exist. According to psychologist Piaget, who founded the idea, achieving Object Constancy is a developmental milestone.
Object Constancy is a psychodynamic concept, and we could think of it as the emotional equivalence of Object Permanence. To develop this skill, we mature into the understanding that our caregiver is simultaneously a loving presence and a separate individual who could walk away. Rather than needing to be with them all the time, we have an ‘internalized image’ of our parents’ love and care. So even when they are temporarily out of sight, we still know we are loved and supported.
In adulthood, Object Constancy allows us to trust that our bond with those who are close to us remains whole even when they are not physically around, picking up the phone, replying to our texts, or even frustrated at us. With Object Constancy, absence does not mean disappearance or abandonment, only temporary distance.
Since no parent could be available and attuned 100% of the time, we all suffer at least some minor bruises in learning to separate and individuate. However, when one had experienced more severe early or even preverbal attachment trauma, have extremely inconsistent or emotionally unavailable caregivers, or a chaotic upbringing, their emotional development might have been stunted at a delicate age, and they never had the opportunity to develop Object Constancy.