Tuesday, April 12, 2011

BPD and Object Constancy

Stuart K. Hayashi

There is an issue found in some people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) that can be called an issue of Object Constancy. Though I am not a psychologist, I have read enough about this subject for me to feel relatively confident in discussing it in a more public venue. What I am about to explain is my interpretation of the writings on psychology that I have read.

I should state that not all people with BPD necessarily have this objection-relations issue. Many psychotherapists anecdotally relate, however, that this issue often arises when treating patients with BPD.

When a mother physically walks out of her baby's line of sight, that causes distress for the baby.  In the interim where the mother is gone, it's not just a matter of the baby missing his mother in the way that an adult will strongly miss someone.  An adult has an understanding of the context in a way the baby does not.  The baby cannot actually be sure, based on his limited knowledge, that the mother will ever return.  He can easily feel betrayed and abandoned.  It's as if the mother has ceased to exist, leaving him all alone.

There comes a point in a child's development, though, where this separation anxiety gradually begins to mitigate itself.  There comes a point where the following happens.  The parent tells her child that she will leave him alone for a certain amount of time, and promises to return.  There comes a point where the child comes to understand, on both an intellectual and emotional level, that the parent will indeed return.  At that point, the child has achieved a much more mature level of "object constancy" in relation to his parent.

When an adult has object constancy with respect to other people -- a human-relationship constancy -- it works like this.  Jim and Angela become very close.  They share many beautiful experiences together.  But for business reasons, they have to be separated and go to different continents for a few months.  Even for someone who is strong in object/relationship constancy, some affection might fade over time as he remains physically separated from the other person.  For the most part, though, the feeling lingers.  When Jim remembers experiences he shared with Angela, he is able, then, to re-experience, all over again, much of the same emotions he had during those moments with Angela.  The emotional bond remains strong.  Not only does Jim have conscious memories of what happened with Angela.  He also retains an emotional familiarity with Angela.

The situation is different for someone who has not developed a strong object/human-relationship constancy.  Let's pretend now that Jim doesn't have relationship constancy.  Let's also pretend that Angela is completely unaware of the psychologists' Object Relations theory, and unaware that it pertains to Jim.  This would mean that when Jim is separated from Angela for even a short while, he feels as if he cannot be certain that they will ever be reunited -- that feeling arises even if, on an intellectual level, Jim knows that they are supposed to see each other again. If Jim and Angela are separated for a longer period, Jim might go through these two stages:

1. Intensely missing Angela; it's as if a whole part of himself is gone.  He begins to wonder if Angela has chosen to abandon him.

2. If Jim an Angela are separated for too long (maybe a few weeks?), this happens: even if this is contradicted by facts he understands on an intellectual level, Jim emotionally feels abandoned by Angela.  Regardless of his intellectual understanding, Jim emotionally feels that Angela has vanished from his life.  In order to cope and survive, Jim then emotionally detaches from Angela to an extreme degree.  It's as if she doesn't exist for him anymore.  He can still have conscious memories about her, but the emotional familiarity has vanished.

If this case is severe enough, then when Angela and Jim are finally reunited, Jim might behave "politely" but in an impersonal manner that Angela finds jarring.  Jim might be "polite" to her in a way that a flight attendant is expected to be courteous toward his customers -- pleasant and smiley but also still impersonal. Angela will have a difficult time comprehending -- both intellectually and emotionally -- why the emotional familiarity has disappeared.  That will especially be confusing for her if she is someone who has a strong sense of object/human-relationship constancy.

As one website on the topic explains it,

...borderlines have problems with object constancy in people -- they read each action of people in their lives as if there were no prior context; they don't have a sense of continuity and consistency about people and things in their lives. They have a hard time experiencing an absent loved one as a loving presence in their minds. They also have difficulty seeing all of the actions taken by a person over a period of time as part of an integrated whole, and tend instead to analyze individual actions in an attempt to divine their individual meanings. People are defined by how they last interacted with the borderline.

Here is how one BPD patient describes the phenomenon.

When a person leaves (even temporarily), they [people with BPD] may have a problem recreating or remembering feelings of love that were present between themselves and the other. Often, BPD  patients want to keep something belonging to the loved one around during separations. . . . I have an extraordinarily hard time holding onto the thought that people remember me, hold me dear or care for me when I am not in their physical presence. Out of sight, no longer connected. I'm sure to most people this is not how they perceive relationships (be it friendship, dating, familial). I think it should be a consistent progression of emotions and experiences that build together to form a deep bond. I also have a hard time holding onto the strong emotions I feel for those I care about, and when I do manage to I also manage to convince myself that I am the only one that feels this way and no one else could possibly share my depth of emotion though I desperately hope they do. This creates a feeling of panic and loss for something that may actually be there and I need to find a way to reaffirm these feelings in myself and others every time I am back in contact with them. It’s a maddening cycle of doubt, loss, connection and disconnection.

A good explanation (complete with Venn Diagrams) of difficulties in relationships of those with BPD is found here.

Some people try to avoid this problem simply by avoiding making any deep attachments to anyone.  Such a person can be very friendly, smiling, and laughing in public, while still remaining impersonal and detached -- largely keeping one's deepest feelings hidden from everyone in cheerful-but-superficial conversation.   But this position is untenable in the long run.  Much more long-term fulfillment can be achieved when, with the help of trained professionals, one becomes self-aware about the Object Constancy issue and learns to manage it constructively with the love and support of those who care.