Being in a relationship can, at times, present its challenges. Immersing yourself in and making sense of the other person’s inner world (i.e., their thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc.) is no easy task to undertake. Each individual brings their own internal experience to the relationship, and some of those experiences can leave the other person struggling to attune to their partner’s needs. Heinz Kohut first proposed the concept of ‘self-object’ experiences in which the individual turns to others to have their self-esteem and self-related needs met. These others are often referred to as self-object and can include our partners and other important people in our lives. These experiences help us all maintain a positive and cohesive sense of self.
The majority of us desire and seek partners who make us feel better, and this generally means a partner who is understanding, positive, and affirming. We seek partners who we can look up to, admire, and rely on in stressful times. When we find ourselves in positive relationships, this helps regulate and integrate our emotional experiences and fortifies our sense of likeness and belonging. In such circumstances, our partners can act as a reliable and dependable source of self-object experiences.
On the other hand, when we find ourselves in relationships riddled with trouble and conflict, this may leave each individual with the sense that the other cannot provide self-object experiences reliably. At times, the presenting conflict between couples relates to a lack of needed self-object experiences, whether these problems relate to disengagement, finances, sex, parenting, etc. For example, disagreements about finances may relate to one partner’s self-object experience of safety and security that is fulfilled by saving compared to the other’s need for stimulation or soothing through buying. These common issues faced by couples often translate into underlying self-object needs and failed attempts to meet identified needs by the other. Within the pair, one person’s need for a particular experience may leave the other at odds with their own equally legitimate need.
One of the goals of couples therapy is to support the pair in becoming a more reliable source of self-object experiences that complement the relationship. To attain this objective involves clearly communicating needs, understanding the other’s self-object needs, and noticing its cues. Also, the ability to understand each other’s experience and, on occasion, tolerate failed attempts to meet self-object needs without perceiving these incidences as threatening are equally essential goals in couples’ work. Couples therapy can help reframe conflicts in terms of their underlying self-object needs and help improve an individual’s ability to meet their partner’s needs within the couple’s relationship.
Nancy Amirkhanian, M.A., R.P., is a Clinical Psychology Resident at Center for Interpersonal Relationships (Toronto). Regarding couples therapy, she works with partners to address various relationship issues, such as repairing ruptures due to infidelity, improving sexual and emotional intimacy, challenges with communication, and managing conflicts due to blended families, parenting, and finances. Nancy is currently completing her pre-doctoral residency at the CFIR under the direct supervision of Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C.Psych. and Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych.