‘Self-Object’ Experiences and Your Relationship

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.

The Hardest Part of an Argument

by: Valery Vengerov, M.Psy. R.P.(Qualifying)

One of the most common experiences that couples report having after an unresolved argument is the daunting, heavy silence that follows. The lack of resolution of an argument leaves each partner feeling misunderstood and often in a state of resignation. Each partner might think: “I give up. He/she will never understand me. Why even bother? I’ll deal with this on my own.” This lingering silence can be a protest. The longer and more frequently couples remain in this space of estrangement from one another, the more stressed and dissatisfied they become with their relationship as a whole (Liu & Roloff, 2015). Resentment builds, and distance develops as the ‘couple’ unit starts to feel unsafe. 

In therapy, couples have the opportunity to safely share the accumulated hurt and resentment that underlies and results from these silences, and that threatens their relationship. They can experience the relief that comes with being heard and listened to. They also find out more about their partner, who becomes more accessible and available to them as a result of therapy. Couples can learn how to repair conflict faster and more effectively in therapy, and reduce the amount of time they spend feeling disconnected and resentful of one another (Gordon & Chen, 2016).

Whatever challenges you and your partner want to address in couples therapy, improving communication is vital.

Evidence- and science-based couples therapy will help both of you to define your thoughts, feelings, and desires to each other with openness and empathy.

A therapist in CFIR’s Relationship and Sex Therapy team can also help you to arrive at a better understanding of each other’s point of view. You can collaboratively set your treatment goals to ensure that you or you and your partner’s concerns and needs are adequately addressed.

References

Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I’m coming from?: Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 239-260.

Liu, E., & Roloff, M. E. (2015). Exhausting Silence: Emotional Costs of Withholding Complaints. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 8, 1, 25-4.

Valery Vengerov, M.Psy., R.P. (Qualifying), is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She works with individual and couples clients, to help them resolve a wide range of difficulties related to depression, stress and anxiety, trauma and loss, and relationship conflict and betrayals.

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