Emotional permanence is a term I recently heard for the first time. It has to do with believing in emotions even when they can’t be seen. This concept is taken from object permanence which is the understanding that objects exist even when they can’t be seen. When I read the term, I realized that I have problems with emotional permanence. I also realized that not having a consistent sense of emotional permanence was a major cause of anxiety.
What Is Emotional Permanence?
As I said, emotional permanence is about believing in the emotions of others even when you can’t see them. A big example of this is with a partner. Do you understand and believe that your partner loves you even when they’re not around and can’t tell you? Most people would say, “Sure, of course, I understand and believe that.”
If this is you, that’s great, but emotional impermanence can sneak up on a person. You can start to wonder about whether your partner loves you or not — not because of their actions, but, rather, because of something in your own head. I would suggest most people have done this a time or two. Most of us want reassurance that our partner loves us. Most of us want to be told that we are loved not just once, but repeatedly. Hearing “I love you” once is unlikely to make you believe it forever. So, in this regard, we all have a little emotional impermanence with which to contend (because, after all, people change), but it’s probably healthy.
If You Suffer from a Lack of Emotional Permanence
But some people suffer from a lack of emotional permanence on a larger scale. Like babies don’t understand that their parents exist when they’re out of sight (object permanence is a learned skill, and it happens around the age of four-eight months), some people don’t believe in the emotions of their partners when they can’t see them. This may be one of the reasons that some people with mental illnesses like borderline personality disorder require constant reassurance. (It’s complicated in borderline personality disorder, though, because people with that illness are typically terrified of abandonment, real or imagined.) So, if you constantly require reassurance from your partner, constantly require affection, constantly require them to say “I love you,” maybe it’s emotional permanence that’s troubling you.
What Causes a Lack of Emotional Permanence?
This is hard to say because, as far as I can see, there’s no real research around this concept. I do have a theory, though. If you have been in a situation in which emotions changed repeatedly to the point where you couldn’t trust them, that would seem to create a sense of emotional impermanence in a person. I think it’s similar when what a person says and what they do disagree with each other vastly, repeatedly.
You can think of a “two-faced” person as one who might cause an atmosphere for the creation of emotional impermanence thoughts. Or an abusive partner who says he hates you while he beats you and then buys you flowers and tells you he loves you over and over again (this is common in abuse cycles). I suggest environments like these, especially if you’re brought up in one, would make you doubt emotional permanence.
Also, I think depression breeds doubt in emotional permanence. It’s very common to feel like you’re not loved in depression. It’s very common to feel like you’ve never been loved in depression. So, of course, when your partner is standing in front of you saying “I love you,” that can beat back that depression cruelty, but when the person is absent, the depression once again bellows.
Emotional Permanence and Anxiety
And unfortunately, if you have trouble with emotional permanence, I think anxiety is your full-time partner. For example, if you can’t believe that your partner loves you when you can’t see them, then you’re going to be very anxious indeed. Just imagine doubting the love of your partner over and over again until you can see them and they can tell you, again, that they love you. That is incredibly hard on both parties. I could see how anxiety would breed a lack of understanding of emotional permanence, and a lack of emotional permanence would breed anxiety. It’s a very unfortunate two-way street.
Fixing an Understanding of Emotional Permanence
As this concept of emotional permanence is really discussed, fixing it isn’t discussed either. I would suggest the biggest thing in dealing with it is discussing it with your partner. You need to talk about this issue so your partner understands why you may seem “needy.”
But more than open and honest communication (because that should always be the rule), I think it’s important to figure out why you’re having trouble with emotional permanence and address it. Yes, it could be secondary to an illness like borderline personality disorder or major depression, but it could also be due to your history. You need to be honest with yourself to work this out. Likely, a therapist could help you work out what’s affecting you as well.
But finally, I say, talk back to the emotional permanence anxiety. Use logic to fight an irrational situation. Your partner told you he loves you two days ago but has been on a business trip since then. Is it really reasonable to think that his feelings for you have changed in two days just because he’s not with you? No, it’s not. You’re feeling something that is real but irrational. Use your mind to fight your brain on this. Remember, your feeling something doesn’t make it real. Your feeling unloved doesn’t mean that your partner has stopped loving you — it means that your brain is sending out a signal. The signal is real. The feeling is real. But the actual reality of the situation is different than what your brain is telling you.