Every couple goes through rough patches. Yet, when these patches stretch out into long-term struggles, how can we tell if the relationship is worth salvaging? Is it our own shortcomings and defenses that have caused us to fall out of love, or are we actually in an unhealthy relationship? Here are some signs to look for that may indicate that you’re in an unhealthy relationship and some tips on what to do about it:
Warning signs of an Unhealthy Relationship:
Have you noticed that you and your partner make less personal contact? Is there less physical affection exchanged between the two of you? Have you stopped having sex as often or at all? Has the communication broken down between you? These changes could be an indication that you and your partner are in, what psychologist and Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships author, Robert Firestone calls a “fantasy bond.”
A fantasy bond replaces real acts of love and affection toward your partner with an illusion of connection. In a fantasy bond, a couple may operate as a unit, seeing themselves as safely joined, yet their relating becomes a matter of form and routine. No longer do they show much passion, love or respect for each other. Instead, they relate over practical matters and tend to fall into negative patterns of interacting. When you enter into a fantasy bond, you are entering into an unhealthy relationship, a way of connecting to your partner that actually hurts and diminishes your feelings for each other. Signs that you’re in a fantasy bond include:
- Less eye contact between you and your partner
- Breakdowns in communication.
- Loss of intimacy, affection and more personal lovemaking
- Loss of independence
- The tendency to speak as a unit, as if the two of you are one person.
Couples who are in a fantasy bond tend to perform the roles of being together, going through the motions without necessarily feeling close to each other. They may start to use their daily routines to symbolize closeness, rather than engaging in spontaneous acts of warmth and attraction. These couples tend to fool themselves that they are in a healthy relationship, because they engage in the form of sharing life. For example, a friend of mine once asked her father if he was in love with her mother, who he’d been married to for more than 40 years. His reply was, “We may not love each other, but we are loyal.”
Why Do We Enter into Unhealthy Relationships?
Too often, we allow a fantasy mode of relating to replace our real feelings of love. Why do we do this? For one thing, many of us have deep-seated fears of true intimacy. Being vulnerable to someone leaves us feeling vulnerable to the world. We become more aware of the fragility of life, the pain of loss and death. Falling in love as an adult symbolizes cutting ties with our past, giving up connections to our childhood or to our parents. These connections may not be healthy, but they allowed us to feel protected from the reality of time passing and facing certain painful aspects of life. When fears arise in our relationships, without realizing it, we often give up our feelings of love in favor of a fantasy of connection to our partner.
In order to stay connected to our past, we may choose partners who fit in with our defenses, who replicate destructive patterns from our childhood. For example, if we had a passive parent who frequently ignored us, we may choose a partner who is dismissive or self-centered. We may form an dysfunctional relationship, in which we feel similar ways we did as a child, hungry for attention, deprived or rejected. By getting to know ourselves, our past and our patterns, we can come to understand why and how we wind up in unhealthy relationships. We can learn to have compassion for ourselves, as we understand our choices and consciously decide how to break from destructive relationship patterns.
How to Get Out of an Unhealthy Relationship
Getting into an unhealthy relationship isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re with the wrong partner or that you should move on. Perhaps you have chosen someone who fits perfectly with your defenses, who supports an old, destructive, yet familiar image you have toward yourself. In that case, maybe it is best to part ways. However, maybe you’ve chosen someone who you truly love and admire. Maybe he or she challenges you for all the right reasons.
For example, your partner’s feelings for you may be hard for you to take. If you grew up with an intrusive or overbearing parent, you might mistake your partner’s affections for neediness. You might have the urge to pull away or to be critical of your partner for getting too close. It’s important to distinguish if the reasons you feel like letting someone go are the right reasons or the wrong reasons. If they made you very happy when you met them, but cause you anxiety as you get close, and they start to challenge your fears of intimacy, then the relationship is probably worth sticking out.
Similarly, if you once were head over heels for your partner, but now almost inexplicably can’t stand them, it’s valuable to ask, have I entered into fantasy bond? Could I get back to where I started by giving up some of the critical thoughts (critical inner voices) I’ve built up against my partner? Could I start relating more personally and recover my feelings of affection?
If, at the end of the day, you decide you have grown distant from your partner for good reason, you may choose to give up the relationship. If you feel you were drawn to your partner for reasons that fit in with your past but hurt you in the present, you are probably in an unhealthy relationship. However, if feelings of love still exist between you and your partner, and you see ways you could challenge yourself, your defenses or your fantasy bond, then the relationship may be worth fighting for. You may be surprised to find that it isn’t the relationship that is unhealthy but the ways you relate that are unhealthy. No matter who you wind up with, you are more than likely to find that these patterns within you are important to challenge if you ever want to stay in love.
Learn how to break free from a Fantasy Bond in our eCourse, The Fantasy Bond: The Key to Understanding Yourself and Your Relationships