The Fantasy Bond in Couple Relationships

By the time they reach adulthood, most people have solidified their defenses and exist in a psychological equilibrium that they do not wish to disturb. Although they may be relatively congenial with more casual acquaintances, over time there is typically a noticeable deterioration in the quality of relating within their most intimate relationships.

As a relationship becomes more meaningful, the personal attachment threatens to penetrate basic defenses and disrupt the emotional balance each person has so carefully constructed. Conflict often develops as the partners strive to preserve their defenses while simultaneously trying to remain close.

Many people have a fear of intimacy and at the same time they are terrified of being alone. Their solution is to form a fantasy bond with one another, which allows them to maintain emotional distance, relieve feelings of loneliness and also meet society’s expectations regarding coupling and family life. To varying degrees, elements of a destructive fantasy bond manifest themselves in the majority of couple and family relationships.

As noted in a previous blog, the primary defense in response to interpersonal pain is the fantasy bond, an imaginary connection formed in early childhood with the parent or caretaker that compensates for rejection, neglect, and other forms of mistreatment. It serves to deny the reality of parental abuses, protects the illusion of love and closeness, and offers comfort at the expense of a realistic and adaptive approach to life.

Later, the original fantasy bond in the family is extended to romantic relationships and negatively impacts most couples. The process of forming an imagination of love or connection reduces the possibility of achieving genuine intimacy and lasting personal ties.

The Formation of the Fantasy Bond in Couple Relationships

As romantic attachments evolve, partners tend to progress through different phases of relating. Initially, during the falling in love phase, they are more open, more vulnerable, and less defended than they are typically. They are more congenial in their interactions, are willing to risk more of themselves emotionally, experience a greater sense of aliveness and vitality, and generally treat each other with consideration and respect.

However, being in love is also fraught with emotions that can be frightening. As people become aware that they are loved and come to appreciate themselves, their partners, and the relationship, they realize that they have found something of value. This awareness can evoke a fear of possible loss in the future that is difficult to tolerate, particularly for those individuals who lacked a secure attachment in early life. In addition, intimate relating can become threatening to the core defenses of one or both partners. When members of a couple begin to feel anxious or frightened, many unconsciously retreat from feeling close, give up the most valued aspects of their relationships, and tend to form a fantasy bond. They gradually substitute a fantasy of love or connection for the real relationship, much as they may have done in childhood with a parent or family member.

Recreating the Past through Selection, Distortion, and Provocation

In order to hold onto the core defense, the fantasy bond, as well as their original identity in their families, men and women tend to relive their past by modifying the responses of their partners. In a basic sense, they “work them over” in an effort to maintain their psychological equilibrium and reduce tension and anxiety. In the new relationship, they attempt to recreate the emotional environment that they experienced in their original family through three major modes of defense: selection, distortion, and provocation.

            Selection:  People tend to select partners who are similar in appearance, behavior, and/or defense patterns to a significant family member because they feel familiar with and have adapted to that person. In this respect, the defended individual reestablishes a connection with his/her parent in the process of mate selection.

Distortion:  People tend to alter or distort their perceptions of their partners in a direction that closely resembles specific characteristics of a family member. Not all distortions are negative. Both positive and negative qualities from past associations are assigned to their partners, and both types of distortion tend to be problematic and can generate friction in relationships. Being projected on to by one’s partner, that is, not being seen or known for who you really are, is hurtful and arouses anger and resentment.

Provocation: If the first two methods fail to establish equilibrium, partners are inclined to manipulate each other in order to replicate familiar parental responses. They act in a manner that provokes attitudes and behaviors similar to those that their parents manifested. For example, partners may incite anger, even rage, in each other with thoughtlessness, forgetfulness, incompetence, displays of temper, and other childish, regressed behaviors. Often, the most tender and intimate moments are followed by provocations that create distance between partners.

Utilizing these three methods, partners tend to recreate elements of their original family dynamics in their new attachments. To a certain extent, the new relationship is used to relive rather than to live.

Early Symptoms of a Fantasy Bond In the Couple

Early symptoms of a fantasy bond include diminished eye contact between partners, less honesty and more duplicity, bickering, interrupting, speaking for the other, and/or talking as a unit. Individuals who, in the early phases of their relationship, spent hours in conversation begin to lose interest in both talking and listening, and spontaneity and playfulness gradually disappear. Often the partners develop a routinized, mechanical style of lovemaking and experience a reduction in the level of sexual attraction.

This decline in the quality of relating is not the inevitable result of familiarity, as many assume. It is due, instead, to insecurity, deadening habit patterns, exaggerated dependency, negative projections, loss of independence, and a sense of obligation. As time goes by, one or both partners generally begin to sacrifice their individuality to become one half of a couple, which tends to diminish their basic attraction to each other. Eventually, many people are left with only a fantasy of love. They preserve this illusion despite the fact that an objective observation of their treatment of each other doesn’t fit any reasonable definition of the word. Real love implies affection, empathy, mutual respect for each other’s boundaries and aspirations, kindness, and honest communication.

Loss of Independence and a Sense of Separate Identity

Perhaps the most significant indication that a fantasy bond has been formed is when one or both partners give up vital areas of personal interest, their unique points of view and opinions, and other manifestations of their individuality in order to become a unit, a whole. The attempt to find security in an illusion of merging with the other leads to a progressive loss of identity in each person. The individuals come to rely more and more on habitual contact and experience less and less personal feeling. Relating to each other within the fantasy bond, their lives become increasingly superficial and dull. Symbols of love and togetherness that offer only an illusion of security slowly replace genuine loving responses.

Moreover, many people enter into an intimate relationship with the expectation that all of their needs will be met by the other person, which places a heavy burden on their partner. Obviously, no one person can fulfill such unrealistic expectations or live up to such an idealized image. When a partner becomes aware of the weaknesses, shortcomings, or simple human foibles of the other, he or she is often irritated or angry because this idealization is threatened. For this reason, couple relationships are frequently characterized by strong feelings of ambivalence.

Polarization of Parental and Childish Ego States

In a fantasy bond, people often polarize into either a parental posture or a childlike stance. In general, by regressing to immature modes of relating, people are able to manipulate others into taking care of them. In some sense, they are unconsciously attempting to recapture the imagined security of their childhood. On the other hand, the partner acting out the parental role disowns his/her child self, denies feelings of fear and helplessness, and plays the part of an authority figure. This type of role play interaction tends to prevail in the couple with occasional role reversals. As a result, it is rare that both partners are relating from a simple, adult state of mind or perspective. As long as these reciprocal roles are being acted upon, both partners feel excessively dependent and bound to each other.

Form Versus Substance

Once a fantasy bond has been established within a couple, symbols of togetherness and images of love strengthen the illusion of connection, whereas genuine experiences of love and intimacy may actually intrude on its defensive function. To sustain their psychological equilibrium, people unconsciously act in ways that regulate the amount of love and affection that is directed toward them. Their distancing behaviors effectively limit positive emotional transactions–kind and respectful give-and-take exchanges—to a level that each person is able to tolerate.

Partners usually resist recognizing that they have lost much of their feeling for each other and have become alienated. They attempt to cover up this reality with a fantasy of enduring love, substituting form for the substance of the relationship. This type of relating consists of the conventional habits and superficial conversation that many partners come to depend on. Everyday routines, customs, and role-determined behaviors make up a large component of the structure and form of the relationship. The couple depends on certain rituals to strengthen the illusion that they are still in love. For example, the traditional Saturday night dinner out, family reunions, the observation of birthdays and anniversaries become symbols of togetherness and romance, and these are used to reinforce the couple’s mutual fantasy of closeness and love. Much of their behavior is based on socially acceptable role playing rather than on genuine feeling responses.  People’s capacity for self-deception enables them to retain an imagination of closeness and intimacy through these symbols, all the while sacrificing the emotional fulfillment and true companionship that come from genuine relating.

Conclusion

The fantasy bond is originally formed in the nuclear family. Later, it is extended and replicated in adult associations and is a major force in couple and family relationships. The new bonds can be conceptualized as an attempt to establish equilibrium between a person’s past and present life. Couples seek security at the expense of feeling and intimacy, a dynamic which gradually leads to deterioration in their relationship. In an effective couple’s therapy, fantasy bonds are exposed, understood, and worked through in the context of each person’s fears and defenses.

Partners are encouraged to: (1)recognize the existence of their fantasy bond and stop denying that they have become distant from one another; (2) reveal and come to modify their feelings of anger, and hostility; (3) face the psychological pain and sadness involved in attempting to resume intimacy; (4) expose their separation anxiety and excessive dependency ties; (5) develop respect for each other and establish equality-disrupting patterns of dominance, submission, and defiance; and (6) develop a non-defensive posture toward feedback and an open and honest style of communication.

In working with couples, I attempt to inspire a tender, affectionate, respectful approach characterized by a noncritical, accepting attitude, and recognition of each other as separate individuals, with regard for each other’s boundaries and priorities. It has been my experience that, as fantasy bonds are understood and relinquished, partners manifest new energy, self-possession, and vitality, and are able to become more loving companions and allies.

About the Author

Robert Firestone, Ph.D Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, theorist and artist. He is the Consulting Theorist for The Glendon Association. He is author of numerous books including Voice Therapy, The Fantasy Bond, Compassionate Child-Rearing, Fear of Intimacy, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Beyond Death Anxiety The Ethics of Interpersonal RelationshipsSelf Under Siege, and recently his collection of stories Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice.  His studies on negative thought processes and their associated affect have led to the development of Voice Therapy, an advanced therapeutic methodology to uncover and contend with aspects of self-destructive and self-limiting behaviors. Firestone has applied his concepts to empirical research and to developing the Firestone Assessment of Self-destructive Thoughts (FAST), a scale that assesses suicide potential. This work led to the publication of Suicide and the Inner Voice: Risk Assessment, Treatment and Case Management. He has published more than 30 professional articles and chapters for edited volumes, and produced 35 video documentaries. His art can be viewed on www.theartofrwfirestone.com. You can learn more about Dr. Firestone by visiting www.drrobertwfirestone.com.

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