This is the first in a series of blogs describing my theoretical approach known as Separation Theory. It represents an integration of psychoanalytic and existential systems of thought and describes how early interpersonal pain and separation anxiety and, later, death anxiety, lead to the formation of powerful psychological defenses. The primary defense is the fantasy bond, an imaginary connection formed in early childhood with the parent or caretaker that serves to compensate for rejection, neglect, and other abuses experienced during the developmental years. It also helps the child cope with separation anxiety and ultimately death anxiety.
As noted in my previous blog (The Paradox of Psychological Defenses), although psychological defense formation is essential for the developing child and helps the individual to cope with and minimize painful emotions in his/her developmental years, the defensive adaptation leads to various degrees of maladaptation in later life.
Genetically determined tendencies, temperamental differences, and physiological predispositions combine with prenatal environmental stresses to impact the infant. In addition, recent research into epigenetic influences shows that “environmental experiences, particularly those related to stress, have the capacity to alter biological and genetic mechanisms associated with increased risk of problem behavior” (Jacobson, 2009, p. 2). In other words, both nature and nurture have powerful effects on the newborn and the developing child.
Negative Family Dynamics
When parents are sensitively attuned to their infant, they adjust the intensity and emotional tone of their responses to accurately match their child’s feeling state and needs. Obviously, no one can ever be completely consistent in adjusting his/her responses to these cues; in fact, research has indicated that attuned interactions occur in only one out of three parent/infant exchanges (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).
Well-meaning, albeit emotionally immature parents who themselves have suffered a good deal of unresolved personal trauma and loss in their own upbringing, tend to have a detrimental effect on the growth and development of their child’s emerging self. Parental deficiencies often lead to insensitive and potentially harmful treatment and repeated failures to repair disruptions in attuned interactions with their children. These conditions intensify the child’s feeling of isolation and fear of abandonment. To the extent that children come to feel that they are unlovable and alone, they are diverted from what would have been their natural developmental pathway and they go on to lead primarily defended lives.
Without exception, all children suffer a certain amount of interpersonal pain or trauma within their families. Despite parents’ desire to do the best for their offspring, they often hurt them at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. In addition, there are many other aversive events or inputs that impinge on the developing youngster, events such as accidents, illnesses, a traumatic separation, or the actual loss of a parent or sibling.
The Primary Defense – The Fantasy Bond
Faced with emotional trauma, the baby and later the child handles the crisis by relying on fantasy processes to suppress the primal pain. Every child needs protection, love, and affection from adults who ideally possess both the desire and ability to satisfy the child’s basic needs. In instances when a parent is misattuned or emotionally absent, when parental love is missing, the infant suffers heightened anxiety states that can, at times, feel life-threatening. To cope with this overwhelming feeling, babies attempt to deny the reality of their suffering, build fantasies of omnipotence, rely heavily on repression, and imagine that they have a permanent connection to their all-powerful mother and are at one with her.
In other words, when children suffer emotional trauma, they tend to incorporate parental figures into their personalities as internalized sources of gratification that serve to comfort them. This imagined fusion is a highly effective defense mechanism because a human being’s ability to imagine provides partial gratification of needs and reduces tension (Silverman, Lachmann, & Milich, 1982).
In order for a fantasy bond to be formed and to function effectively, four essential elements must be operating. First, children idealize the mother or parental figure, thereby denying the reality of any emotional abuses perpetrated upon them. Second, children internalize negative attitudes directed towards them by their parents, to a certain extent accepting the fact that they themselves are bad or unlovable. Third, parents’ emotional mistreatment and abusive characteristics are projected onto the world at large, creating suspicion and fear of other individuals, as well as a general discomfort in life. Lastly, through the process of identification, the child incorporates negative as well as positive personality characteristics and attitudes of his/her parents as his/her own.
To summarize, the primary defense or fantasy bond originates in early childhood to fill a gap where there is environmental deprivation; it “nourishes” the self, but unfortunately, it becomes the motivating force behind subsequent self-limiting, self-destructive behavior. To varying degrees, we all deal with frustration and pain by relying on internal gratification from an imagined connection with the introjected parent.
The Self-Parenting Process
As I have stated, the fantasy bond is essentially a way of parenting oneself internally through fantasies of fusion. The imagined merger with one’s parent is reinforced through the use of self-parenting behaviors. These include self-nourishing habit patterns as well as self-punishing attitudes and behaviors. Children come to treat themselves much as they were treated by their parents; nurturing themselves with self-aggrandizing thoughts and self-soothing addictive habit patterns, and punishing themselves with self-critical thoughts and self-destructive behavior.
Self-nourishing habits patterns begin in infancy with behaviors like thumb-sucking, compulsively fingering or holding onto a blanket, or stroking oneself, and often develop into self-destructive patterns in adulthood, such as eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, excessive masturbation, other routine or compulsive activities that reduce pain, and/or an impersonal, repetitive style of sexual relating. These behaviors tend to support an illusion of pseudo-independence, a feeling of being able to gratify oneself and of not needing anything from the outside world.
To a certain extent, the child experiences a false sense of self-sufficiency because he/she has introjected an image of the “good and powerful” parent. At the same time, the child inadvertently incorporates the parent’s covertly or overtly rejecting attitudes toward him/her. These incorporated (internalized) parental attitudes form the basis of the child’s negative self-concept, which persists into adulthood. This self-punishing component of the self-parenting process is manifested in self-critical thoughts, guilt reactions, attacks on self, and self-limiting, self-destructive actions.
Once the primary defense is formed and soothing fantasy processes are in place, people are reluctant to relinquish the comfort and safety they offer. Once hurt, they are afraid to be vulnerable again. As a result, they resist intrusion into each component of the fantasy bond: the idealization of parents and family, the preservation of a corresponding negative self-image (i.e., a basic conception of oneself as unworthy, unlovable or bad), the displacement of negative parental traits onto others and the world at large, the development of an inward, self-protective posture, and a reliance on self-nourishing habits and routines. When any of these aspects are threatened, people become defensive and hostile toward the intrusion.
The psychotherapy process challenges clients’ idealization of their parents and their negative conception of themselves, along with their distorted views of and projections on to others and the world at large. At the same time, it helps them alter destructive habits, such as substance abuse and self-harming behaviors. Challenging or moving away from the fantasy bond precipitates considerable anxiety. In this regard, therapeutic methodology threatens clients’ core resistance and a positive outcome depends, to a great extent, on how well they manage to overcome their resistance. In order to develop, a person must expose and defeat debilitating psychological defenses. Therefore, coping effectively and relinquishing aspects of the Fantasy Bond is essential to making progress in psychotherapy.
In my next blog, I will describe the critical thought process or voice that represents a secondary defense and supports both the self-nourishing and self-punishing components of the fantasy bond.
Read more in Dr. Robert Firestone’s new book: The Enemy Within: Separation Theory and Voice Therapy
Jacobson (2009). Considering Interactions between Genes, Environment, Biology, and Social Context. Psychological Science Agenda.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher
Silverman, L. & Weinberger, J. (1985). Mommy and I Are One: Implications for Psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 40 (12), 1296-1304