Has Your Relationship Become Off Balance?

Understanding the fantasy bond to get your relationship back on track.

Many of us are in the process of recovering from the last year of living under the threat of Covid-19; we are vaccinated, pulling off our masks, and moving in to hug the people we have missed. We are venturing out into the world, whether that means visiting friends’ homes, dining in restaurants, or shopping in stores. Now that some of our fear is lifting and our focus is not solely on our survival and the safety of others, we are going about getting our lives back into balance.

This means looking at the ways that our relationship might have been knocked off kilter during the pandemic and getting it on track again. It is an unfortunate reality that when we are operating in survival mode, we stop paying attention to other aspects of our life. Chief among these is our personal relationships. It is very likely that, with our hardly noticing it, the undercurrent of tension/alarm during the pandemic has had an impact on the way we relate to our partners. Prolonged stress has that kind of effect.

Fear has been a dominate emotion for all of us over the past year. It’s affected every one of us, regardless of whether you are unaware, partially aware, or fully aware of having felt it. Fear is an appropriate reaction to danger. We need to feel it; it keeps us safe. But it can also make us self-protective and distrustful. Then we shut down emotionally, which causes us to stop being vulnerable and available to others, especially our partner. Fear can also leave us feeling overwhelmed and powerless. This may make us desperate to be helped or saved by someone else, and during the pandemic, often the only person to turn to for this would have been, you guessed it, our partner. So, we have conflicting reactions: we want to push away our partner, while at the same time, we feel an intense need for them. We often resolve this dilemma by forming a fantasy bond in our relationship. This is a largely unconscious, defensive strategy that we originally developed in early childhood to deal with pain and frustration.

The fantasy bond offers an illusion of being merged with and connected to another person. When we become fearful and self-protective, we withdraw from the emotional give-and-take of interpersonal exchanges to a fantasy of love. When we become anxious and alarmed, we forfeit our independence to maintain this imagination of being one with our partner. However, the fantasy bond eventually takes a toll as it replaces the actual love and intimacy between two people.

The following questions could help you identify if a fantasy bond is operating in your relationship:

Has form replaced the substance in your relationship?

People in the fantasy bond typically focus on form over substance. That is, they place more value on symbols of their union than on maintaining genuine intimacy in real time. With an emphasis on established routines and traditions, such as anniversaries or fixed date nights, they begin operating more from habit and a sense of obligation than from choice.

Have you sacrificed your individuality and independence?

As the fantasy bond becomes stronger, partners gradually assume an attitude of ownership over each other, with little sensitivity to each other as separate people. Effectively, each disappears as a distinct human being. As they become less independent, partners become increasingly co-dependent. This weakens them as individuals, and they lose sight of the reality that they are each capable of functioning on their own. With this limitation, they can no longer feel empathy and compassion for each other. 

Has the equality between you and your partner been damaged?

When partners give up their autonomy and stop relating as two separate people, their relationship becomes unbalanced and unequal. One often takes on a parental role while the other assumes a childish one. These postures are not only polarizing but are also fundamentally dishonest, because neither partner is a parent or a child; they are both simply adults.

Is sex less exciting between you and your partner?

In general, the fantasy bond has a detrimental impact on sexual relating. Inequality between partners tends to foster hostility and resentment that can permeate the couple’s sexual relationship. Often, form and routine gradually replace lively and spontaneous sexual interactions. Partners begin to treat each other as though they were an appendage, and thus they each become less appealing to the other.

Has communication between you and your partner broken down?

Partners in a fantasy bond often engage in behavior that is routine and predictable and likewise tend to seek comfort in discussing the same narrow range of topics. When they sacrifice their individuality in order to relate as a unit, they often invade each other’s boundaries. They may speak for each other and treat each other disrespectfully. They may become dismissive and impatient when the other talks, or they may not listen at all. When they can no longer see their partner clearly, they lose the ability to communicate the way they would with anyone else, let alone someone they hold dear.

When we understand how a fantasy bond may have impacted our relationship over this past year, we can formulate how to go about challenging it. For example, now that we have time to focus on our relationship, we can stop falling into routine behaviors and be attentive to maintaining the substance of our relationship. Since life is less restrictive, we can once again pursue our separate interests and regain our individuality. As the emotional trauma from the pandemic eases, it will be easier to reestablish equality in our relationships. As we become less fearful and more vulnerable, less closed off and more available, less unsettled and more secure, less anxious and more independent, we can reclaim our sexuality and once again relate to our partner with, empathy, interest, humor, and understanding.

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