The Fantasy Bond
With people now having to “shelter in place,” couples are finding themselves spending an unusual amount of time together. In these circumstances of extended exposure to one another, problems can fester and begin to boil over and issues between partners can become apparent. With this in mind, I am drawing from information and advice offered in Daring to Love to create blogs that may help couples understand themselves, their partner and what might be happening between them. These blogs will also suggest ways to improve a relationship and will offer journaling prompts to aid in self-reflection. These times are trying enough without the added pressure of problems arising in a relationship that could be close, loving and supportive.
Bring quarantined together for a long period of time along with the routine of daily life and the lack of outside relationships and interests creates ideal conditions for strengthening the fantasy bond in a couple. The fantasy bond replaces love with an illusion of connection. Real contact and relating are diminished and partners grow apart without noticing. Here are behaviors to look out for that indicate a fantasy bond is forming.
The Fantasy Bond in the Couple
Turning to someone else for love interrupts a person’s self-parenting habits and threatens other remnants of the original fantasy bond from childhood as well. As people develop a closer, more intimate relationship, they break out of their self-centered orientation, wanting their needs to be met by their partner and also desiring to meet their partner’s needs. This emotional give and take makes them feel vulnerable and unsafe. To relieve these feelings, many people unconsciously re-establish a fantasy bond, this time with their partner. Their real feelings of love and delight in interpersonal exchanges are slowly replaced by a fantasy of being merged and connected to him/her.
It is difficult to identify exactly when a fantasy bond has been established in a relationship. The transition from real loving to a fantasy of love is subtle and hard to detect. A fantasy bond can be recognized by certain behaviors that show that the partners have moved away from actively relating and expressing love to one another. The following changes often occur when a fantasy bond has been formed within a couple: form replaces substance, partners sacrifices their individuality, their relationship becomes unequal, their sexuality is negatively affected, and their communication breaks down.
Form Replaces Substance
Couples in a 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. They put great importance on honoring established routines, rituals and traditions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, set date nights and regular vacations. As long as these symbolic activities are maintained, a fantasy of love is upheld regardless of whether the couple is actually emotionally close and loving. Both people begin operating more out of habit and a sense of obligation than choice.
Individuality is Sacrificed
As the fantasy bond becomes stronger, both partners sacrifice more and more of their individuality in order to maintain the illusion of being one. Gradually, they assume an attitude of ownership over one another, with little concern for their partner as a separate person. Eventually, each of them effectively disappears as a distinct human being.
As partners forfeit their independence, they become increasingly co-dependent. Both are weakened as individuals, losing sight of the reality that they are capable of functioning on their own. Operating as one half of a whole rather than as a complete person is slowly debilitating. When individuals in a couple stop regarding themselves and their partner as separate beings, they are unable to see each other clearly. They not only become blind to the positive traits in one another, but to the negative or self-destructive qualities as well. With this limitation, they are no longer able to offer empathy and compassion and cannot be true friends to each other.
Equality is Damaged
As partners give up their autonomy, the equality between them erodes. When they stop relating as two separate people, their relationship tends to become unbalanced and unequal. Often, one person takes on the role of parent while the other assumes the role of child. In areas where one partner is weaker or less accomplished than the other, it is tempting to lean on the other and become progressively more dependent. This type of dependency further weakens people and they become more dysfunctional. If a partner is stronger or more capable in any way, there is a tendency to take over and assume control in the relationship. This authoritarian role disrespects one partner’s capability and disregards the other’s vulnerability. These polarizing postures not only foster inequality and upset the balance in a relationship, but they are also fundamentally dishonest because neither partner is a parent or a child; they are both simply adults.
Sexuality is Negatively Affected
In general, the fantasy bond has a detrimental impact on a couple’s sexual relationship. Form and routine gradually replace lively and spontaneous sexual interactions. In relating as an extension of one another, as an appendage, they become less appealing to each other; they are no more attracted to their partner than to their own arm. Inequality within a couple fosters hostility and resentment that permeates their sexual relating. Typically, they are intimate less and less often until, ultimately, theirs has become just another sexless relationship.
People may also avoid physical intimacy and sexuality because a satisfying sexual experience can be a major disruption to the illusion of connection provided by the fantasy bond. The sex act is a real, but temporary, physical connection followed by a distinct separation. Similarly, times that are emotionally personal and intimate with close, affectionate contact always end, albeit temporarily, as the partners move on in their everyday lives. Each of these transactions has an ending and necessitates a letting go. For these reasons, authentic love and sexual intimacy can challenge the fantasy of connection and arouse an acute awareness of aloneness.
Communication Breaks Down
Forming a fantasy bond usually leads to a breakdown in the communication within a couple. When their lives become more focused on form, their conversation becomes more superficial and practical. When they engage in behavior that is routine and predictable, they tend to seek comfort in discussing the same narrow range of topics. When partners sacrifice their individuality in order to relate as a unit, they often overstep one another’s boundaries. They may even speak for the other and treat each other disrespectfully. They may become dismissive and impatient when the other talks, or just not listen at all. When they no longer see the other person as who they are, they are unable to communicate as they would with anyone else. Instead, they relate with less compassion, empathy, interest and understanding.
Journal Exercise: Behaviors that indicate a fantasy bond in your relationship. Consider these questions. As you answer them, elaborate with any other thoughts and ideas you may have on the topic. Your answers will help identify the behaviors of a fantasy bond.
Are my partner and I not as close as we used to be? Are things somewhat distant between us?
As a couple, have my partner and I become involved in routine behaviors and activities?
Are we spontaneous? Do we do things that are unplanned and in-the-moment? Do we ever do something just because it’s what we feel like doing right now?
As a couple, are there things we do out of habit or obligation? Like a set date night or going to the same restaurant? Or spending time with the same people?
Have I stopped pursuing any of my independent interests?
Has my partner stopped pursuing any of his/her independent interests?
Are there ways I have subjugated myself to my partner?
Am I more vocal and expressive of myself when I am away from my partner?
Am I in the habit of thinking of myself as part of a couple rather than as an individual?
Do I often speak of “we” rather than “I?”
Have I stopped respecting my partner’s boundaries? Do I tend to act like, “what’s hers/his is mine”?
Do I think that s/he completes me? Do I regard her/him as my soulmate?
Has the equality in my relationship gradually eroded?
Has one of us taken on the role of the child and the other the adult?
Does one of us tend to act incompetent and unsure and the other parental and authoritarian?
When we relate, is one of us condescending and punishing and the other victimized and intimidated?
Has the communication in my relationship deteriorated?
Are our conversations mostly superficial and practical?
Do we often speak for one another?
Do we often interrupt each other?
Can I be dismissive and disinterested when my partner is talking?
Is there often an irritable or angry tone in our communications?
Do I tend to make sarcastic or cynical remarks about my partner or our relationship?
Are there now long periods of silence when neither of us seems to have anything to say?
Has our lovemaking become dull and routine?
Are we sexual less frequently and is it less passionate?
Am I less spontaneous sexually?
When we’re sexual, am I less exploratory and expressive than I used to be?
Am I less flirtatious than I used to be?
In the next blogs, I will provide information about challenging the fantasy bond by preserving the independence of both partners and keeping the substance, supporting equality, and maintaining communication in the relationship. I will offer additional suggestions for sustaining individuality to strengthen the relationship. I will expand on developing skills for communicating in an intimate relationship as well as for dealing with anger constructively. Finally, I will write about the act of loving, because after all, love is not just a feeling, it is an action.
In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm stated, “There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized” (p.87). By challenging the fantasy bond, it is possible to preserve and protect “the aliveness and strength” in each member of a couple.
Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. copyright © 2018 [Daring to Love by Tamsen Firestone]