With being vaccinated and boosted as well as working out how to safely carry on with our lives during the pandemic, most of us will be celebrating the holiday season with our families this year. We will be getting together with our own unique variety of loved ones: those we adore as well as the quirky ones, the grumpy ones, even the ones we don’t really get along with. Everyone acknowledges that these visits can be challenging, thus the recent onslaught of advice about how to navigate time spent with relatives. These articles like to make the point that “relatives are the family we are born into; friends are the family we choose.”
When we return home for the holidays, we aren’t just returning to the family we were born into, we are reuniting with those we grew up with and who helped shape us. As a result, homecoming is a complex situation in which so much is going on, on so many levels, within each individual. And we are often left confused by our reactions and why we are having them.
On one level, old feelings may be stirred up. We walk in the door as an adult, but childhood emotions can be revived in this old, familiar environment. We may feel a flare of indignation and resentment when our mother offers unwanted advice. We may feel irrelevant and invisible when our father returns to watching sports in the middle of our conversation. We find ourselves wondering, How did I suddenly become that kid again with all of these feelings I hated having while growing up?
On another level, we may become aware of negative ways we are becoming like our family. For instance, we may have always disliked our siblings’ put-down senses of humor, but we hear ourselves making cutting remarks about our partner. We may have longed for affection in our family, yet we hold back our warmth and affection from our own family members. Growing up, we may have been critical of our parent’s irritability toward us, but we find ourselves being irritable toward our own children. We are horrified, I swore I would never act like my parents did, and here I am doing it!
On yet another level, we may recognize old dynamics being played out in our romantic relationship. As we look around our family gatherings, we may notice a similarity between ways we have been treated in our family and how we are currently relating with our partner. How our mother bosses us around may remind us of our partner’s tendency to direct us. How our father dismisses us may resonate with how we often feel unacknowledged by our partner. We start asking ourselves, How did I end up in basically the same relationship I had with my parent?
The explanations for these puzzling behaviors lie in our childhoods. In infancy, children form a fantasy bond with their parent or caregiver in order to feel safe and secure. The illusion of being merged with another person serves as a defense when the child is scared, hurt or frustrated. The fantasy bond is an unconscious process that began so early in life that we aren’t really aware of it. But there are still remnants of our original fantasy bond and it continue to impact our lives.
How did I suddenly become that kid again with all of these feelings I hated having while growing up? To maintain the fantasy bond, the child must preserve an idealized image of their parent, ignoring or denying any negative or hurtful traits. When a parent’s behavior is hurtful, the child’s internal positive image of them is threatened. Acknowledging the reality of their parent’s traits would risk destroying the fantasy bond. The child preserves the idealization of their parent by taking on a negative image of themselves. “Mommy is irritable, I must be a burden.” “Daddy is yelling, I must be bad.” When we re-enter the environment of our childhood, the long-buried remains of our negative self-image and our idealization of our parents resurface. Nothing is happening, but we suddenly feel again like we did as a kid.
I swore I would never act like my parents did, and here I am doing it! Another adaptation the child makes to keep their internal image of their parent untarnished is to unconsciously incorporate their parent’s undesirable traits, behaviors and points of view about life. This helps to negate these negative characteristics, and it also acts to deny the hurt that they cause. Children find a sense of safety in becoming more like their parents. These traits and behaviors often persist into our adult lives, and they can be brought to our awareness when we see them being acted out in family gatherings.
How did I end up in basically the same relationship I had with my parent? In his upcoming and updated book, Challenging the Fantasy Bond, Robert Firestone discusses how we recreate the past in our current relationships.
The concept of the fantasy bond, when applied to a couple relationship, demonstrates people's compulsion to relive the past with new persons. The illusory connections they form invariably lead to a re-enactment of defensive styles of relating developed in childhood. In essence, people transform the dynamics in their new relationship to more closely correspond to those present in the early environment in which their defenses were established. This process of reverting to outmoded patterns of relating interferes with the establishment of secure and satisfying adult relationships.
We preserve the dynamics of our original fantasy bond by re-enacting them in our current relationships, especially in a romantic relationship. We accomplish this either by selecting a partner who is like our parent, or by distorting them and seeing them like our parent or by provoking them to be like our parent…always unconsciously. Thus, we find ourselves in an old, familiar relationship, reliving the emotional climate of our childhood!
Family is family. We were imprinted by these people and this environment, and we can’t get rid of that fact by simply choosing different people. We can take advantage of this time of year, when people from our past and our present come together, to learn more about ourselves. We can come to see our parents and family as real people, imperfect and flawed like everyone else. We can continue to face and come to terms with our childhood pain so that we can move beyond it. And we can strive to say goodbye to our childhood by not recreating it in our lives today. Robert Firestone writes about this in the first chapter of his book:
"In order for people to pursue their own destiny, they must differentiate from the destructive aspects of their early programming and cultivate significant characteristics of their unique identities. In the process of differentiating, they must contend with and challenge fantasy bonds and develop a realistic perspective of themselves and of their formative influences. Differentiation makes it possible for people to become more independent, function primarily in the adult mode, live with integrity and potentially embrace a more inclusive worldview."