In my last post, I discussed the crucial need for close, trusting connections, as well as the various hindrances that constrain such ties. Here I’ll identify what’s essential to know if you’re to surmount these hurdles. But first I’d like to provide a brief synopsis of what was elaborated upon earlier, so you’ll have a fuller context for the solutions offered below.
If as a very young child your caretakers couldn’t give you as much nurturing as you required to feel their unconditional devotion, you would have floundered in a crisis of insecurity. And given your total dependence on them for survival, you certainly couldn’t have turned away from them because of the anxiety that, however inadvertently, they made you experience. On the contrary, you would have felt obliged to rationalize their apparent lack of concern for you as indicating you must not be worthy enough to receive the amount of love, caring, and acceptance you sorely missed.
In consequence, as a central defense against primal fears of abandonment, you probably would have formulated a so-called “fantasy bond” with your parents. And what this means is that you “joined” them in their (supposed) negative evaluation of you. You felt compelled to attribute positive qualities to them at the same time, in your fantasized “bonding” with them, you took on—or internalized—their apparently disapproving attitude toward you.
As paradoxical as it may seem, it’s safer to decide that it’s because you’re not good enough to receive as much love as you need from your caretakers than to see them as incapable of providing it. As a young, extremely vulnerable child, the latter alternative would be much too scary to consider. For such a conclusion would leave you feeling all the more hopeless about at least trying—or better, striving —to win a more loving commitment from them.
That , for you, would have been “game over.”
Despite the deeply felt necessity of engendering a fantasy bond with your caretakers, it cannot be overemphasized that it’s hardly ideal. As Wikipedia portrays it, this isn’t “a relationship that includes loyalty, devotion, and genuine love. [Rather, it] “acts as a painkiller that cuts off feeling responses and interferes with the development of a true sense of self. The more a person comes to rely on fantasies of connection, the less he or she will seek or be able to accept love and affection in a real relationship.”
So, just how might such a distorted view of your caretakers and your (artificial) relationship with them prompt you to act once you enter into a non-family, seemingly intimate, relationship? Inasmuch as you were psychologically wounded in growing up because your connection with your parents didn’t lead to a positive self-image, you’re likely to be extremely cautious in how close, and therefore vulnerable, you’ll allow yourself to be in an adult, committed relationship—as well as how close you’ll let the other person get to you. Given your original, filial relationship, and your need to keep yourself as emotionally safe in it as possible, in your present one you’d, self-protectively, feel required to "moderate" your connection to them. That way they won’t have the power to rewound the fragile, anxious, painfully self-doubting child still trembling inside you.
Don't try to fix everything. Give young kids a chance to find their own solutions. When you lovingly acknowledge a child's minor frustrations without immediately rushing in to save her, you teach her self-reliance and resilience.
Somehow, vaguely recognizing that your "intimate" childhood bond was more imagined than real, you’ll attempt, distrustingly, to safeguard yourself from whatever intimacy might be offered you. Moreover, methods of shielding yourself from outward criticism, disapproval, or rejection have been “programmed” into you. And de-programming isn’t something that happens on its own. So whenever old alarm bells begin to sound inside you, then—whether through anger, submission, withdrawal, or some other mechanism of defense—you’ll contrive to create as much distance between you and your partner as you can. And without conscious awareness that these reactions are self-sabotaging (i.e., no longer adaptive), any advantageous alteration in your behavior is impossible.
Instead, you’ll feel compelled to fortify yourself against any perceived threat to your emotional equilibrium by somehow disengaging from the other person—now seen as an adversary. You’ll act so as to conceal the (mostly irrational) fears they trigger in you, thereby making your more genuine, but vulnerable, self invisible to them. After all, they can’t attack you at your core if you manage to hide behind a false persona. In effect, you’ll relate to them in a manner not unlike the un-natural way you taught yourself to relate to your parents.
Now let’s examine how your presenting a false self to your partner plays out. For it does so in many unfortunate ways.
Typically, marriage fosters routine. And while many routines may be comforting, when they come to characterize your whole relationship, they end up destroying its vitality. They diminish the aliveness and excitement experienced with your partner during courtship, which is precisely what drove you to pursue a lasting union with them. Still, once you’ve won the object of your love and affection, their very importance to you can make them feel threatening—not unlike what you experienced with your parents. For what if they were to leave? What if, at some point, they stopped loving you? caring about you?
Ultimately, the solution for such an imagined quandary is totally paradoxical. For it involves making yourself more independent from your partner, yet in a way that doesn’t endanger either your relational safety or your capacity for intimacy with them. But recall, unconsciously you made the decision to safeguard your vulnerability by not allowing your authentic being to be “exposed” to them. And again, compare this outdated survival tactic to the adjustments and accommodations you made with your caretakers when you were much younger and felt obliged to create a (primarily defensive) fantasy bond with them.
To maintain feelings of inner security, you begin to keep things from them, exclude controversial topics from discussion, and so on. You ban from the relationship anything that could revive old anxieties and thereby threaten the superficial harmony now confused with genuine love and acceptance. For that ideal relationship would require a certain spontaneity, self-disclosure, and risk-taking—in short, the kind of adventure and discovery that, during courtship, made your relationship so special—and so romantic. Somewhere deep inside you what now feels imperative is to preserve (almost at all costs) the union that, unconsciously, was meant to help compensate for the emotional safety you couldn’t secure in childhood.
Just as, originally, you learned to hide any “dark” aspects of yourself from your parents if you thought sharing them would make your caretakers care less for you, so do you disguise essential facets of yourself from your present-day partner. How could you not, if you assume that revealing such traits or tendencies might threaten their commitment to you? And based on how you were treated as a child, generally unwarranted negative beliefs you continue to harbor about yourself may also feel necessary to keep secret. So there’s actually a fundamental lack of integrity in your carefully selective ways of relating to them. As a consequence, your relational intimacy, post-courtship, becomes increasingly constrained and constrictive.
Separate your needs from those of your children. They can’t live your dreams.
As Lisa Firestone, in her “True Love or a Fantasy Bond?” (2011), puts it: “We hold onto a fantasy of being in love while retreating from our partners. We become increasingly inward and withdraw from being vulnerable and open.” And as Robert Firestone (her father) summarizes this retreat from intimacy, in his “The Fantasy Bond in Couple Relationships” (2018), “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.”
Or , as I myself would encapsulate this regrettable recycling, in a couple’s woefully misguided efforts to rectify old family patterns, they simply end up replicating them. And it’s all unconscious. To protect themselves from reexperiencing the anxiety or sense of shame still lodged deep in their primitive survival brain, authentic intimacy feels too hazardous to pursue. Better—as they’d resigned themselves to do earlier—settle for a fear-alleviating fantasy bond.
To Robert Firestone, early signs that the genuine intimacy of courtship is fading—and the illusory tie of a fantasy bond is replacing it—include:
- diminished eye contact;
- less honesty and more deception or dissimulating;
- constant quarreling;
- interrupting one another;
- speaking for the other, and/or talking as a single (undifferentiated) unit;
- breakdown in communication—less interest in both talking and listening;
- defining the other in accordance with their designated (and self-limiting) roles;
- loss of spontaneity, playfulness, and displays of affection; and
- a routinized, mechanical style of lovemaking, as well as reduced sexual attraction.
The question then becomes: In your closest relationships can you develop the courage and self-confidence to come out of hiding and permit your partner (and others as well) to know who (less defended) you really are? Describing the multifaceted process of such personal transformation would necessitate a book in itself. So, as a disclaimer, I’ll note that this post can only begin to suggest what would be required of you.
Obviously, you’ll first need to do substantial introspection and review what you may have (mis-)learned from your family of origin, in order to identify the impediments in your current-day union. Then you’ll need to take a look at what’s been happening to degrade your relationship from the time you were in love and boldly determined to “go for it.”
How, why, and when did you start pulling away from your partner? And did you do so by developing a habit of criticizing them—looking for vices rather than the virtues you focused on during courtship? How might you unconsciously have sought to get your mate to behave in ways reflecting your earlier psychologically mixed fantasy bond with your parents? How at present do you push their buttons and (with unconscious purpose) get them to push yours? (And, indeed, how might they be doing the same thing with you—as in, a secretly shared fantasy bond?) Ask yourself whether, deep within, you’re still afflicted with feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, anger, guilt or shame—as well as how you might be re - enacting old negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in your relationship today.
Returning to, and further adapting from, the abundant writings of Robert Firestone on this subject (e.g., “The Fantasy Bond: A Substitute for a Truly Loving Relationship,” 2008), here’s a concise outline of the steps involved in transcending the intimacy-killing fantasy bond. And admittedly, these steps are much easier to describe than they’d be for you to execute. For they challenge your defenses at every turn:
- Admit to one another that your relationship has lost much of its warmth and sparkle, that it’s grown more distant, that your behaviors no longer express the loving intent shown in the falling-in-love stage of your courtship;
- Acknowledge feelings of irritability, anger, resentment, and even hostility—as well as critical, disparaging views directed not only toward your partner but also toward yourself;
- Look for patterns of withholding, whether related to paying less attention to your partner or no longer doing things for them, that, when done in the past, had been valued and appreciated;
- Come to grips with the hurt and sorrow that much earlier in your life led to your defaulting to a fantasy bond with your parents. Face the possibility that whatever love your partner has for you may actually be triggering out-of-date defenses—and that it’s time to find out how to come to terms with troubling issues from your past (which, quite possibly, might require some professional assistance). Be aware that when someone loves you in a way you may never have felt loved before, you’ll be obliged to confront the pain of your original hurts. Otherwise, you won’t be able to let love in;
- Explore and find ways of overcoming your fears of separation and abandonment; learn how to become secure in yourself and become your own very best parent—and yes, even in the context of your intimate relationship. For, paradoxically, “remedial” self-parenting, which focuses on your not-to-be-denied positives, will add to (vs. subtract from) your relationship’s intimacy. And, to be sure, it will take adverse dependency pressures off the relationship;
- Establish true equality between yourself and your partner as, non-critically, you learn to accept and respect each other for the true, authentic individuals you are.
Abide by the three rules of homework. Number one: "Eat the frog," says Ted Theodorou, a middle-school social studies teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. That's shorthand for "Do the hardest thing first." Rule number two: Put away the phone. Homework time can't be totally tech-free (computers, alas, are often a necessary evil), but it can at least be free of text messages. Rule number three: As soon as assignments are finished, load up the backpack for tomorrow and place it by the door. This is a clear three-step process that kids can internalize, so there's less nagging from you. (Yes!)
. . . And if you’d like to know when might be the best time to start working on your relationship to make it more fulfilling and romantic, the answer is simple. Right now.
NOTE: This is the final part of my 3-part series on true intimacy vs. the fantasy bond. Here are the links to part 1, "Illusion of Connection: Better Than No Connection at All?" and part 2, "True Intimacy: Why It's So Crucial—and So Challenging."
Additionally, here's an earlier, related post I've written on the subject: "3 Reasons Intimacy Might Feel Too Dangerous for You."