The Fantasy Bond in Childhood and Intimate Relationships
The human experience can be conceptualized as a series of separation experiences ending with death, the ultimate separation. Each successive separation or movement through life — separating from the mother’s body at birth and later from her breast, beginning to walk, talk, and develop a sense of self, going to school, dating, marrying, and becoming a parent and grandparent—predisposes an individual to anxiety. The basic tenet of my theoretical system is the concept of the fantasy bond: the core defense against separation, and later, death anxiety. The fantasy bond refers to the forming of a fantasy of connection or fusion, originally with the mother or primary caretaker, and later with other family members and romantic partners, in order to compensate for emotional pain and separation anxiety. The illusion offers the child some relief from primal pain, but at the same time, the fantasy processes contribute to various degrees of maladaptation. How people cope with trauma and existential fear, and form defenses, will ultimately determine the course of their emotional lives. Hellmuth Kaiser’s germinal idea that the delusion of fusion represents “universal psychopathology” is analogous to the conceptualization of the fantasy bond as the primary defense mechanism in neurosis (Fierman, 1965).
My theoretical approach — Separation Theory — is a synthesis of psychoanalytic and existential theories that explains how early trauma, and later, death anxiety impacts the emotional life of the developing person. Emotional pain leads to psychological defense formation, and defenses formed early in life are confirmed and strengthened when the child becomes aware of death’s inevitability.
Even under ideal developmental conditions, children suffer a certain amount of hurt and frustration and are likely to form defenses to cope with the stress brought about by these experiences. Along with existential realities, family life does not always adequately provide for the healthy emotional nurturance of children. Many parents are immature and critical, even hostile or punitive, and reject the child, causing him or her considerable pain and distress. The child’s fantasized connection with its parent helps alleviate frustration and anxiety by providing partial gratification of his/her emotional needs. The fantasy bond does not refer to a positive bonding between child and parent; indeed, it is a substitute or compensation for the love and care that is missing in the infant’s environment. The need for and the dependence on the fantasy connection is directly proportional to the degree of trauma.
There are four important dynamics associated with the fantasy bond:Children idealize the mother or primary caretaker and tend to deny or cover up painful abuses suffered in that relationship. Because of the child’s total helplessness and dependency, it is too threatening to attack or find fault with the parental figure. Therefore, the child incorporates negative attitudes, and attacks him- or herself, accepting the idea that he/she is unlovable, dirty, bad, a burden, Children project their parents’ negative traits, emotional mistreatment, and abusive characteristics onto the world at large, leaving the child suspicious and fearful of other individuals, and generally ill-at-ease in life. Finally, through the process of identification, children come to manifest specific, negative characteristics of their parents in their own personalities, thereby becoming a more hurtful or objectionable person.
The Self-Parenting Process
The fantasy bond, together with rudimentary self-nurturing, self-soothing behaviors, such as thumb sucking or hugging a favorite blanket, becomes part of a self-parenting process that leads to a false sense of self-sufficiency. Later in life, this can lead to addictive propensities, such as eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and other self-nurturing behaviors.
To some extent, infants and young children can develop a posture of pseudo-independence and omnipotence because they have introjected an image of the “good and powerful” parent into the self and therefore maintain the illusion that they don’t need anything from the outside. However, as mentioned earlier, they have also incorporated their parents’ rejecting attitudes and hostile views toward them and come to see themselves through unfriendly eyes. The resultant negative self-concept, expressed in the form of self-attacking voices, serves to become part of an anti-self-system — an internal enemy that persists throughout life.
Once a fantasy bond is formed, the principal goal of most people is to rely on the safety and security of this imagined connection; often they come to prefer fantasy gratification to real satisfaction and love from others. Thereafter, genuine indications of being loved and valued may, at times, arouse anxiety and lead to hostility toward the very people who offer them the greatest satisfaction.
How the Fantasy Bond Develops in Intimate Relationships
People are more likely to become romantically involved at a stage in their lives where they are breaking dependent emotional ties with their families and experiencing some sense of separateness and independence. As they reach out and risk more of themselves emotionally, they attract others. In the first stages of a love relationship, they attempt to let down their defenses and are usually more open and vulnerable. Their positive emotions are intensified, and they feel a heightened sense of joy and closeness.
While this state of being in love feels good, at the same time it can be frightening. The fear of loss or abandonment, together with the poignant sadness often evoked by positive emotions, may become difficult to tolerate, especially for those who have suffered from a lack of love in their early lives. In addition, intimate relationships can become threatening to the core defenses of one or both partners.
When people begin to feel anxious or frightened, many unconsciously retreat from feeling close, and slowly give up the most valued aspects of their relationships. They gradually substitute a fantasy of love or connection for the real relationship, much as they may have done in childhood with a parent or primary caregiver. There is an attempt to replicate the emotional environment they experienced in their childhood and they often use the following three major modes of defense:Selection: People tend to select partners who are similar in appearance or personality to a family Distortion: Partners tend to alter or distort their perceptions of each other in a direction that more closely resembles a person in their family of origin. Provocation: If the first two methods fail to establish emotional equilibrium, partners are inclined to manipulate each other in order to replicate familiar parental responses. They may achieve this by acting incompetent, with displays of anger (shown through temper tantrums) and bullying, or through other childish, regressed behaviors. Often, the most tender and intimate moments are followed by provocations that create distance.
Symptoms of a Fantasy Bond in the Couple
Early symptoms of a fantasy bond include diminished eye contact between partners, less honesty and more duplicity, bickering, interrupting, speaking for the other, and/or talking as a unit. And those who spent hours in conversation in the early phases of the relationship, begin to lose interest in both talking and listening. Also, spontaneity and playfulness gradually decrease. Often the partners develop a routinized, mechanical style of lovemaking and experience a reduction in the level of sexual attraction and satisfaction.
This decline in the quality of relating is not the inevitable result of familiarity, as many assume. Instead, it is due to insecurity, deadening habitual patterns, exaggerated dependency, negative projections, loss of independence, and a sense of obligation. As time goes by, one or both partners generally begin to sacrifice their individuality to become one half of a couple, which tends to diminish their basic attraction to each other. Eventually, many people are left with only a fantasy of love. They preserve this illusion of love through routines, rituals (e.g. birthdays and anniversaries), and role-playing, despite the fact that an objective observation of how they are actually treating each other may no longer resemble any reasonable definition of love.
Implications for Psychotherapy
Unless manifestations of the fantasy bond are identified and challenged, therapeutic progress will not be sustained in the relationship. Therefore, effective psychotherapy would mean that a couple’s destructive bonds are revealed and understood in the context of everyone’s fears and anxieties. Negative aspects of partners’ inward lifestyles, and distortions and projections brought to the relationship from past programming, are faced and gradually relinquished. Each person must challenge the idealization of his/her parents and his/her corresponding negative self-image. The ultimate goal of relationship therapy is to help each partner effectively cope with his/her fantasy bond and associated defenses, find satisfaction in goal-directed behavior, and increase his/her tolerance for love and intimacy.
Fierman, L. B. (Ed.). (1965). Effective Psychotherapy: The contribution of Hellmuth Kaiser. New York: Free Press.
Those seeking more detailed information can see The Enemy Within: Separation Theory and Voice Therapy. (Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, 2018), www.zeigtucker.com. Also available as a eBook from Amazon.
Selena is a precocious five-year old girl who could not stop sucking her fingers. Her teeth were beginning to protrude. Because she still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I was positive that she would be very susceptible to hypnosis.
I asked Selena to “move to the magic chair where kids stop sucking their fingers .” Then , at my request, she named each finger. She responded with, “Bunny Rabbit,” “Robin” and other similar titles. I directed her to ask each finger if it liked being sucked. She said, “No.” Then , I asked her to find out what her fingers would rather do instead. After some conversation with her fingers, she told me they would rather play dolls, jump rope and do puzzles.
l suggested, “Let’s see how we can give those fingers more time to play.” With proper ceremony, I showed Selena my “magic wand.” I then asked her to “… think of a magic word that will keep you from sucking your fingers.” With delight, she squealed , “Poof!”
Next, I asked Selena to put each finger in her mouth. “But,” I cautioned her, “before you put your fingers in your mouth, say ‘Poof!’ And I will wave my magic wand.” We repeated this pleasant little ritual with each finger.
Then, I told her she could do that all by herself after she left my office.
The following week, Selena and her mother reported that Selena did not suck her fingers all week except for one short moment as Selena was leaving my office. The mother then mentioned, almost in passing, that she would ask me to help Selena overcome her bedwetting, but she knew Selena was not yet ready to stop that behavior. I began to talk to Selena, reinforcing the previous week’s process, but it seemed not to have any energy left in it. Then I told Selena, “I don’t want you to stop wetting the bed yet. But you will be ready very soon. So let’s do some things for when you are ready. OK? Can we do the same magic for the part of you that wets the bed?”
Selena agreed. I told her I would wave my magic wand and asked her what she would do. She replied that she “would dive, like this.” She stood and did a full body dive onto the couch. As she hit the couch she said, “POOF!”
Selena did several more dives on the couch and then progressed to crawling all over the floor saying she “was swimming like in the Olympics.” I gave her an “Olympic medal ” (a sticker) and told her that the medal was for “all the dry ‘Pull Ups’ you will have now.” A week later, I phoned the mother for a “follow-up.” She reported Selena had not sucked her fingers since the day of our first session and had not wet the bed since our second.Discussion by William Keydel, M.A.
Magical … and fun. This wonderful case illustrates three principles which are at the heart of Ericksonian psychotherapy. First and foremost is the acceptance and honoring of the client’s way of viewing the world. Dr. Williams begins by utilizing the preschooler’s belief in magic to set the stage for change. She deepens Selena’s natural imagery by asking her to name her fingers and creating the imaginary friends so common to children’s play. It is then these friends of Selena’s unconscious who provide motivation for change with reasons meaningful to the child and not even necessary for Williams to know. Williams also evokes Selena’s natural energy and excitement by allowing her to come up with the magical words and acts that would extinguish unwanted behaviors. In these ways, Williams has entered Selena’s world to stimulate change from within.
The second principle which stands out is the interruption of existing patterns through strategic interventions. The beauty of Erickson’s work stemmed from his ability to see the individual’s patterns and his creative responses to those patterns generating change with a minimal amount of effort. By having Selena say, “Poof!” as she put each finger up to her mouth , Williams introduced a change in the old pattern. Then this became a new pattern, reinforced by practice with each finger, and further reinforced by the excitement of creating magic on her own. In this case, it’s easy to imagine that Selena experienced no effort as the strategic intervention created its own reward. Similarly, Selena’s patterns for approaching bedtime were changed with her full-body dives which naturally utilized the playful energy of a child.
The third principle to be honored in William’s handling of the case, is the willingness to let go of theories and “treatment plans” and respond to the client. As Erickson is quoted by Gindhart, “Too many psychotherapists try to plan what they will do instead of waiting to see what the stimulus they receive is, and then letting their unconscious mind respond to that stimulus” (p. 120). While reinforcement is generally good work, Williams responded to her client’s “energy ” and appropriately moved on. Throughout her work with Selena, Williams demonstrates the elegance of responding to her client and thereby allowing Selena, in a general way, to structure therapy in accordance with her needs.
I could have focused on Williams’ effective use of permissive therapy and embedded commands; or my focus could have fallen on the value of using a naturalistic trance to avoid the awkwardness a formal trance induction is likely to have on a child. But, as Richard Dimond points out in “Trials and Tribulations of Becoming an Ericksonian Psychotherapist,” (Zeig, 1985), Ericksonian psychotherapy requires more than learning Erickson’s techniques. There are fundamental principles about entering in and trusting the unconscious system of the child across from us.
Dimond, R. (1985). “Trials and Tribulations of Becoming an Ericksonian Psychotherapist.” In Zeig (Ed.), Ericksonian Psychotherapy, Vol. 1: Structures. NY: Brunner/Mazel
Gindhart, L. (1985). “Hypnotic Psychotherapy.” In J. Zeig (Ed.), Ericksonian Psychotherapy, Vol. 1: Structures. NY: Brunner/ Mazel
Our life is what our thoughts make it. ~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The critical inner voice is made up of a series of negative thoughts and attitudes toward self and others, which is at the core of a person’s maladaptive behavior. It can be conceptualized as the language of a defensive process that is both hostile and cynical. The voice is not limited to cognitions, attitudes, and beliefs; it is also closely associated with varying degrees of anger, sadness, shame, and other primary emotions. It can be thought of as an overlay on the personality that is not natural or harmonious, but rather learned or externally imposed.
The voice is a form of internal communication – usually critical, yet sometimes self-nurturing and self-aggrandizing, but in either case opposed to one’s self interest. It is experienced as though one were being spoken to. It includes attacks such as, “You’re so stupid!” “You’re a failure!” “No one could ever love you.” “You can’t trust anyone.” “They don’t appreciate you.”
Critical inner voices are often experienced as a running commentary that interprets interactions and events in ways that cause a good deal of pain and distress. The voice defines situations in alarming and pessimistic terms. It is analogous to a lens or filter that casts a gloomy light on the world which, in turn, has a profound negative effect on one’s mood and feelings.
The critical inner voice can be distinguished from a conscience or constructive moral influence because it interprets moral standards and value systems in an authoritarian manner, in the form of strict “should,” that leads to harsh criticism and self-recrimination. It increases one’s self-hatred, rather than motivating one to alter behavior in a constructive manner. Seemingly positive, self-nurturing voices that appear on the surface to be supportive, can be hurtful, misleading, and dysfunctional. Self-aggrandizing voices encourage an unrealistic build-up that sets the stage later for attacks on the self.
The voice not only serves the function of attacking the self; it is also directed toward others. These oppositional viewpoints are symptomatic of the deep division that exists within all of us. Sometimes people view their loved ones with compassion and affection, but other times they think of them in cynical or disparaging terms.
Voice attacks are sometimes consciously experienced, but more often than not, one experiences them partially conscious or even totally unconscious. In general, people are largely unaware of the extent of their self-attacks, and the degree to which their behavior is influenced or controlled by the voice.
Critical inner voices vary in intensity along a continuum, ranging from mild self-reproach to strong self-accusations and suicidal ideation. They precipitate a wide range of self-limiting, self-destructive actions, from giving up on goals, to physically hurting oneself, or even committing suicide. In a very real sense, what people tell themselves about events and occurrences in their lives is more damaging and contributes to more misery than the negative episodes themselves.Early Investigations into the Critical Inner Voice
In early investigations of the voice, participants in our pilot study attempted to express self-attacks in a rational, cognitive manner and tone. They articulated self critical thoughts in the first person, as “I” statements about themselves. For example: “I am so stupid.”; “I can never get along with people.”; “I am no good.” Etc. So I suggested that they verbalize these same thoughts as statements spoken to them in the second person, “you” statements, such as, “You are so stupid.” “You never get along with anyone.” “You are no good.” When the participants complied with this new method, I was shocked by the malicious tone of their self-attacks, and the intensity of the anger with which they condemned themselves. It was surprising to observe even mild-mannered, reasonable individuals being so intensely self punishing and cruel.
The second-person dialogue technique is what brought these powerful emotions to the surface. The participants were able to separate their own viewpoint from the internalized negative parental view of themselves that has been superimposed on their self-image. In addition, the emotional release that accompanied the expression of the voice uncovered core dysfunctional beliefs and brought about a more positive feeling and compassionate attitude toward self and others.The Development of the Self System and Anti-Self System
As children develop expressive language and verbal skills, they attempt to give meaning to, or make sense of, the primal emotions they have internalized (Tronick & Beeghly, 2011). They apply negative labels and specific verbal attacks to themselves, based on their interpretation of painful interactions they experienced early in life. This internalized voice becomes a fixed part of the child’s core identity and labeling his or herself, even though initially there was no essential validity to the label. As children continue to grow and develop, they refine and elaborate on their self-critical attitudes and thoughts, and apply new labels to themselves. These destructive attitudes or voices form a distinct and separate aspect of the personality that I have termed the “anti-self system.”
The anti-self system is composed of an accumulation of these internalized destructive thoughts, attitudes, and feelings directed toward the self. When children are confronted with hurtful experiences in the family, they tend to absolve their parents or other family members from blame, and take on the attitude that they themselves are bad, unlovable, or a burden. Gradually, personal trauma and separation anxiety combine to turn children against themselves. The anti-self can be characterized as the “enemy within.” (Firestone, 2018)
In contrast, the self system is made up of one’s biological temperament, genetic predisposition, parents’ admirable qualities, and the ongoing effects of experience and education. Parents’ lively attitudes, positive values, and active pursuit of life are easily assimilated through the process of identification and imitation, and become part of the child’s developing personality. In addition, the self system represents a person’s wants, desires and goals, and his/her individual manner of seeking fulfillment. Throughout life, these two systems become well-established and are in direct conflict. How this conflict is resolved over time powerfully affects the course of the individual’s life and his or her happiness or unhappiness.
To summarize, the voice consists of: (1) the internalization or introjection of destructive attitudes toward the child held by parents and other significant adults in the early environment; (2) a largely unconscious imitation of one or both parents’ maladaptive defenses and views about life; and (3) a defensive approach to life, based on emotional pain experienced during the formative years. The greater the degree of trauma experienced in childhood, the more intense one’s voice attacks become.Voice Therapy
Voice therapy is a cognitive/affective/behavioral methodology that brings internalized destructive thought processes to the surface with accompanying affect, in a dialogue format that allows a client to confront alien components of the personality. The method involves expressing one’s self-attacks and the accompanying feelings, developing insight into their causality, answering back to self-attacks from one’s own point of view, and collaboratively planning strategies with the therapist to counter specific voice attacks.
With its focus on emotions and on the expression of deep feelings, voice therapy differs significantly from other cognitive-behavioral models. The methods are aligned with certain aspects of emotion-focused therapy (EFT), which primarily concentrates on eliciting emotion by directing clients to amplify their self-critical statements (Greenberg et. al., 1993). Voice therapy is also more deeply rooted in psychoanalytic/ psychodynamic approaches than it is in a cognitive-behavioral model.
In conclusion, the purpose of voice therapy is to help individuals achieve a free and independent existence, remain open to experience and feelings, and maintain the ability to respond appropriately to both positive and negative events in their lives. The process of identifying the voice and its associated affect, combined with corrective strategies of behavioral change, significantly expand the client’s boundaries and bring about a more positive sense of self.References
Firestone, R.W. (2018) The enemy within: Separation theory and voice therapy. Phoenix. AZ: Zeig, Tucker, & Theisen, Inc. Publishers.
Greenberg, L. S., Rice, L. N., & Elliott, R. (1993). Facilitating emotional change: The moment-by-moment process. New York: Guilford Press.
Tronick, E., & Beeghly, M. (2011). Infants’ meaning-making and the development of mental health problems. American Psychologist, 66(2), 107-119. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021631