By Robert W. Firestone, PhD
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 9 seconds.
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.