Compassion Matters

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How to Tell the Difference Between Real Love and Fantasy

Is a fantasy bond keeping us from staying in love?

As children, we often form a fantasy of what real love looks like. Though we may paint a pretty picture in our minds, this fantasy isn't necessarily built on the admirable qualities we truly desire in a partner. Instead, it may be based on gaps we hope to one day fill, mistakes we aim to correct, and familiarities we've grown accustomed to. We may seek a partner whose outpour of compliments submerges the low self-esteem we held as kids or someone whose allusive tendencies are a sadly familiar reenactment of an important figure from our childhood.

It's no great surprise that fantasy can lead us to choose romantic partners for the wrong reasons. And even if we choose them for all the right reasons, our devotion to our fantasies can eventually lead us to destroy any real sense of connection. So with all these early defenses quietly operating within us, how do we separate honest love from an illusion of connection? How do we protect something real and exciting from the deadening effects of what my father, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone, termed "The Fantasy Bond?"

A fantasy bond is created when two people replace real acts of genuine love, admiration, passion, and respect with the role and ritual of "being" in a relationship. Though this process is often unconscious, people can begin to recognize patterns and behaviors characterized by a Fantasy Bond that are destructive to their closest relationships. By comparing interactions in an ideal relationship with interactions in a relationship under the influence of a Fantasy Bond, a person can begin to act against their own limiting tendencies and dramatically improve their relationship.

Non-defensive and Open Vs Angry and Closed Off

Our reactions to feedback are good indicators of our potential to resolve problems in our relationships. When we are closed to criticism, suggestions, or new experiences, we limit ourselves and our partners in ways that impair our interactions. When we communicate with our partners, it's important to look for the kernel of truth in what they are saying instead of sifting through each statement for flaws or inaccuracies around the edges.

For example, a friend of mine was recently talking to her husband who confided that her habit of working on her computer five nights a week left him feeling hurt and cast aside. Instead of responding with compassion or sensitivity, my friend angrily corrected him, stating that she'd only worked on her computer for three nights that week. She later realized how defensive she had been and how her posture had distanced her from her husband rather than bringing them closer together, as the conversation could have.

Honest Versus Deceptive

Often, couples start to use routines to prove they are close instead of actually taking time to relate to each other. When in the role of a relationship, you can lose a sense of who you really are and how you really feel.  Do you ever say "I love you," then find yourself treating the person you say you love with less respect then you would an unlikeable stranger? Have you ever found yourself criticizing or becoming annoyed at your partner in a way that is out of character for you?

You may think you are being honest in an emotional conversation, but your true feelings can betray you in a time of anger, frustration, or impatience. To be honest with your partner you have to know yourself. Take time to reflect on how you feel and express it in a way that is sensitive and respectful, and make sure your actions match your words.

Respect for Independence Vs Overstepping Boundaries

In any relationship, it's important to be aware of when "I" statements become "we" statements. When people first start dating, they often hold a natural respect for their partner as a separate individual.  Interactions are personal and genuine interest is expressed between the two people. However, couples may eventually begin to lose their sense of being autonomous individuals. Instead of a personal interaction, conversations become about practical expectations- i.e. have you fed the dog?  When we lose a level of respect for our partners, we may begin to act in ways that are intrusive or manipulative as opposed to sensitive and independent.

Physical Affection and Personal Sexuality Vs Lack of Affection and Routine Sexuality

It is obvious that the passion has dwindled when a couple, sitting in a romantic, candlelit bistro, is spending more time chatting up the waiter and checking their respective mobile devices than talking to each other. Both people have clearly checked out long before receiving their check. Eye contact, hand holding, and flirtatious exchanges appear to be things of the past.

Once a relationship becomes routine, restrictive, and less an act of free will, sex and physical affection can become less frequent or impersonal. Many couples describe their once spontaneous and exciting sex lives as becoming mechanical. This is often the result of forgoing the unpredictability of real love with the more predictable, yet ultimately harmful, form of a fantasy bond. We can act jealous, controlling, manipulative and demanding in an effort to feel secure in our relationships, but these qualities also serve to remove our feelings of passion and attraction toward our partners.

Understanding Vs Misunderstanding

How can it be that someone we once loved so much is all of a sudden driving us crazy? Moreover, why does a characteristic in a person that we used to adore all of a sudden have us holding back shouts of annoyance? When two people first meet and are getting to know each other, they see each other for who they are and fall in love as a result. After a while, they each begin to act out old negative patterns, and in the process, distort their partner to fit familiar patterns from their pasts.

For example, if you felt neglected as a child, you may long to be taken care of in ways that are unnecessary in your current life as an adult. Thus, when your partner treats you an as equal or looks to you for care, your reaction may be to see your partner critically or view him or her as weak.

On the opposite side of the same coin, if your partner reassures you to try to compensate for an insecurity or fill an old sense of emptiness by telling you that you are perfect, you won't necessarily feel good. Knowing that your actions don't meet their words, or that your partner's build up is inauthentic can make you feel even worse. It is important to hold a realistic, balanced point of view toward your partner, seeing him or her through compassionate, yet accurate eyes. It is equally important for your partner to see you through this same realistic viewpoint.

 Manipulations of Dominance Vs Non-controlling Behaviors

When you first fall in love, your heart, your thinking, and your world expands to accommodate the genuine joy you experience from getting to know another person. A relationship should expand your world - from the people you are friends with to the activities you enjoy. When you start to fall into a routine, stop taking chances and showing enthusiasm for your partner, your world narrows.

Putting restrictions on our relationships and limiting a partner is something we do to create a sense of false security in ourselves. This security is actually a form of fantasy that serves to distance us from our partners. Not only does it make us less attractive to them, but it makes us less attracted to them. No longer are they the independent, self-possessed people we were drawn to, but they are now under our influence in certain negative ways. Just as we can make a person feel confident with a sincere feeling of love, we can make them feel inadequate by controlling their behavior.

For example, a woman whose boyfriend gets jealous every time she goes out without him may stop something as enjoyable to her as going out with her girlfriends, because "it's just not worth the fight." Or a man who loved a certain piece of furniture may throw it out at the insistence of his girlfriend. Balance and compromise are necessary in a couple's partnership, but dominating another person can be a dangerous course for an intimate relationship.

It's important to note that it's not just the one who's yelling who controls the situation, but the one who cries or manipulates to entice guilt can be equally destructive to a relationship. Passive aggressive or just plain aggressive, these traits are highly destructive to a healthy union.

When it comes to intimacy, very little is black and white. We may never be able to decipher whose fault it was or who started it. However, by noticing when actions and patterns of relating cross over from genuine care to actions of a Fantasy Bond, relationships can improve, and cliché as it may sound, true love can in fact prevail.

To learn more about the Fantasy Bond join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the CE Webinar for mental health professionals "The Fantasy Bond" on March 20 or join her for the free Webinar for the public on April 24 "Real Love or a Fantasy Bond."

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships visit PsychAlive - Alive to Intimacy

To read more about the Fantasy Bond click here

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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