Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Why the Spark Fades in a Relationship

What prompts the shift from helpless love to deep disinterest?

Countless couples complain of losing the “spark” in their relationship. Some chalk it up to evolved differences, a slow growing apart, or sheer familiarity. The wave of “deadness” that can submerge a relationship after the first thrilling months or years have caused many couples to lose hope, and even look elsewhere for the excitement of newfound intimacy. With researchers estimating that 30-60 percent of married individuals in the United States will have an affair at some point in their relationship, it may be time to really examine what causes our affections to wane. What prompts the shift from helpless love to deep disinterest? What turns our heart-racing enthusiasm for another person to boredom and dissatisfaction?

In order to identify the wedge that’s driving couples apart, it’s helpful to understand the concept of the “fantasy bond.” As the major principle of a comprehensive psychological theory developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, the “fantasy bond” describes a way of relating that serves as a substitute for a truly loving relationship As my father has written of the fantasy bond, “This illusion of connection and closeness allows [a couple] to maintain an imagination of love and loving, while preserving emotional distance.”

As one woman who was going through a divorce after six years of marriage said, “Growing up I was terrified of being alone, but I also knew that I was afraid of being close to another person.  In a sense, my marriage solved my problem: My husband was physically ‘there,’ so I didn’t have to be afraid of being alone anymore, and I acted in ways that kept him at a distance that I could tolerate emotionally.”

The state of physical closeness and emotional distance is what characterizes a fantasy bond. This bond is formed when sincere feelings of love, respect, and attraction are replaced with imaginings of security, connectedness and protection. Though these may all seem like positive attributes of an intimate relationship, placing a priority on form over substance is a key destroyer of any close relationship.

People who engage in a fantasy bond value routine over spontaneity and safety over passion. They go through the motions of being together or involved but without bringing the energy, independence, and affection that once colored their relationship. The risk in fusing our identity with another person is that we often lose the respect and attraction we once held for that person. We also stand to lose ourselves in the relationship, rather than maintaining the unique qualities that gave us confidence and drew our partners to us in the first place. When couples lose these real feelings for each other, rather than challenging destructive patterns in their relating, they tend to either throw away the relationship or sink deeper into fantasy for fear of losing each other or being alone. The good news is these feelings of excitement can be restored.

Fantasy bonds exist on a continuum. Some couples are deeper into fantasy than others. Most people fluctuate between moments of being truly close and moments of substituting fantasy for real love. By recognizing the degree to which you engage in a fantasy connection as opposed to a sincere form of relating, you can challenge negative habits and patterns, and experience new and exciting stages of your relationship. On March 20, I will be hosting a CE Webinar on The Fantasy Bond, which will present a model for an ideal relationship that combines emotional closeness and sexual intimacy, while each partner maintains a differentiated and individuated sense of self. In the meantime, here are a few key ways to identify if you are in a fantasy bond and how you and your partner can go about changing it.

Loss of Physical Attraction - When we form a fantasy of fusion with another person, we tend to eventually lose some of our physical attraction to that person. Relying on someone to take care of us or looking to them to complete us puts a heavy burden on our relationship. We start to see the person as an extension of ourselves, and within that framework, we lose some of that “chemistry” that drew us to them. When we view our partners as the independent and attractive individuals they are, we can keep a fresh level of excitement and affection for them.

Merged Identity – When you look at your relationship, can you recognize ways you and your partner step on each other’s boundaries? Do you speak as “we” instead of “him or her” and “I?” Maintaining our separateness and pursuing what particularly lights us up is the best way to be ourselves in our relationships. Rather than driving us apart, this separateness actually allows us to feel our attractions and choose to be together. Think about the state people are in when they first fall in love. They are drawn to each other based on their unique attributes. Their individuality is viewed with interest and respect, qualities we should aim to maintain even decades after being with someone romantically.

Letting yourself go physically or mentally – When we reach a level of comfort in a relationship, we may tend to care a little less about how we look and how we take care of ourselves. We may be more likely to act out without regard or consideration for the ways we not only hurt our partners but ourselves. We may gain weight or engage in unhealthy habits, drinking more or exercising less. These habits aren’t just acts of comfort. They are often ways of protecting ourselves from sustained closeness. They often serve to shatter our self-esteem and push our partners away. They also tend to have a deadening effect on our relationship, weakening our confidence and vitality.

Failing to share activities – Early on in our relationships, we are often our most open, excited to try new things and share new adventures. As we fall into routine, we often resist novel experiences. We become more cynical, skeptical, and less willing to do things with our partners. It is important to take our partner’s passions and interests into account and to engage in activities that we really share. Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As psychologist Pat Love has said, “You have to show up.” Slowing down and taking time to relate is essential to sustaining intimacy. Consistently doing things that your partner perceives as loving will also help keep the spark alive.

Less personal relating – When you do take the time to relate to your partner, do you still talk about anything meaningful? Have conversations become more practical or less friendly? It’s important to be open and share our lives with those we love. In doing so, we really get to know them. We feel for them as people, independently from ourselves. This helps us to stay close to each other on a real level as opposed to out of obligation. It helps us to form and strengthen a friendship that allows us to be less critical when giving feedback and less defensive when receiving it. All of these efforts nourish our loving feelings, overthrowing cynicism and upholding our attractions.

Harboring anger When we are with someone for a long time, we tend to catalog their negative traits and build a case against them that leads us to feel cynical. Try to notice if you’re harboring anger or resentment. Are you acting this out in subtle ways? Dealing with problems directly from a mature and open stance will save you from stifling your feelings of compassion and love. Honest communication can be tough, but it helps you to truly know your partner, rather than seeing him or her through a negative or critical lens. When we get into the habit of swallowing our feelings and turning against our partner rather than stating how we feel, we are skating on thin ice. Even when we start to feel close, we will often be quick to become critical the minute our partner does something that rubs us the wrong way. When we feel free to directly say the things that annoy or anger us, we are better able to let them go. The more we develop our ability to do this, the more emotionally close we feel to our partners. The advantage of voicing your thoughts is that you stop viewing your partner through a fog of cynicism. When we face the degree to which each of us acts out the above patterns, we can start to challenge them.

When we fail to do this, our emotional connection to a person can fade, and all we are left with is the form that makes up a fantasy bond. Reigniting our relationships can be as simple as carrying out those small, caring acts that make our partners feel acknowledged and loved for who they are. Taking steps each day to counter these habitual patterns leads us down a path that is much more fulfilling, much braver, and much more real.

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the March 20 CE Webinar on The Fantasy Bond

For more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships visit PsychAlive.org

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

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