Compassion Matters

How to save a life

The Fantasy That Puts All Relationships at Risk

There is a way to keep love alive.

There may now be hard science behind the notion that true love can last a lifetime.

A neurological study from Stony Brook University revealed that couples who experience “romantic love” long-term keep their brains firing in similar ways to couples who have just fallen in love.

The research team, led by Bianca P. Acevedo and Arthur Aron, found that the “dopamine-rich brain regions associated with reward, motivation and ‘wanting’” were activated in similar ways in couples newly in love and those who experienced “romantic love” over the course of many years. They defined “romantic love” as characterized by “intensity, engagement and sexual interest.” This type of love was associated with marital satisfaction, well-being, high self-esteem, and relationship longevity.

What does it all mean?

It means that couples who maintain “intensity, engagement and sexual interest” without that extra layer of anxiety associated with “obsessive love” can, in fact, sustain the sparkly, cloud-nine, butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling of being in love. This optimistic conclusion led Acevedo to state: “Couples should strive for love with all the trimmings… Couples who’ve been together a long time and wish to get back their romantic edge should know it is an attainable goal that, like most good things in life, requires energy and devotion.”

If lasting love is an attainable goal, what’s getting in our way of achieving it? What keeps so many people from maintaining that excitement and closeness they once felt with a partner? And how can long-term couples rekindle a fire that’s started to dwindle?

I would argue that couples can preserve “romantic love” by avoiding a “Fantasy Bond.”

It's a concept developed by my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, to describe an illusion of connection that a couple forms which replaces real acts of love, affection, and relating. A fantasy bond exists when the form of a relationship becomes more important than the substance. In these relationships, a couple starts to forego their individuality, losing the “me” to become a “we.”

As Robert Firestone explains it: “Perhaps the most significant sign that a fantasy bond has been formed is when one or both partners give up vital areas of personal interest, their unique points of view and opinions, their individuality, to become a unit, a whole. The attempt to find security in an illusion of merging with another leads to an insidious and progressive loss of identity in each person.”

This loss of identity is detrimental to sustaining romantic love. Our initial attractions are very much based on a sense of interest in; an intensity toward; and an attraction to a separate person. This combination of emotional, intellectual, and physical engagement is necessary to keep love alive. Yet we forego this excitement in favor of a safer arrangement in which we regard our partners as extensions of ourselves, instead of appreciating them for the autonomous individuals they are.

We do this because, although most of us say we want real love, many of us actually find it hard to tolerate. Real love threatens our defenses. It can feel uncertain and unsafe to care so deeply for someone else or to be seen in a different light than we’ve been seen or have come to see ourselves over the years.

As my father wrote, the fantasy bond "explains people's compulsion to relive the past with new relationships, i.e., to form illusory connections that invariably lead to a reenactment of defensive styles of interacting developed in childhood… Once a fantasy bond is formed, individuals prefer to maintain a defensive posture rather than trusting and investing genuine feeing in others.”

A fantasy bond allows us to feel secure and connected to someone else, while numbing us against some of the more painful emotions that love stirs up, such as existential anxiety, fear of loss, or memories of hurt, longing, or rejection.

Unfortunately, we cannot selectively block out pain without also blocking out joy. Without knowing it, couples tend to set up routines and fit each other into roles rather than face the unpredictability and inherent challenges that come with maintaining passion, excitement, and a deep sense of fondness for another person, separate from themselves.

Signs that you may be in a fantasy bond:

  • Less eye contact
  • Breakdowns in communication
  • Less frequent affection and less personal, more routinized lovemaking
  • Loss of independence
  • Speaking as one person, overusing “we” statements
  • Using everyday routines as symbols of closeness, in place of being emotionally close
  • Engaging in role-determined behaviors (father, wife, breadwinner, decision-maker), rather than developing yourself based on your personal goals and interests
  • Using customs and conventional responses as substitutes for real closeness and relating

If your relationship has some of these qualities, don’t despair: A fantasy bond exists on a continuum. Once you realize that you have fallen into some form of it, it's possible to reemerge as a happier, more in-love version of yourself. You must first investigate and explore how the bond manifests itself and hurts your current relationship. Then you can stop the behaviors that maintain the fantasy connection and engage in behaviors that encourage real, meaningful contact with your partner. You can stop reenacting hurtful dynamics and strengthen your capacity to love and be loved. Ultimately, you can become the person you want to be in your relationship—minus the fairytale, but with a much happier ending.


Learn more about the Fantasy Bond here
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the eCourse “Creating Your Ideal Relationship
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at 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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