The Human Experience

Creating a more meaningful life

You Don’t Want What You Say You Want

What we wish for in fantasy is not necessarily tolerable in reality.

To the extent that people don’t want what they say they want they are duplicitous in their verbal communications. This applies to a wide area of life pursuits but is particularly relevant to love relationships. What we wish for in fantasy is not necessarily tolerable in reality.  Early in life, when we experience rejection and emotional pain, we rely heavily on fantasy gratification as a coping mechanism.  Later, we often come to prefer reliance on these fantasy processes over personal successes and positive acknowledgment. These responses conflict with any negative points of identity that we formed in our families and threaten our defenses, thereby causing anxiety reactions.

The truth is that love, by any operational definition of the word, i.e. -- kindness, affection, respect, sensitive attunement, shared companionship, etc. -- is not only hard to come by; but for reasons noted above, it is even more difficult to accept and tolerate.  Most of us profess that we want to find a loving partner, but the experience of real love disrupts fantasies of love that have served as a survival mechanism since early childhood. As Eric Hoffer observed, “We do not really feel grateful toward those who make our dreams come true, they ruin our dreams.”

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In Fear of Intimacy, I described how people tend to react with suspicion and distrust when their core identity is disturbed by being loved.

An unavoidable truth about human beings is that very often the beloved is compelled to punish the lover who appreciates and acknowledges his or her positive qualities. When people have been hurt in their earliest relationships, they fear being hurt again and are reluctant to take another chance on being loved.  They utilize distancing behaviors to preserve their psychological equilibrium.

Pushing away and punishing the beloved acts to preserve one’s negative self-image and reduces anxiety. It represents an important dynamic in intimate relationships and is more common than anyone would like to believe. People may not directly feel the full anxiety that being loved engenders, but they often experience odd feelings of distress and disorientation. As one man put it, “Feeling loved turned my whole world upside down. It went against everything I ‘knew’ about myself.”       

In addition, existential issues also negatively impact people’s capacity to accept love and enjoy loving relationships.  When we feel loved and admired, we come to place greater value on ourselves, and in appreciating and prizing our lives more, we necessarily face more pain related to death’s inevitability. We fear both the loss of the lover and ourselves and in the process often unconsciously pull back from love relationships.

When people become anxious about being loved, they often withhold the positive qualities that are most desirable to their partners, thereby becoming less lovable. This creates emotional hunger and anger in their partner. People who are withholding may also continue to verbally express their desire for love and romance, while at the same time, complain or criticize their lover, provoking hostile interactions and alienation in the relationship.

Self-defeating reactions to being loved, such as holding back one’s positive qualities and responses, inevitably lead to dishonest communication and double messages within the relationship.  A partner may hold back, while still proclaiming love for the other, but his or her actions fail to match his or her words.  In Stop! You’re Driving Me Crazy, George Bach and Ronald Deutsch recount hundreds of examples where partners’ positive statements represented an attempt to disguise their passive-aggressive responses by portraying their withholding behaviors as simple mistakes, carelessness, or innocent forgetfulness.

In The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model of Differentiation, I describe how one partner often provokes confusion, frustration, and rage in the other by becoming withholding and then acting angry and defensive when the other expresses concern about the relationship.  For example, Dave married Joan, a slender, attractive woman who loved to share his active life and enjoyed flying with him in his private plane. After a few years, Joan had gained 20 pounds and preferred isolated activities around the house. She said flying was just too dangerous.  When Barry complimented his wife’s long hair, she cut it the following week. After Ben told his girlfriend Rose how much he was enjoying her companionship, he gradually began to spend most of his time at work or playing sports with his buddies.             

However, as Bach and Deutsch noted, people whose communications are duplicitous “are not usually aware that they are sending two conflicting messages.” Their communications, like their withholding behaviors, are largely unconscious, and these people fail to recognize that their actions don’t match their words. 

In summary, falling in love not only brings excitement and fulfillment; it also creates anxiety and fears of rejection and potential loss. For this reason many people shy away from loving relationships. On the other hand, people could learn to recognize and challenge the debilitating defenses that preclude love. Lovers could remain vulnerable rather than retreating into a fantasy of love and confusing each other with double messages and withholding behaviors. They could maintain their integrity, learn to “sweat through” the anxiety of being close without pulling away, and gradually increase their tolerance for being loved. In breaking free from the imprisonment of their defenses and rejecting the temptation to seek security through "fantasy bonds" -- imagined connections with others, -- each individual in the couple could expand his or her capacity for both giving and accepting love.

Read more from Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Learn more about Dr. Firestone's latest book The Self Under Siege:

The Self Under Siege

Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.is the author of The Fantasy Bond, Voice Therapy, Compassionate Child Rearing and many other books and articles.

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