In June, during the first warm days of summer, we behold the most popular month to get married, while in the frosty winter month of January, we witness the most divorces. Throughout the wedding season, many of us are filled with feelings of optimism and hope for lasting romance. Yet, weather aside, by the time a colder season sets in, many people are left asking themselves what causes a marriage (or any serious relationship for that matter) to turn icy and warm feelings of love to freeze over.
Often, when a couple comes to therapy dissatisfied with or worried about their relationship, there are certain patterns that can be observed. A shift has often taken place within the couple that has left them estranged from their early feelings of tenderness and attraction. This shift involves a slow movement away from the romance and closeness they originally experienced toward a more routine and conventional style of relating. The initial allure or desire that drew them together and allowed them to appreciate one another for their unique qualities and attributes has been replaced by an illusion of connection, or what psychologist Robert Firestone refers to as the "Fantasy Bond."
The fantasy bond is a mode of relating in which couples interact in a manner of form that enables them to imagine that they are close while maintaining emotional distance. Individuals in these realtionships are acting on an unconscious fear of intimacy that influences them to not be vulnerable to their partners. Couples in a fantasy bond are often impersonal, treating one another as though they are extensions of themselves. Within this imagined connection, people no longer exhibit the attributes that once drew them to their partners. Eventually, they are no longer the independent individuals who once respected and admired each other. They are acting on old, destructive defenses that keep them at an emotional distance, even as they share the same activities, responsibilities or beds.
So what formulates a fantasy bond? How does it interfere with real feelings of love and affection for a partner? How can people escape the trap of this relationship hazard? To see if a relationship has taken the form of a fantasy bond, it is helpful to ask certain questions about the ways a couple relates.
You can start by looking at how the two partners communicate. You can ask: Can you speak honestly to your partner? And how honestly do you allow them to speak to you? When you offer feedback, is your partner open or closed to your opinions and perceptions? How open are you to their communication? Do you intimidate them by acting defensive? Or silence them by using their words to be victimized, overly apologetic or self-hating?
It is important to understand that being truly honest does not mean relaying and acting on irrational, negative or excessively critical reactions toward a partner. Rather, honesty means that each member of the couple knows their self and what's really going on with them personally. When a person is upset or angry, it is valuable to consider: Does this reaction reflect how they really feel or is it more based on negative programming from their past? Is it based on what is going on in the here and now or on old emotions that have been triggered? By thinking about their reactions, people can weed out the rational from the irrational, separate the present from the past, and distinguish the real from the distorted.
When a person approaches their partner from a realistic perspective they are more likely to have a compassionate and accurate view of their loved one and to be less phony or destructive in their style of relating. They care if their behavior or reactions hurt their partner in any way. They are also interested in and curious about any feedback their partner would have for them.
It is also advisable to investigate how a couple behaves. This can be challenging because people who have substituted a fantasy bond for real relating often fail to notice the ways they have begun acting out of habit. It is helpful to ask: in what ways has a person's behavior with their mate become routine? What loving behaviors are they withholding? What are the activities that they once enjoyed that they have given up since becoming involved in a relationship?
As a relationship becomes more serious, it is advisable to ask the following questions: Has this couple come to rely on each other to make up for any inadequacies in the other one; are they using each other to complete themselves? Is each one maintaining their independence and individuality or is either succumbing to just going along with activities that the other one is interested in? Are they being supportive of each other's interests and individuality, or are they, more often than not, doing things together out of obligation?
Most important, does what is being said within the couple correspond with what is being done? Honesty and integrity are crucial to long lasting relationships. When a person's words don't match their actions, their partner's sense of reality is distorted. In that sense, what is done matters much more than what is said. The perfect example of this is the couple who incessantly argues with or complains about each other but then continually say "I love you" in spite of the tension and anger that comes across in their behavior. When both members of a couple make their words and actions an honest reflection of how they feel, a real sense of trust is established in their relationship.
A good rule for staying together is to live a fulfilling life as an individual and to support your partner in doing the same. A union based on equality and respect is the perfect environment for love, romance and spontaneity to flourish, while a connection based on neediness and dependence creates an atmosphere of suppression, resentment and defensiveness. It is the difference between expressing genuine love and living an illusion of love, between creating a new life by continuing to develop your ability to love and recreating an old life by reliving past hurts, between accepting warmth and acting cold... and sometimes even between summer weddings and winter divorces.
Visit PsychAlive.com's Alive to Intimacy page to learn more about maintaining close and loving relationships that last.
Read Dr. Lisa Firestone's book, Sex Love and Intimate Relationships