Why love fades and people in relationships grow apart is one of life’s great mysteries. What prevents us from maintaining the passion, attraction, admiration, and closeness we once felt for our partner? What I've learned, through my own work and through a 30-year longitudinal study of couples and individuals, is that we can contrast the patterns of behavior between couples that result in long-term romantic love with those that signify that the couple has formed a “fantasy bond.” A fantasy bond is an illusion of oneness with a partner, a concept elucidated by my father Dr. Robert Firestone. When couples enter into this type of bond, they substitute a fantasy of being connected in place of real relating. They put form over substance, and the relationship starts to deteriorate.
The degree to which an individual in a couple enters into a fantasy bond exists on a continuum. In the beginning, people usually open up to one another. But at some point they become afraid and start to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable by shutting down and withdrawing from loving behavior. They replace real love with a fantasy of being in love, which they support by insisting on the conventional markers of a relationship. The situation can deteriorate even further until the couple no longer manifests any observable loving behavior and often expresses a lot of animosity toward each other.
The good news is that if we catch on to the behaviors associated with a fantasy bond, a subject I talk more about in a free, upcoming Webinar “Real Love Vs. Fantasy: How to Keep Romantic Love Alive,” we can begin to challenge this defense and create a more satisfying relationship. In order to truly change our relationships for the better, it’s important to look closely at these harmful behaviors and compare them to the more favorable ways of relating that characterize a healthy relationship. When we interrupt these patterns and actively engage in healthier ways of interacting with our partner, we feel more closeness and contentment, and we can keep the spark alive in our relationships.
Here are the behaviors to look out for:
1. Having angry reactions to feedback instead of being open to it.
Communication is key to a close relationship. However, when we establish a fantasy bond, we tend to become increasingly closed off to real dialogue, or a kind and compassionate way of exchanging impressions and ideas. Instead, we tend to be defensive and have angry or intimidating overreactions to feedback from our partner; these shut our partner down. Whether we punish our partner by emotionally breaking down, giving them the silent treatment, or screaming at them, we’re telling them that we don’t want to hear what they have to say. We may provoke additional emotional distance by saying things we know will sting our partner the most.
In order to change this pattern, try to look for a kernel of truth in what our partner says, rather than picking apart flaws in the feedback. If he or she says, “I feel bad when you just watch TV all night. You seem distracted. I feel disregarded and like you aren’t interested in me,” consider what parts of that resonate with you instead of wasting time on everything that doesn’t. You may feel like snapping back by saying, “Don’t be ridiculous and dramatic. I’m just tired!” There may be some truth to that, but you could instead pause to consider, “I have been tired lately, but is more going on with me than that? Have I been distracted to the point of disregarding my relationship?” Your attuned response would then be, “I’m sorry you feel bad. I’ve felt distracted lately by work and tired when I come home. I can see how my tuning out hurts you, even though I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
We can always make it our goal to hear everything. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with what someone else is saying. However, we can strive to be open and seek feedback from people we care about and trust, so that they feel comfortable to talk to us about the more difficult subjects.
2. Being closed to new experiences instead of open to new things.
In every relationship, it’s important to maintain a sense of ourselves as a unique person. When we get involved with someone new, it should expand our world, not shrink it. When we first fall in love, we tend to be open to new things. However, when we start to engage in a fantasy bond, we tend to adopt roles and routines that limit us and close us down to new experiences. We may become more rigid and automatic in our responses. “You know I don’t like that restaurant,” or “We always see a movie on Saturday night.” It actually hurts the relationship when we stop being free and open to developing new shared interests. It can foster real resentment between partners. While no one should force themselves to do things they really don’t want to do, shutting down the part of ourselves that seeks new experiences and responds to a spark in our partner can drain us of our aliveness and spontaneity.
We should always be open to exploring things that expand our world and be careful not to limit our or our partner’s experiences. Try activities each of you enjoy and see if they add to the arsenal of things you can do together and share in a lively way. This doesn’t mean that you have to share all of your interests or meet every one of each other’s needs. In fact, it’s essential to maintain your independence and individuality. We don’t need one person for fulfillment, but we do need shared activities. A relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum; being open to new experiences keeps it alive.
3. Using deception and duplicity instead of honesty and integrity.
Most of us know from experience that we can drive each other crazy when our words and actions fail to match. Unfortunately, deception and duplicity are common in relationships. There are a lot of mixed messages based on people saying one thing and doing another. Examples include:
The actions that contradict these words do not look like love. They represent a fantasy of being close but without real relating, essentially putting form over substance. Double messages like these mess with another person’s reality, which can be considered a basic human rights violation, not to mention a huge threat to lasting, loving relationships.
Admittedly, honesty in a relationship can be tricky because it doesn’t mean saying every little critical thing to our partner that pops into our head. We have to know our real intentions and what our real truth is. This means we have to know ourselves. We have to consistently ask ourselves, “Am I being honest? What’s my motivation? Do my words and actions really match?” If we say we really love someone, there should be actions we take that, to an outside observer, would be viewed as loving. When our actions are honest, we can create genuine closeness.
4. Overstepping boundaries instead of showing respect for them.
In a fantasy bond, couples tend to overstep each other’s boundaries and form a fused identity. They start to see themselves as a we, instead of a you and me. “We like to go there.” “We don’t want to go that party.” “We like that kind of food.” Many of us unintentionally lose track of where we leave off and our partner begins. Without noticing it, we may be intrusive or controlling toward our partner, acting in a manner that is disrespectful or demeaning to the other person’s sense of self. When this happens, it not only hurts our partner and his or her feelings for us, but it undermines our strength and feelings for our partner. Many couples come to hold their partner responsible for their happiness, which leads to demands, complaints, and a sense of powerlessness.
In order to be a loving partner and maintain your own feelings of interest and attraction, you should have regard for what lights your partner up and matters to him or her. You should see your partner as a whole and separate person who matters to you, independent of your own needs and interests. You can both encourage each other to engage in pursuits that really express who each of you are as individuals. Whether it’s learning a language, climbing a mountain, or writing a book, you can see each other for who you really are and support each other’s unique goals and capabilities. When we give another person this space, regard and respect, we actually draw that person closer to us.
5. Showing a lack of affection, and inadequate, impersonal, or routine sexuality instead of physical affection and personal sexuality.
In a fantasy bond, there is often a lack of personal relating and affection. The sexuality can start to feel inadequate and impersonal or become hardly existent. Some couples describe their sex lives as becoming mechanical or highly routinized. This takes much of the excitement out of their attraction. Obviously, there are real outside circumstances that can affect or change one’s physical relationship. However, there’s often a lot of negative self-talk or “critical inner voices” that discourage us from pursuing our sexuality. It’s important to filter out the negative messages and stay in touch with this vital part of ourselves and our partner. Ideally, we strive to stay in touch with our own feelings and with those of our partner. There would be a give and take, with real contact being made, that sparks intimate and loving feelings. The more free flowing and spontaneous our expressions of love can be, the less likely you and a partner are to grow apart.
6. Misunderstanding instead of understanding.
In a fantasy bond, we tend to see our partners for who we need them to be rather than who they are. We may distort them by idealizing or putting them on a pedestal. We may pick them apart, denigrating them by projecting negative qualities onto them. We may even see them as more critical, intrusive, or rejecting than they are, because we grew up with people who had these qualities. When we disrespect the boundary between ourselves and our partner, we’re more likely to see them as an extension of ourselves, and we may mistreat or criticize them in ways we mistreat or criticize ourselves.
In an ideal relationship, we see our partner realistically, both their strengths and their foibles, and accept them for who they are. We don’t allow ourselves to create a negative caricature, which means not focusing in on their flaws and indulging in critical thoughts. However, it also means not creating a grandiose image of them. No one can really feel loved unless they feel like they're seen realistically. When a partner builds us up or tears us down, we can feel like we’re on shaky ground, not really being loved for who we are. This is why it’s so important not to distort the other person.
7. Being manipulative, dominant, or submissive.
Due to people’s defenses and desire to protect themselves, it can be easy for couples to play games and be indirect about their wants and needs. They may engage in manipulative maneuvers to get what they want, such as trying to control a situation by crying and falling apart or blowing up and being intimidating. They may adopt roles that hurt or limit them in their relationship. For example, couples often polarize each other, with one person becoming domineering and controlling, while the other acts passive and submissive. This may take different forms in different aspects of the relationship. One partner may be seen as the “boss” of finances; another may be the one who controls the sexuality between them. They may be drawn to assuming certain roles out of familiarity or as a way to feel secure, but this undermines their ability to relate as two equal individuals.
In an equal relationship, it’s important to directly ask for what we want and need from our partner, so they have the opportunity to respond to and meet our needs. Many of us make the mistake of expecting our partner to read our minds and know what we want, which only leads to disappointment. It’s important to say what we want without trying to dominate or control a situation. We usually feel vulnerable when we’re open about who we are, what we want, and how we really feel. But this directness is the best way to maintain an honest and authentic way of relating that gets us what we want in life.
By being aware of all of the behavior patterns that contribute to relationship distress, we can hold ourselves to a standard of remaining both true to who we are and sensitive to another person. We can encourage an atmosphere of love and support, while maintaining the unique, individual qualities that drew us to each other in the first place. We can avoid the traps of a fantasy bond and enjoy the raw and real adventure that is a loving relationship.