Many struggles we face in our current interpersonal relationships arise from a core defense formed in childhood known as the “fantasy bond.” Maybe you're wondering why you're losing the "spark" between you and your partner or why you can't seem to stop worrying about your kids. You may be surprised to learn that what's really at the root of these frustrating dynamics is a fantasy bond. As the central concept of my father, Dr. Robert Firestone’s, theory, the fantasy bond describes an illusion of fusion we originally form with our parent or primary caretaker. This fantasy of being at one with our caretaker acts as a defense, helping relieve anxiety and emotional pain at times of distress. However, as we grow up, this very defense system limits our ability to pursue or accept real love and connection. Understanding this defense can be life-changing. Here, I share a brief guide to the fantasy bond that can shed light into how this type of bond forms, goes on to limit our lives, and how we can takes steps to break free of the destructive elements of our current relationships.
How fantasy bonds develop
The fantasy bond is a primitive defense mechanism that we developed in early childhood as a way of maintaining an illusion of safety and security at those times when we experienced overwhelming frustration, hurt, or even terror. Infants have a natural ability to comfort themselves by using images and memories of past feeding experiences to ward off the anxiety of being temporarily separated from their mothers. Fantasy helps reduce feelings of hunger and frustration. The child’s illusion of connection compensates or substitutes for inadequacies in the early environment. In an attempt to cope with the emotional pain and restore a feeling of comfort, infants merge with their primary caretaker (often the mother) in their imagination, magically believing they are one with that person — feeling like the all powerful parent and the helpless infant, all in one. This fantasy of being connected to another can give a child an illusion of safety, even immortality, which later helps him or her cope with existential realizations and fears.
In our work, my father and I use the term fantasy bond to describe both the original imaginary connection formed during childhood and the repetitive efforts of an adult to continue to make these types of connections in interpersonal relationships. This kind of bond is also often extended beyond our parents, romantic partners, and children. In our quest for a sense of security, we may form a fantasy connection to:
How fantasy bonds continue to affect us
While people may be comfortable casually criticizing their parents as adults, as children, it may have felt scary to be critical of one’s caretakers. People rely on their parents for survival, and at times, a parent’s neglect or hostility might have felt terrifying, even life-threatening to the child. Part of the formation of a fantasy bond involves young children learning to self-parent, both soothing and punishing themselves in similar ways to the parent. Children identify with and internalize the ways the parent saw and treated them. They may try to preserve an idealized image of the parent by seeing themselves critically. As they grow up, they uphold an, often unconscious, internalized connection to their parent in the following ways:
Fantasy bonds in our adult relationships
Though a fantasy bond is established early in life as a way to feel safe and connected, especially when one’s parents weren’t available or nurturing their needs, people go on to recreate these bonds in their adult relationships as a way to feel protected. As Dr. Robert Firestone wrote, “Most people have fears of intimacy and are self-protective and at the same time are terrified of being alone. Their solution to their emotional dilemma is to form a fantasy bond.” This bond replaces the substance of a loving relationship with the form of being a unit. It keeps people at a comfortable distance emotionally, while maintaining a sense of oneness with their partner that allows them to feel an, often false, sense of security.
So, what interactions between a couple represent the difference between real love and a fantasy bond? As you look at these dynamics, remember that a fantasy bond exists along a continuum, and most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum in our relationships. Identifying that you and/or your partner have some of these behaviors doesn’t mean you should panic and throw away your relationship. Rather, realizing the degree to which you may relate in limiting ways can help you and your partner shift these dynamics and reestablish a loving connection.
Couple interactions that represent real love versus a fantasy bond:
Learn more about these characteristics here
Signs and symptoms you may be in a fantasy bond with your partner:
Read more about these signs here
Steps to take to break a fantasy bond
According to Dr. Robert Firestone, there are a number of steps that individual partners can initiate to break into the fantasy bond they have formed with each other. The following suggestions are adapted from his blog “The Fantasy Bond: A substitute for a truly loving relationship.”
First, individuals in a couple have to acknowledge the existence of a fantasy bond. It will benefit them to stop denying that they have become distant and to admit that their actions are no longer loving. They can then move on to the following steps:
Admittedly, the fantasy bond is a complex concept, with many facets to understand. However, seeking this understanding is a worthy pursuit, because it can truly change a person’s life and the way they relate to their loved ones. To learn more about the fantasy bond, why it develops, how it impacts our lives, and how we can challenge it, individuals and therapists can join me for the CE Webinar, “The Fantasy Bond.” Learn more here.