Illusion of Connection: Better Than No Connection at All?
Our parental union is crucial, so if it’s flawed, we create a fantasy bond.
Posted Nov 28, 2018
As a child fresh out of the womb, might you have experienced an insufficiently nurturing connection with your parents or primary caretaker? And was it because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be there for you in ways you urgently needed them to?
If so, your reaction to their insensitivity or neglect might have been nothing short of traumatic—a perceived threat to your very survival. Instinctively, you knew you couldn’t continue to exist without their support. So if you experienced your bond with them as fragile, such a tenuous connection would have precipitated anxiety—a state of emotional unrest felt almost as a psychic emergency.
Psychologists writing on attachment theory speak of the infant’s rudimentary need to feel attuned to their parents. So if you harbored doubts as to whether your caregivers were willing to form an intimate attachment bond with you—whether, energetically, they “resonated” with you—you’d experience your welfare as at serious risk.
After all, at such a primitive stage of development, how else could you possibly react? Regardless of how much, temperamentally, you might be drawn to them, or even trust them, you’d still recognize that without them you’d perish. So you’d do all you could in your struggle to secure a safe, reliable connection to them. Frankly, you’d do anything—including sacrificing your very identity—to get them to like you, accept you, take care of you.
And this is precisely where the well-known psychoanalytic notion of the "fantasy bond" comes in. Consider, for example, Robert Firestone’s article, “A Concept of the Primary Fantasy Bond: A Developmental Perspective” (2010), in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 21 (2), 218-225.
That is, in early childhood, if you weren’t secure in your caretakers’ physical and emotional commitment to you, to quell the separation anxiety resulting from this seminal disconnection you’d develop the pivotal defense of imagining their devotion—forcibly making “real” what otherwise was so unsettling to you. You’d learn to comfort yourself through fantasies designed, however unconsciously, to minimize or obliterate your troubling fears about their availability. When they were inaccessible, or when you experienced them as inconsistent in attending to your wants and needs, in your head you’d find ways to visualize their presence. You’d selectively replay—or revision—past experiences of your being fed or held. And such an illusional "ploy" would help avert any underlying panic of abandonment.
Firestone, in his YouTube Fantasy Bond Videos (relating to his book The Fantasy Bond: Structure of Psychological Defenses, 1987), characterizes this “illusion-of-fusion” phenomenon as both a method of self-parenting and self-protection. And he offers convincing examples of this tension-alleviating mechanism, such as the practice of thumb-sucking and holding onto (or “stroking”) one’s blanket.
Later on, however, such compensatory self-soothing behaviors can, far less advantageously, manifest themselves in drug and alcohol abuse—or other addictions unconsciously experienced as safer and more reliable “attachments” than human ones. They're also likely to reveal themselves in superficial relationships, which end up deeply frustrating both partners.
Here the individual’s paradoxically contrived sense of independence, developed earlier as a critical defense against parental rejection, is inextricably bound to the distorted idea that they don’t really need anyone else. After all, it’s a lot safer to depend solely on themselves. And it should be obvious how this position seriously undermines their potential for future adult intimacy. Probably the single best term to characterize such self-sabotage is “pseudo-”. For nothing in such a later-day adaptation can enable them to express or affirm to others their true—that is, authentic—self.
By now many writers have recognized that all of us create fantasy bonds, although just how pronounced such a specious union might be is rooted in our family-of-origin’s ability to adequately offer us the reassurance that we’re unconditionally valued and loved. Additionally, some young children require more attention and succor than others. So that, too, must be taken into account as regards how distorted our union with our caretakers was and how we came to see ourselves.
It can hardly be over-emphasized that any kind of fantasy bond emerges from—and aims to compensate for—an insecure relationship to one’s family. But although such a bond is illusory (and subject to breakdowns at any moment), it’s obviously better than experiencing the insufferable pain of experiencing no bond at all. All the same, its many drawbacks can't be denied. And In both the short- and long-term, they’re extremely costly. For one thing (not mentioned above), the fantasy involves idealizing the parents, and that has all sorts of self-defeating ramifications to it.
If children feel driven to over-value the parent (since that’s intrinsic to the illusion), they’re also compelled to under-value themselves. To explain: by internalizing their neglectful or abusive parents, children wind up “merging” with them. And that obliges them to see themselves through their parents’ critical, neglectful, or rejecting eyes. Despite not really feeling loved by them, in their neverending struggle to convince themselves that they’re secure in their (imagined) parental bond, they must question their fundamental lovability.
They’ve aligned themselves “intimately” with their caretakers’ apparently disapproving perspective. So if their parents haven’t demonstrated much love and affection, it’s essentially because they haven’t been good enough to receive it; they haven’t deserved it. And therefore their parents’ very real deficiencies in caring for them don’t relate to their parents’ shortcomings, but their own.
By this point, it should be clear that, however unconsciously devised, this misguided fantasy bond is akin to making a deal with the devil. Sure, immediately the child has managed to silence the internal alarm of their parents’ seeming unconcern—or at its worst, even hostility—toward them. But the reassurance that, paradoxically, they’ve offered themselves carries with it the steep price of understanding themselves as unworthy of such caring. Identifying themselves with the “outer critics” who are their parents, they can’t help but formulate a mercilessly unforgiving “inner critic” as well. And such a “borrowed” negative self-image can last indefinitely because it’s firmly ensconced in their brain.
In short, the originally intolerable experience of parental rejection has been replaced by an automatically disparaging self-rejection (though, at its ironic extreme, it can also eventuate in the grandiose "over-correction" of a narcissistic personality disorder). Moreover, the child’s impulsive solution to their insoluble family dilemma can lead to unwittingly creating a much broader—and more permanent—dilemma. For this (convolutedly) protective model of relating to significant others comes to define their behavior in later relationships, too, meaning that unless such dysfunctional programming is meaningfully altered, their relational ties will be as “falsely” intimate as was their much earlier one.
Back then the child—feeling intensely vulnerable—developed what was an adaptive, almost healthy, distrust of intimacy. For it was viewed implicitly as unwarranted, dangerous, and linked to unrelenting anxiety. Better to “connect” to others at a distance, which, of course, precludes any kind of genuine intimacy. And so long as this eventually self-defeating phenomenon remains unconscious (as do all childhood defenses) and not confronted head-on, it can never be resolved.
But as powerfully protective as such a detached relating style can be, in general, it’s no longer necessary. And it’s definitely contrary to any healthy path toward happiness and fulfillment. Rather, it promotes the very opposite of loving intimacy. In a word, its inevitable outcome is alienation.
At its most dramatic, it shows up in individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder, who demonstrate the most conspicuous, hyper-vigilant distrust of intimacy, while simultaneously experiencing something akin to terror in situations where it appears they’re about to be left alone (e.g., see the pioneering work of Jerold Kreisman & Hal Straus, I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me, 1989). Still, because it’s unrealistic to think that any parent could always be there for a child when the child needs them, all of us (to varying degrees) will exhibit a certain ambivalence about getting too close—and thereby overly susceptible—to our partners.
Which is why so many of us deny our quite legitimate dependency needs. As Susan Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy puts it in her book Hold Me Tight (2009), the need for secure attachment is experienced "from the cradle to the grave."
NOTE: My next post, "True Intimacy: Why It's So Crucial—and So Challenging," will delineate not only the critical need for close connections—and our largely hidden ambivalence toward them—but also describe the most effective ways to move beyond such almost universal stalemates. And my final post in this series is "The Path to Creating True Intimacy," which will focus even more on solutions to this most challenging of relationship problems.
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.