Fantasy Bonds: The Problem With Loving Someone For Their 'Potential'
Sometimes people fall in love not with the person they're with but with who they hope that person might be one day. Have you ever said any of the following to yourself in your romantic relationships?
- "I know when [insert event] happens, they will really get it together."
- "I see them for their potential."
- "I'm hanging in there because I think if they just change A, B, and C, they will be a wonderful partner."
- "I know deep down, there is good inside of them!"
If so, you might have been engaging in what clinical psychologist Robert Firestone, Ph.D., calls a "fantasy bond."
What is a fantasy bond?
Fantasy bonds are, in essence, when you bond and attach to someone based on who you believe they can be or will be or what you believe they can or will be able to give you in the future. This is not the same as wanting to grow old with someone and feeling excited to see their development through life's journey. This is agreeing to poor behavior, disappointment, and unmet needs because you hope one day the person will magically change and provide better for you.
Perhaps your partner is distant. Or chaotic. Or continues to hurt you in some way and make excuses for it. Whatever it might be, there is not true intimacy and care between you. However, you convince yourself that "one day" this relationship will give you what you actually want, and your partner will grow to be able to treat you well with a little work or when circumstances change. It might look like one of the above-listed phrases, or it could take the form of something a little more ordinary:
- "When we move in together..."
- "When we get married..."
- "When we have children..."
But intimacy, maturity, and care will not magically appear when something else happens. Intimacy must be nurtured.
People might wonder, Does this mean I can't be hopeful about change in my relationship? Absolutely not. It's good to be hopeful. Things will and can change if both people are willing to take ownership of the challenges that they're facing and work together to create a healthy relationship.
The issue here is that you're not in touch with the current reality of who your partner is and instead are creating an imagined version of what they might be, which is often very different from what they are presenting to you in the present. There's often no guarantee that this imagined person will ever actually manifest in real life—so in essence, you're connecting with a fantasy.
Oftentimes, fantasy bonds can be a way to make excuses for abuse. Instead of taking stock of who your partner is in this moment and how unacceptable their behavior is, you're dissociating from your current reality while clinging to an imagined future. Other examples of this are hearing someone say they do not ever want children but hanging on to the relationship believing that once they "love you more," they will change their mind.
Why we develop fantasy bonds.
When you have a fantasy bond with someone, you often are in a dysfunctional relationship that in some ways mimics the dysfunction you experienced as a child.
As children, we must bond to our caregivers. If we have unpredictable, neglectful, aloof, or abusive parents, this can be challenging. If we believe that it is our fault that our caregiver is not meeting our needs, then the world can become a very scary place. We wonder, who will keep us safe if not our caregiver?
Instead, we build defenses. These defenses take us out of reality to keep us psychologically safe and instead take us into fantasy. We might blame ourselves for the adult's behavior. Or we might begin to fantasize about who they could be: "Once my mom isn't stressed anymore, she will stop drinking so much." Or, "My dad said as soon as his contract with his job is over, he'll be able to come by and see me. I know we will have so much fun then!"
The fantasy bonds in your adult relationships mimic exactly what you felt as a child and how you maintained a bond with your parent even when the connection with them in the moment was disappointing or unhealthy.
- "If I behave differently, then mom won't get so mad..."
- "When my parents aren't as stressed, we will...."
- "When dad stops drinking..."
- "When I move out..."
How to stop leaning on fantasy bonds.
If we don't become conscious of our pattern of "imagining" who someone could be to maintain unhealthy relationships, then we are likely to get into a cycle of disappointment or harmful relationships. In order to move past fantasy bonds, you must be willing to work through your own defenses, see the person for who they are, and engage with them in that authentic space.
We must face who we are, and we must face who our partner is. We must face these things as they are in this very moment and ask ourselves, "What can I do with what is being offered to me right now?" If we find that the person is still lovable as they are (flaws and all), then we can create true intimacy. But if not, then the connection is only maintained through the fantasy.
People are telling you who they are with their behavior. Listen.
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Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and author of I Want This To Work. She is the director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy and cofounder of Ours. She received her bachelor's in adult organizational development and education from Temple University and her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University. She primarily works with couples experiencing high levels of conflict and individuals struggling with relational issues.