Countless couples complain of losing the “spark” in their relationship. Some chalk it up to evolved differences, a slow growing apart, or sheer familiarity. The wave of “deadness” that can submerge a relationship after the first thrilling months or years have caused many couples to lose hope, and even look elsewhere for the excitement of newfound intimacy. With researchers estimating that 30-60 percent of married individuals in the United States will have an affair at some point in their relationship, it may be time to really examine what causes our affections to wane. What prompts the shift from helpless love to deep disinterest? What turns our heart-racing enthusiasm for another person to boredom and dissatisfaction?
In order to identify the wedge that’s driving couples apart, it’s helpful to understand the concept of the “fantasy bond.” As the major principle of a comprehensive psychological theory developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, the “fantasy bond” describes a way of relating that serves as a substitute for a truly loving relationship As my father has written of the fantasy bond, “This illusion of connection and closeness allows [a couple] to maintain an imagination of love and loving, while preserving emotional distance.”
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As one woman who was going through a divorce after six years of marriage said, “Growing up I was terrified of being alone, but I also knew that I was afraid of being close to another person. In a sense, my marriage solved my problem: My husband was physically ‘there,’ so I didn’t have to be afraid of being alone anymore, and I acted in ways that kept him at a distance that I could tolerate emotionally.”
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The state of physical closeness and emotional distance is what characterizes a fantasy bond. This bond is formed when sincere feelings of love, respect, and attraction are replaced with imaginings of security, connectedness and protection. Though these may all seem like positive attributes of an intimate relationship, placing a priority on form over substance is a key destroyer of any close relationship.
People who engage in a fantasy bond value routine over spontaneity and safety over passion. They go through the motions of being together or involved but without bringing the energy, independence, and affection that once colored their relationship. The risk in fusing our identity with another person is that we often lose the respect and attraction we once held for that person. We also stand to lose ourselves in the relationship, rather than maintaining the unique qualities that gave us confidence and drew our partners to us in the first place. When couples lose these real feelings for each other, rather than challenging destructive patterns in their relating, they tend to either throw away the relationship or sink deeper into fantasy for fear of losing each other or being alone. The good news is these feelings of excitement can be restored.