There are a thousand reasons a relationship can sour. But a common — yet frequently overlooked — pitfall happens when a person falls in love with the potential of a partner, who they could or will be, rather than who they actually are.
A lot of people get stuck dreaming about how their partner could be different — especially when they’re not so pleased with their partner’s behavior, according to Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical College. This is known as a fantasy bond.
“It is actually remarkably common for people to fall in love with the person they imagine their partner can be when they do something that you want them to or when you change them in some way,” Saltz said. “It’s very easy to fantasize this will be the case (forever) and it makes dealing with the difficult parts less difficult.”
These sorts of unrealistic bonds can, and typically do, lead to the demise of a relationship, she said. As the distance between reality and fantasy grows, a buildup of resentment and frustration will eventually break the partnership.
Most health experts say fantasy bonds are more or less a defense mechanism that kicks in to help people maintain a sense of safety and security in their relationships.
This defense mechanism can activate for a handful of reasons: unmet needs, a toxic relationship and unrealistically high standards, to name a few.
Say, for example, a person is trapped in a toxic relationship with a partner who consistently lashes out or neglects them. In order to cope, they may hold onto the belief that their partner can change and will be better one day.
On the other hand, if you’re not getting what you want out of a relationship, it’s easy to stop focusing on the current reality and picture a life in which your partner does fulfill you.
Others — here’s looking at you, perfectionists — may view their partner as a project and zero in on their potential and ability to grow or improve.
Adults oftentimes develop fantasy bonds because of childhood insecurities or challenges. Those who had an emotionally turbulent or chaotic upbringing may mimic the feelings they held onto as a child to keep a bond with an unreliable parent. Oftentimes, they focus on how a loved one’s potential change in behavior will fix things.
Regardless of why someone may develop a fantasy bond, the fact of the matter is that they’re not connecting with their actual relationship, but rather with a made-up, far-fetched idea of what it could be.
This type of relationship will always be unsatisfying. Fantasy bonds are unhealthy and lack the inherent mutual reciprocity of mature adult relationships, said Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast “2 Moms on the Couch.”
“Because of the unrealistic nature of the fantasy, the individual is destined for disappointment,” Dorfman said. “The moments when the other (partner) expresses… individual needs and desires, the relationship deteriorates.”
If you’re constantly dreaming of a better version of your partner, you’ll only be let down and hurt when they continue to fall short — not to mention the pain and rejection your partner could feel from never being enough.
There are steps you can take to reset a relationship that’s tangled up in fantasies.
First, it’s crucial to figure out why you’re dreaming about a different version of your partner. Are you disappointed in them, do they mistreat or disrespect you, or have you simply been pushing them too hard?
Once you understand the specific reasons for your fantasy bond, you can begin to work through them.
You’ll also need to let go of the person you’ve conjured up.
“This may require a ‘mourning’ of the fantasy in order to accept the realities” of your relationship, Dorfman said.
Yes, this means coming to terms with who your partner truly is and determining if they’re really the right person for you.
The partner trying to work through the fantasies they’ve built up “would have to be willing to be honest with themselves about who their partner actually is, today, right now, and to ask themselves if their partner stays that person can they be happy with them, do they still love them, do they see a future of loving them?” Saltz said.
If you’re having trouble shaking the fantasy, it’s worth speaking with a mental health professional. They can help you see your partner for who they really are and determine if the relationship’s worth salvaging or not.