If You're Not Careful, Fantasy Bonds Could Haunt Your New Relationship

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Let's be honest: new relationships are kind of a gamble. Even if you've exchanged hundreds of messages and already gone on a few (or even several dates), there's still so much left to discover about each other. It can be a long journey taking someone from stranger to secret-swapping status. In fact, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that it takes a whopping 140 hours together to form a close relationship. If you're ready to transition your relationship from casual to official before the 140-hour mark, you have to take a chance based on what you believe the other person's potential might be. Though this is normal in the early stages of a relationship, it can also lead to distorted fantasy bonds.

Coined by psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone, the term "fantasy bond" describes a superficial or dysfunctional relationship that takes the place of real love. According to Firestone, dating someone for their potential and choosing to see them in an overly idealized way is one facet of these bonds. In a fantasy bond, you may have unmet needs, yet you hold out for the other person to change. You believe your partner is capable of offering more, and you might make excuses for why they're falling short. While it's impossible to know everything about your S.O. from Day 1, putting too much faith in their potential can have nightmarish consequences over time.

Is it really so bad to date someone for their potential?

Imagining an upgraded version of your new boo may seem harmless, but potential means little when building a relationship, says therapist Shamyra Howard. "Potential is great, but how a person uses their potential is way more important than just possessing it," she told xoNecole. "Don't fall in love with someone's potential, fall in love with their reality," she advised.

So what's so wrong with being with someone for who they could become? For one thing, people can change, but only when they want to. If your significant other isn't actively working to fulfill their potential, they likely won't start just because you want them to. This can breed disappointment and resentment later in the relationship.

Another problem begins when you — or your partner — try to justify their behavior. When one person expects the other to be different, one or both sides may start rationalizing why things aren't improving. For example, if you're with someone who's emotionally unavailable, you might blame their coldness on their busy work schedule or stressful upbringing, even as your needs aren't being met. If you're especially attached to a fantasy version of them, you may even begin justifying abusive behavior, according to DomesticShelters.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Why fantasy bonds form

We're all guilty of viewing a love interest through rose-colored glasses at one point or another, but some people may be especially likely to form unhealthy fantasy bonds. Dr. Robert Firestone explains in his book "The Fantasy Bond" that these relationships begin in infancy when babies idealize and overlook the shortcomings of their caregivers. Even when a parent makes a mistake or puts them in harm's way, the child chooses to idolize them — or at least a fantasy version of them.

Firestone says that these bonds may be replicated in adulthood with other people, including romantic partners. He wrote for PsychAlive, "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 illusion of connection and closeness allows them to maintain an imagination of love and loving while preserving emotional distance."

This pattern is common in people with a disorganized attachment style who crave connection just as much as they fear it. Fantasy bonds can seem like a comfortably distant way to feel the dopamine rush of falling in love while turning a blind eye to red flags.

Fantasy bonding may distort your self-image too

It may not be obvious at first that you're projecting your ideal image onto your partner or ignoring warning signs. But another way to know if you're in a fantasy bond is to check your self-image. Dr. Lisa Firestone, the daughter of Dr. Robert Firestone, explained in a Psychology Today article that people may begin to criticize themselves to maintain their fantasy bond. For example, if your partner ignores you when you ask to spend time together, you may assume you did something wrong or that you haven't done enough to "earn" their love yet.

This is common in fantasy bonds with emotionally unavailable people. Dr. Emily Jamea, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, shared with Byrdie, "[One] reason someone might attract someone emotionally unavailable is because they have low self-esteem. For whatever reason (body image issues, experience of being bullied, job instability, addiction, or mental health issues), they may not believe they are worthy of love and commitment." To sum it up, if your new relationship seems to feed deep-rooted feelings of low self-esteem, or if it triggers new ones, it might be a toxic fantasy bond — especially if you believe your S.O. is high above you on a pedestal.

How to untangle a fantasy bond

If your relationship is new and you're already catching yourself dreaming of your partner's potential, pause and reflect on their actions so far in the relationship. Relationship coach J.L. Kirkwood told xoNecole, "If you are with a person who says they are going to do something and doesn't keep their word — has a lack of consistency, cannot find self-motivation, isn't interested in taking his career or relationship to the next level, doesn't have direction, then you may have to begin looking elsewhere."

Dr. Robert Firestone also suggests looking at the fears you experience in your love life, such as a fear of loss or abandonment (via PsychAlive). If there's a healthy level of trust in the relationship, you could even share these concerns with your significant other. It's also important to nurture your relationship with yourself, along with other bonds in your life like family ties and friendships. By strengthening other connections in your life, you might be less likely to idealize your romantic partner and their place in your life. If you still feel stuck in fantasyland, reach out to a therapist or counselor. Sometimes, untangling destructive bonds requires digging deeper into your past relationships or personal insecurities.