Why We Don’t Want What We Say We Want: The Fantasy Bond

Why We Don’t Want What We Say We Want: The Fantasy Bond

green pastures

We do not want what we say we want. This is the sobering conclusion of psychoanalyst, Robert Firestone, (The Fantasy Bond) after decades of private practice and living in a conscious community. This underlies the curious phenomenon of the fear of success. Attaining what we have always wanted—love, success, creative self-expression—signals that we have become an individual, that we are successful, and can stand on our own two feet.

Seems like a cause for celebration. Yet it creates anxiety. And possibly a self-sabotaging retreat into mediocrity, into a station in life in which less will be expected of us by others, and by ourselves.

What gives?

A taste of success throws us into a deep intuition that our achievement is constructed on the filmiest of foundations—a false self. This false self propped us up helping us to survive loveless conditions. Faced with the weight of a new, successful self, the fear is that “I” will collapse. And often, collapse is chosen as a way of relieving the anxiety. This is the curious phenomena of self-sabotage. What Gay Hendricks calls “upper-limiting”.

What Is the “Fantasy Bond”?

The “fantasy bond”, as defined by Firestone,  is the imaginary connection we formed with our our mothers, and subsequently family) in the face of emotional neglect, isolation, and abuse. This false connection is then projected on to our intimate others as adults. “Bond” here means bondage, as in limitation of freedom and not a positive emotional connection to mother.

The fantasy bond is a substitute for the love and care that may be missing in the infants environment…it is created to deal with the intolerable pain and anxiety that arise when the infant is faced with excessive frustration”.

Through this false unity, we convince ourselves that we are not alone. We pretend a supportive connection was present that actually was not. We fantasize that we were loved when we were not loved—despite what those (parents) charged with caring for us say.  They do not want to face the truth. The “truth” is the quality of the feelings and the actual tenderness (or not) between mother/father and child.

Firestone soberly concludes that the child is always more expendable than the parent’s defences. When an individual is coming to awareness of the truth of that matter, the impulse to denial is deep and the illusion of being loved will be fiercely defended. And if the family discovers that the individual is threatening to reveal the truth of what actually happened, it can be equally fierce in defending the illusion, by attacking the sibling who is waking up to reality.

The fantasy bond is a way of surviving the unimaginable truth that we were, in fact,  on our own before we could actually be on our own. We had to find ways to “self-mother”—which is, in reality, not possible. It’s part of the fantasy creation that mother is actually there and we’re okay. We turn inward for gratification not outward to the world.  The first order of business is to suppress the feelings of terror (of being annihilated) and inconsolable sorrow (that we are motherless).

When we were very young, we knew that something was very wrong—namely we were on our own. Those in charge of keeping us alive can’t be bad. We need them to be good.  So we form a belief that it’s not them who are bad. It’s me. This unconscious belief that “I am bad” is buried deep in the unconscious, but it acts as a saboteur whenever we show ourselves, or are shown, kindness by others.

We won’t let ourselves be loved. It creates too much anxiety to receive what we didn’t receive when we needed it, and this threatens to equilibrium of the fantasy bond.

The fantasy bond promotes the illusion of self-sufficiency. We don’t need anyone. We can satisfy our wants internally. When the abuse and/or neglect is acute, this self-mothering fantasy develops into schizophrenia, the full-blown expression of radical self-mothering, of not needing anyone or anything, and turning absolutely to fantasy to sustain oneself. We start to talk to ourselves, and our selves talk back. When somebody comes into the life of the individual, who has been labelled as such, with the offer of care and nurture, it will be at first rejected as a threat to the self-mothering fantasy.

This is only the extreme end of continuum. Most individuals and most societies walk around in bondage to this imaginative connection and function “normally”.  When the fantasy bond is in tact and we enter into adult intimate relationships, this defence system is exposed, and we experience anxiety. Ironically, the anxiety can be triggered by “good” events as readily as bad events.

As mentioned above, this is because such experiences throw us into an experience of being an individual, reminding us of the false individuality of our self-mothering strategy.

And it leaves us dangling in a world, and with a self-concept, that is now expected to live up to the higher order of achievement.  But inside we feel that this is too much for us. We are overwhelmed, because much of the newly acquired success was achieved on a flimsy foundation. We had to “prop” ourselves up falsely to deal with the repressed secret that we feel helpless. We have exceeded the capacity of our propping system. And thus the hockey player who finally makes it into the NHL, and becomes a drunk or addicted to cocaine. Or the person who has worked their way up to VP of the company, and comes apart at the seams—gets depressed and starts under performing.

Intimate Relationships

In matters of love, we say we want intimacy. But when we get close to it, we get anxious, which in turns causes us to regress to our early survival strategy—and equilibrium is restored, at the cost of our growth. We become childish, dependent, churlish, resentful, etc. and turn our partner into the villain who is trying to destroy us. It is a memory however. Someone did once try to destroy us. But it’s not necessarily our wife or husband.

(Although, given that our partners are likely to function with this fantasy bond in place as well, it is possible that they too are doing to us what was done to them).

An increase in vitality, in the amount of life and success and realization of goals we can tolerate, exposes the fantasy. This fantasy bond always involves the idealization of our family, particularly “mother” as a key dimension of our defence system. As we approach authentic expressions of our individuality, we feel the separation from family and from society at large (which affirms conventional morality and values at the expense of uniqueness—and exerts pressure to conform as did our early family situation).  This feeling of separation (or let’s call it our uniqueness), reminds us of an early, traumatic separation, which was unbearable. In the face of it, we regress to save ourselves from the anxiety of individuality and creative self-expression.

This regression to a state of dependency and helplessness saves us from having to face and grieve the original trauma and separation – from what we didn’t get and deserved to get. The alternative is to allow grief to have its way with us. To grieve our loss is to expose the fantasy bond, and sever the illusion of connection with mother, and the idealization of family.

The Idealization of Family

This idealization of family is supported by society’s romantic and sentimental ideas about “the family” and “family values”. The truth is, as psychohistorian, Lloyd DeMauze, has written, that entire societies have been constructed historically on the foundation of systemic child abuse—emotional neglect, physical, and sexual abuse. His research is sobering reading,  but his evidence is compelling. The bottom line is that our parents, and our parent’s parents, all the way back to the origins of civilization have been victims of violence. This is our inheritance. And this is what we are called to redeem.

This work of consciously integrating the violence that was enacted upon us has nothing to do with shaming our parents, or our parent’s parents. Rather, it is to participate in the redemption of our lineage historically and for future generations. In other words, when we do our own work, it ends with us. It is, in my opinion, the quintessential work of social justice. It is the only way violence, along with its manifestations in our social, political, and economic systems will ultimately be excised. Demonstrating, picketing, and writing our political representatives are all important. But may I suggest that  work of redeeming trauma, located in our own bodies and broken-hearts, is the blind spot in all of our concern for social justice.

Live Your Own Life Course

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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6 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Want What We Say We Want: The Fantasy Bond”

  1. To say that this explanation of the fantasy bond spoke to me, would be an understatement. Thank you so much for making it available.

  2. Dear One,

    Your explorations inspire much contemplation in me. I appreciate the ideas of yourself and others that you share.

    I remember years ago someone suggested to me that we construct a ‘false self’ that is actually a reflection of our true self that we don’t quite believe in or trust. Our work, she suggested, was to allow integration of those fragmented aspects of ourselves.

    Yes, I believe there is no love like that of a child for a parent which includes the very real survival needs we have that help drive us to create the ‘love bond’ we children perceive to have with our parents. At the same time, I believe there are many parents who do achieve authentic healthy love bonds with their children.

    Those are my quick thoughts.

    Sending love and smiles your way. Thanks for including me in your posts.


    • Thanks Aline, yes, of course, there are healthy parent/child connections. Just not as many as we would like to believe, imo. In terms of false self, yes, it is of course a perfect reflection of what an authentic self looks like in survival mode. It’s only false relative to the expression of self that emerges when we feel safe.

  3. Hi Bruce,
    I was slow in reading your last post but found it to be extremely relevant. There is much here that is similar to Michael Brown’s take on family relationships, but it appears that Robert Firestone is somewhat less forgiving. And yes, I had always been stymied by the comments attributed to Jesus regarding family. But, it seems to me, if I give up on my detached (not necessarily unloving) mother and decide that I won’t have anything more to do with her, I am simply proving that I have been irredeemably hurt and do not have the strength to persevere and give her the love she needs from me. If I can’t give love to her then she certainly has ruined me! But I know I am not ruined. I can love. She can love, too. It’s just going to take a great deal of understanding and patience. She is near the end of her life so I need to make the most of the time we have left.
    Warm regards,

    • Thanks Ann, yes, there is a difference between Stone and Brown here. And I would say, Stone and Jesus as well. One can choose to stay in relationship as long as it is not abusive. The difference is that if you’ve grieved, you’ve stopped expecting that your unmet needs will finally be met, and you look for this elsewhere. Jesus was giving an alternative – the community of the vulnerable, a place where you’d never be intentionally hurt, but also a place, a community whose member’s eyes were wide open.


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