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, and this in turn creates anxiety. it is the anxiety of being an individual responsible for our own life. You’d think this would be a good thing, and if it’s authentic, it is. But very often this 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 is a kind of propping system, but faced with the weight of a new, successful self, the fear is that “I” will collapse. And, in fact, collapse is chosen as a way of relieving the anxiety.
Our achievement of individuality threatens the fantasy bond that helped us survive emotional neglect, abuse, double-binds, and the equilibrium we achieved that became our personality. This achievement of individuality, and increased vitality, throws us into a naked realization that we were alone for the most part growing up, trying to grow ourselves up as best we could. With this realization grief enters for what actually happened in our formative years. We either allow the grief to dissolve the desperate fantasy of self-sufficiency, or we regress to a time, place, and orientation when our fantasy functioned to keep us safe. If we choose the former, then we orient to the external world, consciously ask for the support we need, engage the world, and allow our vitality to engender deep pleasure and satisfaction. If we choose the latter, we revert to the equilibrium, which has the defensive purpose of reducing the anxiety of being a fully alive individual, and is a form of living death. There is a period, therefore, in becoming a unique individual when we need to consciously endure the anxiety becoming the person we always wanted to be.
What Is the “Fantasy Bond”?
The “fantasy bond” 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 were not alone. We pretend a supportive connection was present that actually was not. We fantasize that we were loved when we were not loved—except perhaps in the imagination of those charged with caring for us, because 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 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 acquired this label (there is actually no such thing as “a” schizophrenic”) with the offer of care and nurture, it will be at first rejected as a threat to the self-mothering fantasy.
But this is only the extreme end of continuum. Most individuals and most societies walk around in bondage to this imaginative connection and function “normally”. But as Bruce Cockburn puts it, “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse”. 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.
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, 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.
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.
I am persuaded that Jesus was a redeemer—not in the traditional sense of dying for our sins once and for all on the cross. Nobody, including Jesus, can do this work on our behalf. Rather, his commitment to the redemption of violence in the human heart was aimed right at the institution of the family. I find it fascinating that the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth which have stumped New Testament scholars for a couple thousand years—the so-called “hard sayings”—mostly relate to his teachings on the family. He did not sentimentalize or romanticize the family.
You must “hate” your family, he says, if you want to follow him. And again, his true family are those who know the will of God and do it (and not his biological family who were standing outside, mother included) waiting to see him when he dropped this bomb. ). He came, not to bring peace, but a sword—a sword that would divide family members against each other. These teachings only makes sense, in my opinion, if he was consciously undermining the widespread violence against children in his day. It also makes sense of why his disciples rebuked those who brought children to him to be blessed (because they had incorporated the violence of patriarchal values against children), and then he took them in his arms and blessed them, saying “for to such as these belongs the kingdom of God.”
The Kingdom of God, in distinction from the Kingdom of Caesar, is simply a safe place, a space where you can let down your vigilance, relax, and breathe again. It is the promise of a new community that they will not violate you, as you have been violated. It is the assurance of a tender father (Abba or Daddy) who loves you as you deserve to be loved. This understanding of the Kingdom of God involves minimal metaphysics. And yet it is only when we can cease our vigilance and be ruled by something other than our survival instinct that we have half a chance of experiencing the divine order. He invited others to follow him, to be “born again” into a different family and a new order of being—what life looks like when you do not feel threatened and do have to defend yourself. It is safe to say that Jesus had broken the fantasy bond. To the extent that families are the institutional vessels of conformity to a violent status quo, Jesus taught, they too must be left behind. And then maybe what we say we want will be actually what we want.