NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Relationships: Falling In Love With the Fantasy Rather Than the Reality

Many people who get into a relationship make the mistake of falling in love with what they see as the other person's potential rather than accepting the person as s/he actually is.  In my professional experience as a psychotherapist, this is especially true of women--although men also fall into this trap.  So, I'm going to address this issue from the woman's perspective, but it applies to everyone. This issue often brings people into therapy, which can help to identify the underlying issues and resolve the problem (see my article: The Problem With Trying to Change and "Improve" Your Partner and Are You In Love With Him or Your Fantasy of Him?).

Relationships: Falling In Love With the Fantasy of His "Potential" Rather Than the Reality of Who He  Is

It's not that people don't change.  Make no mistake--many people do change. As a psychotherapist, I see this every day.  People come to therapy with a desire to make positive changes, work hard in therapy and gradually make those changes over time.   Most of the time, those changes have a positive impact in their personal life as well as the lives of those who are near and dear to them.

The problem arises when the woman becomes so fixated on what she sees as his potential and her codependent need to change her partner that she loses sight of the fact that time is passing and he's not changing (see my article: Relationships: Overcoming the Need to Rescue Your Loved Ones as Part of a Codependent Pattern).

For many women, it's as if the fantasy of what they want materializes before their eyes and rather than seeing the person in front of them, they almost see their partner as being already transformed.

This often creates problems in the relationship.  Even when the man is in agreement with the changes that the woman wants to see, he's aware that, on some level, he's not "measuring up" to the woman's standards or that he's "falling short" in some way.

It's even worse when the man doesn't want to change.  He might want to please his partner, but if he doesn't see the need to change, he will often feel that his partner doesn't think he's good enough so it makes him feel insecure.

Whether the man wants to change or not, the constant reminder from the partner that he's not where she thinks he should be is often a source of conflict and destroys many relationships.

People often show who they are when they're in a relationship.  As the late Maya Angelou wisely said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."

If time has passed and he either can't or won't change, it's up to his partner to decide if she can accept him as he is or if she needs to let him go (see my article: Letting Go of Hope That's Based on Denial).

Letting go of someone you love can be excruciating, but it's usually better than remaining in a fantasy or making futile attempts to force change on someone (see my article: Should You Stay or Should You Leave Your Relationship?).

Often the problem with focusing on the fantasy rather than the reality is rooted in early childhood trauma, which can be resolved in trauma therapy (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences From the Past).

Fictionalized Vignette:  Falling In Love With the Fantasy Rather Than the Reality of Who He Actually Is:
The following fictionalized vignette is a common example of how someone can get stuck in this fantasy trap and how working in trauma therapy can help:

Two years into her relationship with Jack, Sara felt deeply unhappy, angry and frustrated with the state of Jack's financial affairs.

A year into their relationship, Jack moved into Sara's apartment.  This only made matters worse because Sara was able to see first hand the full extent of Jack's impulsive spending problems.  They were arguing almost every day about what she called his "irresponsible" and "immature" behavior when it came to managing his money.

She told her psychotherapist that Jack never tried to hide that he was heavily in debt, he wasn't making progress in resolving his problem, and that he refused to get help:

"I tried to do everything to help him change," Sara told her therapist during their first session, "I encouraged him to attend Debtor's Anonymous meetings.  I've begged him to go to therapy.  I helped him to develop a budget that he never follows.  I even lent him money to pay off his credit cards, but he continues to max out his credit cards, and he hasn't paid me back.  His parents have also bailed him out numerous times.  He's a great guy in every other way and I can see how he could make a great husband and father--if only he would change his impulsive spending habits. We're both in our mid-30s and we've talked about getting married and having children.  I don't want to wait too long or I might not be able to have kids.  But I can't marry him while he's so irresponsible.  I don't know what else I can do, and I'm afraid he's feeling more ashamed and angry every time I complain."

When her psychotherapist asked Sara what she wanted to accomplish in therapy, Sara said that she wanted to learn to be "more patient" with Jack rather than scolding him.  She feared that if she couldn't be more patient with him, their relationship would soon end, and she knew she would be "devastated" if that happened.

The therapist could see that Sara was very focused on "fixing" Jack rather than dealing with her own unhappiness in the relationship.  It was obvious that, despite everything that she had seen, Sara was still looking at Jack through a distorted fantasy lens rather than the actual person who was before her eyes.  She felt her dilemma was that she couldn't change him nor could she accept him as he was.

As they continued to explore this issue in the therapy sessions, Sara's therapist tried to help Sara to imagine what it might be like if they had a crystal ball and they could see that Jack would continue to refuse to get help and that he would never change.

At first, Sara resisted trying to imagine their relationship with no change in Jack.  She continued to hold onto the image of the "potential Jack" rather than the "actual Jack."  She said she couldn't  understand how he could be so wonderful in every other way and yet he remained stuck with regard to his impulsive spending.

But, as time went on, Sara began to gradually focus on her own feelings rather than focusing on Jack.  She considered the possibility that Jack might not change, and this was a painful process for her.  She still felt ambivalent about completely accepting this possibility.

Then, one day Sara came into her therapy session looking more dejected than usual.  She told her therapist that she and Jack had a huge argument after she found out that he spent his half of the money they were saving for a mortgage down payment frivolously--he bought a race horse.

Not only did he not consult her before he bought the horse, but he felt justified in doing it.  He told her that he saw it as an investment and he couldn't understand why she was so upset.

Going through this painful argument was what finally got Sara to let go of her denial and see Jack clearly as he was rather than as she wanted him to be.  She knew she couldn't accept him as he was and, initially, she blamed him for ruining their lives when it became obvious to her that she had to end the relationship.

Over time, with the help of her psychotherapist, Sara was able to see her part the problems.  She saw that she had been holding onto an unrealistic fantasy about Jack.  She also gained insight into the connection between her early wish to change her father, who destroyed her family with his impulsive spending, and her wish to change Jack.  She accepted that she couldn't change her father or Jack.

Using EMDR  (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, a form of trauma therapy, helped Sara to heal her past and current emotional wounds so she could move on with her life (see my articles: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Focusing on a fantasized potential (rather than the actuality of who he is) is a trap.  It keeps people stuck in a future fantasy of "what could be" rather than "what is" and "what won't change."

This perception is damaging to both partners individually and together in the relationship.

From a superficial perspective, it might be hard to understand why someone would remain frozen in this position, the dilemma becomes clearer when viewed from the perspective of the impact of early trauma.

Trauma therapy, like EMDR, can help someone who is stuck in this dilemma to overcome the current situation as well as the earlier trauma that is triggering it.

Getting Help in Therapy
If this article resonates with you, rather than remaining stuck, you could benefit from getting help in therapy.

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to understand your dilemma, make connections with your past and heal current and past trauma so you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with adult individuals.

I also work with couples using Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.