Disappointment Triggers Relationship Problems
It does not take long for the fantasy script of an emerging relationship to be confronted with a differing reality. “You are not acting like my dream lover.” “That is no way to be.” “You prefer football to talking with me?” “You should have asked me to move in with you.” Initially, the desire to remain within the love fantasy may blind one to “reality.” Nevertheless, reality will inevitably intrude, resulting in frustration and disappointment.
In response to disappointment, desire can turn into demand. “I insist that you be my fantasy figure, that you reassure me, live with me, never leave me.” Demand can trigger anger and withdrawal. “Get away from me, stop smothering me, nothing makes you happy.”
This combination of demand and withdrawal can start a vicious circle: The more you demand, the more I withdraw — and the more I withdraw, the more you demand. There are many versions of this. “The more you pursue, the more I run away; the more you love me, the more ambivalent I get; the more you criticize me, the more mistakes I make.” Vicious circles “lock in” a problem. Differences are polarized and escalate toward an all-or-nothing showdown.
The Emergence of a Crisis
Faced with disappointment and the vicious circle, the positive love fantasy usually teeters and collapses. What emerges is a negative fantasy that is usually composed of memories and fears, the residue of painful previous relationships. All of a sudden, it seems like this new relationship is perversely turning into a replay of previous relationship disasters. “I am not being listened to — again”; “I am being smothered — again”; “My needs are not being met — again.”
This can trigger accusations: “It’s your fault.” “What’s wrong with you?” “You have to change.” “Am I really bad?” “What is going on here?” “Am I really the loser she says I am?” Reality and fantasy get mixed up. There is probably a little bit of truth in the accusations, but dumping the whole negative fantasy onto the other person is never fair or right. Fantasies, whether fair or not are, however, the basis of real actions. And, if you treat a person “as if” they are a certain way, the “as if” can come true. Reality can be more easily altered than the rigid categories of anxiously-held fantasies.
It should be noted that the positive love fantasy probably always had this shadow of negative earlier experiences. Indeed, in large part, the love fantasy grew out of negative earlier experiences. Just as a child from an unhappy home will dream of a happy family, we make up our “love movie” as a compensation for the love problems we have suffered in our families, with our peers, and with previous partners.
The problem is that this type of positive fantasy will be unrealistic. The dream of a happy family is very different from the actual experience of growing up in a healthy family that has its share of conflicts, disappointments, separations, and losses. The dream does not carry a history of learning how to handle problems and resolve differences.
The negative fantasies, emerging from disappointed positive fantasies, can push the relationship to the brink of breaking up. All relationships have probably reached this brink, and some do not survive. It is important to find out how the other person handles this brink. Do they become abusive? Do they clam up? Will they be assertive and sympathetic? Do they run? Do they keep communications open?