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When Fantasy Crosses the Line

How Therapy Helps Us Focus on Adult Selves and Values

Therapy focused on helping Jeremy access a more integrated sense of himself that included his mature, adult self and the values that were important to him. He began to recognize that despite his words to the contrary to Zooey, he was unconsciously encouraging the continuation of a fantasy between them, even knowing that Zooey secretly hoped that they might be together some day. Jeremy became aware of how easily he could hurt Zooey and, in the process, blindly destroy his marriage and family – which, to him, mattered more than anything.

In an excited state, Jeremy had lost touch with himself and his “higher mind,” including his executive functions, which enable brakes, judgment and thoughtful consideration of consequences. Therapy brought into focus aspects of himself that had been compartmentalized and thereby blocked from experience.

Soon Jeremy began to feel scared — a positive sign that reality was starting to intrude. With a greater awareness of internal conflict and fear, Jeremy gained the strength and perspective to end contact with Zooey. Upon doing so, Zooey suddenly showed another side of herself. She became enraged and threatening, telling Jeremy what she “really” thought of him. That shattered the fantasy entirely and catapulted Jeremy into full-blown reality.

Fantasies can provide a reliable source of comfort and stimulation. When people are not reliable sources of comfort for children, fantasies can become compulsive and repetitive, developing into symptoms. These symptoms may continue into adulthood, as in Jeremy’s case, even when such comfort may no longer be needed by the adult self, and when real sources of love are available.

Fantasy Provides the Fuel for Affairs

Fantasy provides the fuel for affairs. It helps lead up to them, it perpetuates them, and it makes it difficult to back away or let go. Failure to believe that one is caught in a fantasy is a central driving force. Swept away by the addictive, intoxicating power of the “rush,” romantic fantasy is confused with the complexity of intimate relationships and real life. Men who have difficulty emotionally letting go of an affair even after having cut off contact typically are fueling this process by continuing to fantasize about the relationship.

Recent MRI research shows that during the infatuation state of romance, or fantasy, the brain shows the same changes as does the brain on cocaine. It leads to continuous pleasure-seeking and immediate gratification. Even when Jeremy gleaned some awareness that he was moving into a danger zone, infatuation’s effect was like that of a drug, making it difficult for him to put on the brakes.

Typically, men who seek therapy because they are having an affair are conventional, well-meaning, and moral, often with life-long histories of unidentified emotional neglect. Their ingrained patterns of being overly responsible, self-sacrificing and accommodating make them especially vulnerable to needing to break out and seek relief from a feeling of burden and lack of vitality. As their weakened threshold of restraint is overwhelmed by temptation, it’s not long before they are headed for a freefall.

Affairs and Fantasies Are a Way to Protest Adult Responsibility

Affairs and fantasies provide an escape from reality. In the fantasy world, the unrequited childhood need to be mirrored, admired and merged with another is indulged. It produces the intoxicating feeling the child never experienced, and leads to the false belief that this euphoric feeling is something real and sustainable in the present. Giving up the fantasy can be like breaking an addiction, and can activate previously unconscious feelings of loss and emptiness.

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Identifying and anticipating risky behaviors protects us from being overtaken by feelings and reduces opportunities for trouble. This strategy requires being “onto” ourselves about our vulnerability to falling prey to temptation. It involves making intentional decisions to set clear boundaries and limits on ourselves, and distancing from behaviors and situations that increase risk — including fantasy. Alternatively, denying risk, avoiding thoughtful consideration of what’s at stake, minimizing small boundary infractions, or overestimating one’s resolve all set the stage for flirting with danger and tempting fate.

When Fantasy Crosses the Line

Lynn Margolies, Ph.D.

Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, and has completed her internship and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped people from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions. Dr. Margolies has worked in inpatient, outpatient, residential and private practice settings. She has supervised others, and consulted to clinics, hospitals, universities, newspapers. Dr. Margolies has appeared in media -- on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. Visit her website at

APA Reference
Margolies, L. (2018). When Fantasy Crosses the Line. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.