I have a post on emotional abuse at Health Central in which I compared the behavior of a depressed man who acts abusively with that of a true emotional abuser. It occurred to me after writing the post that fantasies of a perfect future are important for both.
As I’ve written in the Longing to Leave series, at one time fantasies of escape from my marriage seemed to provide the answer to my problems with depression. I didn’t think of it in that way, though. I was entranced by envisioning life in another place, a perfect relationship with someone else, the work I really wanted to do. It’s in the nature of fantasies that they are perfect. Everything will be fine – somewhere else.
That sort of fantasy took me away from the present, but there is another kind that can take you into a present relationship in a deeply distorted way. I think this is closer to what emotional abusers envision. It also fits an early experience of mine.
An abuser is not always consciously manipulative and setting a trap to lure in a new victim. As he begins a new relationship, he is very likely feeling genuinely in love. The problem is that the woman he’s in love with is not the real woman he’s seeing. It’s the woman of his fantasy. His earlier relationships have failed because, in his view, the woman had turned against him and become abusive herself.
By contrast, he lavishes praise on his new “find” as the woman he has always imagined, completely different from the monsters he’s known before. His behavior is so charming, loving, dazzling that the woman he’s dating may well feel the same about him. Here’s exactly the right man for her, the one she’d hoped to meet all along.
The problem is that she will never be able to fulfill his dream – no one could. He hates real women. For he only wants someone who is completely submissive to his will, responsive to his every need and lacking any independence or interests of her own. He’s painted a picture in his mind that has a place for the perfect woman in it but surrounded entirely by everything that will satisfy him. She’s a cipher and servant of his will.
Several others have filled that place in the picture, but, in his eyes, eventually ripped the canvas and destroyed the beautiful details. So each of them was cut out as the destroyer she was. He’s been searching since then for the right model whom he can pose exactly as he wishes. His new partner, of course, will sooner or later rebel against his control and so prove herself just as rotten as all the others. It’s inconceivable to him that he could be wrong. Instead, he is likely to see himself as the victim.
When I was in college, I fell in love with someone who was stepping into my own fantasy, but one that served a different purpose. What I envisioned wasn’t someone who would be compliant with all my needs and under my control. I had no sense of myself as always right. Just the opposite, I felt as if I had little worth as a person. What I needed was a woman at my side to compensate for what I lacked and demonstrate to the world that I could attract the love of a wonderful person. I was nothing alone, I was everything with her.
Because she met this need so well, I never looked deeply into her needs and hopes. We shared a great deal and were genuinely close in many ways. But I was never in touch with who she really was, and, after a couple of years, she left. In my fantasy that wasn’t possible. She was the prop to my sense of being a whole person. Without her, I literally collapsed. I didn’t in the least hate her for breaking up my happiness. Instead I beat myself up, felt lost and worthless as a person all over again.
So, even though I was just the opposite of an abuser (he is convinced he’s always right while I’m always wrong), the fantasies in both cases block out the needs and full personalities of the women we think we’re in love with. In both cases, the women are drawn in to support the fantasy. That always comes first rather than the need for the shared and reciprocated intimacy of a strong relationship.
I think every couple idealizes one another at the beginning of a relationship, when everything seems perfect. For men and women in relationships that last, the idealized images give way to a realistic sense of the rich human qualities of their partners. There’s certainly nostalgia for those early days but an acceptance that life gets more complicated over time.
When a partner props up your identity and your sense of reality, that sort of acceptance is too uncomfortable to face. If the fantasy is broken, an abuser has a ready explanation that it’s the woman’s fault. A depressed man like me explains the break as entirely the result of his failings. In either case, the partner is more an object rather than a human being.
Have you experienced this kind of dynamic? Were you the one with the fantasy or were you its victim?
I know this is an old post but it really resonates with me. I believe what you describe about having low self-worth and needing a woman to compensate for that is precisely what has drawn my husband to his affair partner.
She mirrors the success and social acceptance he feels is lacking in himself, whereas after 17 years, I have failed to reflect that back to him.
I wonder if he will ever wake up to any awareness of this or if he will simply stay with her until she no longer mirrors the qualities he need.
Will C says
Yeah, that’s actually very interesting to me. My wife and I have a dynamic which speaks to all this very directly, although in an unexpected way–at least to me.
I am a(n) habitually, depressive person, and the notion of projecting ideals onto another person strikes very directly to my personality, and I have been aware of myself doing this since high school. But rather than shunning the practice, I have instead struggled to bring the idealized version of who I’m looking for, closer and closer to the actuality of the women I find myself attracted to, and vice versa. In my wife I found a pleasant compromise of both, a woman I can not only live with, take care of and look up to, but who will (at least sometimes) help prop-up my ideals and beliefs. She’s wonderful, usually.
However, her background consists entirely of abusive, manipulative, controlling relationships. The similarity of dynamics between the abuser/victim and the depressive/idolized is, I believe, what allowed her to find me familiar and attractive in the first place. Even after having been together for more than ten years, she still finds me mysterious and surprising, sometimes even frustrating. Because (up to a point) I conform very consistently to what she expects, she gets very comfortable with my behavior, when, abruptly, that point is reached where she expects aggressive or controlling behavior, I amaze her by responding in some entirely unexpected way.
Unfortunately, because she does not really understand her own psychological dynamics, sometimes this situation leads to a total breakdown in communication. Because of the abuse she suffered, in those moments where her expectations go unfulfilled, she often projects her fears into that void, and if she cannot keep faith in me, her trust falters. Then a calamitous argument nearly always ensues, wherein she sends herself to hell (and I go with her) and no amount of any communication, explanation or understanding on my part seems able to break through the barrier between us. She jumps directly to wanting a divorce, splitting up our possessions, telling me what I can or can’t have and making plans for leaving. Occasionally, she goes so far as to become violent, to defend herself against some mis-perceived threat from me. Once, after throwing chairs and cutlery and assorted other things at me, she called the police to protect her. (They subsequently did nothing–aside from scolding her for calling.) She’s coming around to the idea that this is PTSD, an illusory after-image of bygone nightmares, and I have hope that I can eventually get her into treatment, which as of now, she doesn’t trust.
But the similarity of the dynamics you wrote about directly bears on us. I’ve been trying to isolate the differences between the two, in order to effectively break-down that barrier in communication between my wife and me, without her seeing my behavior as some sort of attack on her defenses. Unfortunately for me, I have little empathic understanding of an abusive mentality, so I have great difficulty comprehending, first, where the two psychologies are divergent, and second, where the outward appearance of those divergences may be mis-perceived as a similarity.
Any ideas how I should proceed in my self-education?
Hi, Will –
That’s a powerful story to talk about here – painful and inspiring at the same time. You have such a fine-tuned awareness of the emotional and psychological strains you both live with. It’s amazing to have the detachment to see so much and remain completely involved in the relationship. It would be so easy to wind up blaming her, dreaming of a way out, and shutting yourself off from seeing her in a real way. Whatever difficulties your wife may have – alongside your depression – it’s remarkable to me that you can still learn from each other, deal with emotional turbulence and still appreciate one another’s best qualities. Congratulations!
Thanks for writing here about such difficult parts of your lives together – as well as the good ones.
That was very interesting the understanding of your own psychology is amazing ! I don’t answers for you I’m on here trying to get some understanding on my own relationship that I’m currently about to leave. But I just had to reply to your post ….. I really hope the universe shows and gives you the right answers through understanding and education you and you wife need ! May peace and love be with you both ????????♀️
What you describe is an infantile fantasy…that someone will take care of you, be perfectly attuned and meet all of your needs. The problem with this is that you are eventually disappointed and what matters is how you deal with it. I have never been on either side of this in a romantic relationship, but I have with friendship and family. Usually, I am the one who becomes the person’s infantile fantasy and end up becoming hurt and completely losing contact with that person because they are so angry…but it is their issue.
As a child, I was also emotionally abuse which has more effect on my life than I want to admit.
Hi, CC –
I haven’t thought of such fantasies in that way but you’re right about them being infantile. Perhaps it’s a psychic attempt to make up for the lack of having all needs met as a child – maybe a sense of entitlement too. This is what I should have but was never given – instead of this inner trouble and all the work of getting real with a partner. I came to be friends with that woman I broke up with and could see how painful it was for her to have one foolish guy after another idealize her in the way I had. It’s great that you’re able to see it as the other person’s issue. I try to do that with everyone who treats me strangely – clearly acting from some inner need of theirs. But I can’t always keep that distance.
Hi John, I experienced this with my first marriage. I think in that situation it was a bit of both. We both had ideals and didn’t see parts of the other person.
Hi, Evan –
You raise another interesting question. Is it the blindness to certain sides of the partner that leads to a split – or could it also be a case of the blind suddenly seeing something they just don’t like in the other person? And that new knowledge leads to problems. I guess it could be either.