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?