love psychoanalysis

obsessing with the fantasy of another

I learned this week that we don’t obsess over real people but over our fantasies of them. I learned this on myself, but I’m willing to generalize, just for the heck of it, and also because it seems right. In fact, this seems right in such a trivial way, it barely stands repeating. Yet it came as a revelation to me.

This thing is, if you had told me some time ago, when I was obsessing over someone, that I was obsessing over my fantasy of that someone, it wouldn’t have helped at all. I would have probably said, “Yeah, I bet you’re right,” then carried on with my obsession and the behaviors it dictates.

But what I learned this week goes a bit further than that. I learned that, when we obsess over someone, we have lost touch with the reality of that person. Okay, this sounds trivial too, but bear with me. Let’s say that someone obsesses over a famous person. There’s plenty of people who do that; it is so common, there are laws against acting on such an obsession. In this case, there is no real relationship between the person of your obsession and you. This is someone who is simply and solely a fantasy.

But let’s say you fall in love with someone because they are groovy and cool and lovely in all the right ways. Let’s imagine that. And then, let’s say, these people don’t pan out in quite the way you want them to. They are a little less groovy or cool or lovely, or maybe they are just as cool and groovy and lovely but they don’t have enough time for you, or you think they don’t. Maybe you want to be around them all the time but the dictates of real life don’t allow that. They have to go to work, you have to go to work. Or, let’s say, you start worrying that they don’t love you any more, or not as much as they did at the beginning, in the golden times of your relationship. You worry so much that this anguish gnaws at the delicate roots that keep your love for them anchored to the earth. They tell you over and over that they adore you, but it’s not enough. You feel bereft with loss.

This is clearly a pathological situation. In fact, chances are you entered this love relationship already in a state of extreme psychological weakness. People with a solid sense of themselves and others don’t fall into these traps.

Now what you have is a tremendous infatuation that nonetheless leaves you miserable. What you do, then, is detach yourself from the reality and attach to the fiction, the fantasy of the other person. There is a mirror person of that person in your mind who can be and is the perfection you seek. You need this person. You need this person more than you need food or sleep. So you stop eating and sleeping and work really, really hard at sustaining this fantasy. It’s tremendous work. It’s soul-killing work. It’s misery work. It is hell, really.

What happens is that, in most cases, you find that person. Magical moments do occur, and confirm to you that everything is okay. You tell yourself that you love person X, not your fantasy of person X. You tell yourself that person X is attainable. She is there for you. You can have her. You just must work really hard at keeping her. You can’t let her slip away from you.

This obsessiveness leads to separations. No one can endure interacting with someone who is in love with a fantasy of them. If they are healthy, they’ll leave. If they are not healthy, they’ll stay and you’ll kill each other. If you, the obsessed one, are prone to violence, you will become violent.

The solution is to connect to the real person. If you have the real person, you won’t need the fantasy. But some of us don’t know how to connect to real persons. Somehow, we didn’t make it to class the day the teacher explained how to go about doing that and we never got a chance to catch up. We missed that boat. We have been stuck in fantasy-land (misery-land) ever since.

When people think of psychoanalysis as obsolete or burdensome, they don’t realize that there is no other way, for people who missed the class where the teacher explained how to attach to real people, to learn it. There is no other form of therapy that can teach you that. The reason is that psychoanalysis alone offers you the chance to build inside yourself the structures that missing that class forfeited you. Only trained psychoanalysts can engage in the lattice-work of transference and counter-transference necessary for this delicate reconstruction.

Now I know many people who had horrible experiences with psychoanalysis. I also know people who had horrible experiences with friends, husbands, wives, students, fellow drivers, and dogs. Most people don’t stop seeking and constructing friendships because one or two friendships went sour. People remarry. People get new dogs.

I hope all people who never learned how to attach to real people give themselves a chance to find an excellent psychoanalyst, because there are some miseries in life which should not be endured. Being unable to attach meaningfully to others is one such misery.

Art by Carolyn Cole