Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Fantasizing about another person may seem like a harmless indulgence, but it actually draws us closer to temptation and can increase the risk of being unfaithful. In the same way that dwelling on worries and possible catastrophes fuels anxiety and makes fears more vivid, immersion in fantasy can enhance, rather than quench, our longings. Dreaming provides a familiar example of how imagination has the power to cross the line and blend into real life. We all can relate to having an intense dream about someone, and finding the feelings from the dream temporarily spilling into our waking experience of the person.
Our Inner Dialogue Affects Our Thoughts and Feelings
How we manage our thoughts when they come into our mind (our “inner dialogue”) directly affects how we feel and what we do. If we use this to our advantage, we can have a potent tool to manage our state of mind and have more control over ourselves. Alternatively, we can give in to “natural” instincts and thought patterns and see what happens when they take over.
Jeremy, 42, was bright and outgoing - though as a boy he was shy, insecure and lonely. In high school he was convinced that any girl he liked would be out of his league and would not like him. He coped with these painful feelings by using his imagination, comforting himself with sexual scenarios in which any girl he liked would fall in love with him. Jeremy was never inappropriate with anyone and kept these fantasies a secret.
As an adult, Jeremy was active socially and happily married with a satisfying sex life. Still, he continued in the vivid fantasy life he had as a boy, habitually imagining scenarios about various women who crossed his path. Though Jeremy’s self-image seemed positive, unconsciously he carried with him the deeply ingrained, buried sense of himself as rejected and unlovable, and continued to use the power he found in his mind to abolish this perception of himself. Jeremy never sought help for this issue, since he believed that fantasizing was harmless, and that he was no different than other men.
Jeremy frequently fantasized about Zooey, a single co-worker at the same firm. He had made a commitment to himself never to let on to her about these fantasies, knowing that doing so could put him at greater risk for acting on them. Jeremy described his relationship with Zooey as neutral. There had never been any flirtation between them and Jeremy never felt any special connection with her other than a private attraction.
Eventually, Zooey decided to leave the firm for another job. As the two of them were saying goodbye, Zooey suddenly confessed to Jeremy that she had been fantasizing about him over the last several years. To his surprise, Jeremy found himself excitedly blurting out that he had actually been fantasizing about her too. At that juncture Zooey reached out to him to say goodbye, kissing him on the lips. Despite having breached his own boundaries, Jeremy rationalized to himself that he was still safe, since he had informed Zooey that he was happily married.
Previously, Jeremy’s fantasies had seemed safely compartmentalized. However, Zooey’s unexpected confession instantly dissolved the fragile line separating fantasy and reality, making Jeremy’s fantasy suddenly come true. In this confusing zone where the two worlds blend, acting in ways previously contained to the fantasy world can feel instinctive. After all, one has already “been there” in one’s mind.
Jeremy found himself drawn into an excited, infatuated state that felt irresistible. Following the farewell incident, he and Zooey exchanged various texts and phone calls, a new occurrence. Jeremy said that he didn’t want to have an affair, and had no intention of doing so. Nevertheless, he was reluctant to follow his therapist’s recommendation to cut off contact entirely and make the ending of his relationship with Zooey final.
How Therapy Helps Us Focus on Adult Self 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.
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.