At least once in our lives, most of us have ended a great first date ready to pick out china patterns and baby names. Sometimes this great first date evolves into a genuine relationship that may lead to actual china and actual babies. More likely, the evening doesn’t lead to a petal-strewn aisle and we go on, eventually finding someone with whom we can share a life.
Some people, however, never move beyond fantasy relationships. They do this by repeatedly picking people who are unavailable (married), inappropriate (teacher, boss) or emotionally distant. They spend inordinate chunks of their waking hours imagining a romance-fueled, wrinkle-free life with partners who will never meet their needs.
They spend so much time obsessing about their “relationship” that their lives become anemic. They stop being productive at work. They neglect their friends and family. They may even have trouble sleeping and eating. The only thing that holds any meaning is a relationship that doesn’t really exist.
Fantasy Exists When Reality Is Too Painful
Miss Havisham, the jilted bride in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” tries to stop time by literally stopping her wall clock on the hour she learned of her jilting. She refuses to change out of her wedding dress. She leaves her wedding cake on the table, along with her unopened gifts. She adopts a daughter, Estella, and teaches her how to be a heartbreaker so she can hurt a man the way Miss Havisham had been hurt. Unfortunately, the heart that ends up broken belongs to Miss Havisham’s young friend, Pip. Gripped by remorse, Miss Havisham stumbles, falling too close to the fireplace. Her dress catches on fire and she dies from the burns.
A brilliant student of human nature, Dickens captured the psychology of fantasy addiction: Toxic fantasy exists when reality is too painful. If Miss Havisham had faced the devastation of being jilted at the altar she might have gone on to marry someone who loved her. She also wouldn’t have used her daughter to carry out her revenge and hurt her friend, Pip, the one person who actually cared for her.
While most fantasy addicts don’t go to the extremes of Miss Havisham, they do waste precious time lost in obsession and miss opportunities for healthy relationships.
Fix Your Relationship With Yourself
The origins of fantasy addiction lie in ruptured relationships with early attachment figures. Children experience their primary caregivers as unreliable and grow up with ambivalent attachment styles. They interact with others in a way that replicates their interactions with their caregivers. A woman who fantasizes about a married man she can’t have isn’t having a meaningful relationship with him; she isn’t even in love with him. Her obsession is a mood-altering process that allows her to avoid what’s important: her relationship with herself.
Over-focusing on another person is a great way to sidestep issues in your own life. Just like alcoholics who drink when they feel overwhelmed by disappointment and frustration, fantasy addicts lose themselves in obsession so they don’t have to feel discomfort.
Unless you want to let your life go by without having actually lived it, you must fix your relationship with yourself. Here are some guidelines that every fantasy addict must follow.
Heal your childhood wounds. In order to change the way you relate to love interests, you must resolve your ambivalent relationships with your caregivers. You don’t need their involvement to do this. This is work you can do on your own in therapy and/or 12-step programs. Do not expect a relationship to fix your past; instead, work through your childhood trauma so you can have a healthy relationship.
Replace obsessions with meaningful activities. Your fantasy addiction robs you of productivity. Stop wasting time thinking about someone you can’t have. Use that time to pursue constructive interests and hobbies: sports, cooking, music, writing, photography, volunteering. Developing skills and interests is a productive use of your time and adds to your personal growth.
Have relationships with people who are available to you. If someone is married, in a serious relationship, in a position of power over you or simply emotionally distant, turn tail and run. Pursuing a relationship with anyone on this list is a recipe for despair.
Chasing after someone who will never love you just gives you another reason to feel cheated by life. But the only person who’s cheating you is you. Stop giving your power away and start changing your behaviors. Once you take accountability for your own happiness, you will be much more likely to have a relationship that’s actually worth having.