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Trauma Bonding as Fantasy Defense (World Psychiatrists and Psychologists Conference, November 2021)

Uploaded 11/15/2021, approx. 19 minute read

Dear colleagues, organizers, thank you for inviting me to the World Congress of Psychiatrists and Psychologists. I am honored to be a keynote speaker.

Today I would like to discuss fantasy.

Fantasy defends when it goes malignant, when it goes awry, what it does to you and what it does to others around you.

My name is Sam Vaknin, I am a professor of psychology in Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, and I am a professor of finance and a professor of psychology in the Outreach Program of SIAS-CIAPS, Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies.

Before I start, it is important to understand that fantasy tends to metastasize. Fantasy co-ops and hijacks every resource available to the individual. Fantasy takes over emotions, affect, cognitions, memories, psychosexuality and even one's own identity. Fantasy is addictive, its anxiolytic mitigates anxiety, it is safe, it buttresses the fantasts, grandiosity, self-idealization.

Actually, each of these dimensions of personality and functioning is mediated by the fantasy, is colored by the fantasy and is distorted by the fantasy and gradually all direct contact with and inner experience of one's psychological world and the world around, they are lost.

A robotic zombie emerges from within the fantastic space regulated by its narrative.

And so today I would like to explore four cases of fantasy, starting with trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding is a widely misunderstood concept.

Today most people, especially self-styled experts online, describe trauma bonding as a form of extreme attachment fostered by traumatizing intermittent reinforcement, hot and cold, good and bad, love you, hate you, ambivalence.

This supposedly creates trauma bonding.

If you start to think of it for a minute, you will see how ridiculous this is.

Why would such behavior create bonding?

It is because trauma bonding is way more than that, much more than that.

This is why it is nearly impossible to disentangle trauma bonding, to reverse trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding involves re-traumatization.

The abuser triggers, reactivates, unresolved conflicts from the targets or from the victim's early childhood.

John Lachcar calls it archaic wounds, based on Freud and other early psychoanalysts.

The abuser engenders a multilayered and multidimensional resonance of unrequited pain and existential angst, both old and new.

It's like replicating the past. It's like time travel.

And by doing so, the abuser assumes a maternal role. He becomes a mother, regardless of his gender.

Even a man becomes a mother. He assumes a maternal role within a shared fantasy.

At first, during the love bombing and grooming phases, and then a bit later on.

So during the love bombing and grooming phases, the abuser becomes a surrogate mother. He promises unconditional love via idealization of the target or the victim. He idealizes the target of the victim and then he gives the victim access to the idealized image.

This is perceived by the victim as a form of unconditional love. You love me no matter what. You see me as perfect.

It's addictive. It's difficult to break.

But then, at a later stage, the very same abuser becomes what Andrei Green called a dead mother. A selfish, immature, withholding, insecure and aggressively rejecting mother.

This pendulum, this abrupt switching between I'm your mother. I'm your loving mother. I idealize you. I see you as perfect. I love you as perfect. You should love yourself as a perfect being.

This is the first message.

And then the later messages, I reject you. You are imperfect. You're flawed. You're inferior.

So the transition, the abrupt transition between these two messages is what creates trauma bonding.

This is the reason for trauma bonding.

Who can give up on her real life mother? Who can give up even on her reactivated, simulated mother interject?

It's difficult to give up on mother in any way, shape or form, symbolically or in real life.

It's like getting rid of a big part of one's self.

The abuser gives his victim or target a second chance. It's a second chance at righting all the wrongs of childhood. It's a second chance at resolving conflicts. It's a second chance at attaining and receiving unconditional love. It's a second chance at being seen, at being noticed and not only being seen, but being seen as a perfect, idealized, flawless object. No one can give up on that.

So bonding sets in. And this is what we call trauma bonding. It's a reaction to a fantasy.

In this case, trauma bonding exactly like narcissism is a fantasy defense, gone awry, or eye. But it's a fantasy defense of the victim.

What is fantasy? Fantasy is a defense mechanism so powerful that it can give rise to severe mental health issues, such as narcissistic personality disorder, as well as to cognitive deficits and distortion and an impaired reality testing. This is the power of fantasy. The power of fantasy is to usurp reality and to replace it with something else which appears to be as realistic and plausible as the world.

Fantasies are either compensatory. You can't get the real thing, so you fantasize about getting it. Or fantasies could be inhibitory. You are afraid to pursue the real thing, so you fantasize about it.

All fantasies, therefore, are in some way healthy or normal regardless of their contents because they help us cope with harsh, unpalatable, unacceptable reality.

But when fantasy goes too far, it degenerates into all kinds and forms of mental illness.

Schizotypy is psychological neoteny. It involves regression to pre-self childhood.

When the self is either not constellated or not integrated, when boundaries are fuzzy, boundaries are blurred, and there is a confusion between external and internal objects. Creativity and imagination are enhanced and predisposed to fantasy.

And so fantasy, as I said, tends to metastasize. I repeat, it co-ops, it hijacks every resource available to the individual.

These emotions affect cognitions, memories, psychosexuality, even his or her identity. It is addictive, it's anxiety, because it is safe. It buttresses the Fantas grandiosety, self-idealization, because it restores a sense of inner locus of control.

You control the fantasy. You can't control reality. You control internal objects that represent people. You can't control the people that gave rise to these objects.

Actually, each of these dimensions of personality co-opted and hijacked by fantasy. Each of these types of functions, they are all mediated via the fantasy. They are collared by it, they are distorted by it, and gradually all direct contact with the inner experiences of one psychological world is lost.

The emotional investment, the cathexis in fantasy, is total, and it comes at the expense of the person's reality testing.

We can easily spot the captives of fantasy. They avoid reality. They opt for substitutive action. Their self-reported emotions, hopes, wishes, and dreams starkly contradict their actions.

We can have a client who says, for example, I crave intimacy, I love sex, and I seek love in a committed relationship, but at the same time, he chooses mostly objectifying sex with strangers or emotionally unavailable partners as a dominant practice. His intimate liaisons devolve into sexlessness, cheating, and dissolution. The proxies contradict the declaration.

Such a person also selects only inappropriate and incompatible, and therefore temporary mates, who do not constitute a threat to the integrity and longevity of the fantasy by diverging from it, by undermining the idealized, largely imagined snapshot.

The intrusion of fantasy into all areas of life, even casual ones, like, for example, casual sex, renders fantasy largely auto-erotic and solipsistic. Only a small minority of participants of both genders in fantasy actually consummate the fantasy, bodily or spiritually or psychologically.

So this is trauma body.


Let's take another type of fantasy, another case study.

Identity disturbanceCluster B patients suffer from identity disturbance. They are lifelong disappearing acts. They're emptinesses. They're pivoted on an empty schizooid core. There's nobody there. Cluster B patients are not about, they're not a presence. They are an absence.

The abuse of substances helps these patients to suspend their existence, to not be themselves for a few hours, especially around other people in social and sexual contexts. They leverage substances and they abuse them in order to obtain a persistent state of dissociation, a dissociative hiatus in life.

Because Cluster B patients are essentially nothing but dead voids. They feel alive and existent only when they are not themselves. When they are, for example, inebriated, intoxicated, wasted, drunk, or they act out when they switch into other self-states. For example, the borderline switches into a secondary psychopath. The narcissist switches into his grandiose false self.

These clients, these patients, they feel alive only when they symbolically kill themselves.

But not being oneself, denying oneself, migrating to other self-states which are essentially not you. These become a habit.

And many of these people forget how to be themselves. Being themselves feels so alien, so sad, so dull, even vaguely menacing, that they avoid being themselves assiduously and for as long as they can.

Gradually, incrementally, this overwhelming need to not be oneself, by, for example, abusing substances, this overwhelming need to deny oneself, to suspend oneself, this needing impacts all fields of life, the workplace, career, relationships, and family, including.


Another problem is that when these patients are not themselves, when they are, for example, drunk, predators of all types, sexual and emotional, take advantage of these patients. They gain access to their bodies, minds, and material possessions. They use these patients contemptuously and then they discard them. And these repeated humiliations, rejections and exploitation, exacerbate the underlying conditions, induce anxiety and depression and push the patient inexorably to harm herself and to escalate even further her attempts to vanish down the road to self-annihilation, down the rabbit hole, down the black hole.

Let us consider another manifestation of fantasy, the fantasy defense.

Case 3, fantastic grandiosity.

Fantasy involves cognitive deficits, it involves cognitive distortions. Ironically, the narcissist's grandiosity fantasy defense is less rigid than the grandiosity of either the borderline or the psychopath. Throughout his life, the narcissist is subjected to a barrage of narcissistic injuries and narcissistic mortifications. These challenges remold or entirely suspend his false self, the locus of his grandiose self-perception.

Psychopaths and borderlines do not experience any undermining of their variants of self-aggrandizement, narcissists do.

Consequently, the grandiosity of borderlines and psychopaths is immutable, not amenable to any process of learning or modification via intrusions from countervailing harsh reality.

The narcissist is much more flexible in this sense, is much less rigid. And that's because the narcissist fantasy defense is outward oriented. Its main goal is to obtain narcissistic supply.

So the narcissist must be alert and attuned to the vicissitudes in supply and in sources of supply around him. In other words, the narcissist must be embedded in the world, in some respects, much more than the borderline or the psychopath.


But all three share a fantasy of grandiosity.

And this fantasy of grandiosity dictates their lives, shapes their lives. This fantasy of grandiosity is the one which triggers self-states and pseudo-identities.

This fantasy of grandiosity dictates or at least determines which emotions and which cognitions will come to the fore and become conscious. They are molded and shaped, they are.

Narcissists, psychopaths, and borderlines are ramifications of the fantasy defense.

Let's talk about a specific type of fantasy, usually common among narcissists. It's the shared fantasy.

The term shared fantasy was coined by F. Sander, S-A-N-D-E-R, in 1989, inLiebert as editors of the middle years, New Psychoanalytic Perspectives, New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, pages 160 to 176.


Okay, that's the reference for shared fantasy.

What is a shared fantasy?

The narcissist's ability to engage in a shared fantasy rests on three pillars.

The environment has to be ruthless, easy to discard, fantastic or dreamlike in order to uphold this grandiosity, timeless perception of an eternal present so that actions do not bear consequences because there's no future, and boundless, no limit to what can be done or accomplished.

So the environment is a first precondition for the emergence of a shared fantasy.

The circumstances ought to be right, conducive to grandiose fantasies by yielding lots of money, sex, power, access, fame, celebrity or notoriety effortlessly.

In this sense, there is a psychopathic tinge or a psychopathic undercurrent in the shared fantasy.

The narcissist expects to reap the rewards of the circumstantial rewards with no commensurate investment or commitment.

The last and most important element, of course, in the shared fantasy is the intimate partner.

The narcissist's partner in constructing the foliar du, the mass psychogenic illness of the shared fantasy.

The partner in the shared fantasy has to be present to avoid abandonment anxiety, has to be submissive, fawning, undulating, playful or childlike, and has to be mothering or fathering, for example, as a business associate.

The partner has to be addicted to the narcissist.

So once the narcissist comes across the perfect confluence of environment, circumstances, and partner, he establishes a fantastic space and then he invites the partner into this fantastic space via the love bombing and grooming phase.

One major element in the fantastic space is, of course, the idealized image of the partner.

The narcissist exposes the partner to this idealized image in order to foster addiction.

The partner becomes addicted to seeing herself via the narcissist's eyes.

And then she's hooked, and then she's in, and then she's a participant in the shared fantasy.

Borderlines also have shared fantasies. They have three types actually of shared fantasy.

The fairy godmother fantasy, the princess fantasy, and the damsel in distress fantasy.

Each fantasy hails a different type of intimate partner.

The fairy godmother attracts beneficiaries of largess. The princess fantasy attracts a fawning subject, and the damsel in distress attracts rescuers and saviors.

The borderline, exactly like the narcissist, takes a snapshot, and she interjects via interjection. She takes a snapshot of her intimate partner, but is a persecutory object.

So her snapshot actually initially devalues the intimate partner, while the narcissist snapshot of his potential partner idealizes the partner.

That's a major difference between borderline dynamics and narcissistic dynamics.

In the borderline's mind, the intimate partner has the power to engulf her, has the power to harm her, has the power to cause her pain.

So the snapshot would be tinged with fear and dread and rejection and resentment and disappointment and hatred, even. It would be a persecutory object, and this inexorably leads to decompensation and acting out the equivalent of narcissistic mortification.

We can call it borderline modification.

The narcissist's shared fantasy involves perfect love, adulation. It attracts intimate partners who are willing to play the roles of fan, playmate and mother.

The narcissist first snapshots his intimate partner as an idealized object, and then as she diverges from the snapshot, converts her into a persecutory object, which induces mortification.

Discrepancies in the shared fantasy provoke the narcissist to become a primary factor one psychopath. Discrepancies in the shared fantasy provoke the borderline to become a factor two secondary psychopath.

Recklessness and fantasy are both clinical features of borderline personality disorder. And in some respects also of psychopathy, fantasy characterizes the borderline's intimate relationships as well as it does with a narcissist.

But her self destructiveness, the borderline's self destructiveness, her emotional dysregulation, her mood and ability as such, that she always sabotages what she has. As reality intrudes on the fantasy, which the borderline finds intolerable and anxiety inducing, she begins to devalue the partner. She acts out egregiously and the resulting deterioration in the quality of the bond justifies bouts of misbehavior, for example, cheating on the partner and reckless self trashing on the way to a new man with an ex-fantasy.

And like the schizoid and like the narcissist, the borderline has fantasies and intrusive dreams of socially condemned sex. She recklessly places herself repeatedly in harm's way in reality.

To counter the egodystonic provoked by her sexual exhibitionism and extreme sexual self trashing, the borderline, for example, fantasizes that the man or men multiple, even in a one night stand or in group sex, care about her or love her.

The borderline idealizes snapshots these sexual predators and interacts with the internalized objects rather than with the brutish and revolting or even dangerous or risky reality.

Borderline weaves a narrative which she knows is fictitious, but which allows her to pretend, to make believe, to dream and therefore to act within a fantastic space.

Any manifestation of kindness, an expensive date, free drinks or drugs, a place to crash in for the night, flirting and courting, attentiveness, succor, affection or outright physical intimacy. All these are incorporated into the fantasy. All these legitimize the borderline's actions and conversely abuse, indifference, avoidance, nastiness or malice render her sex problematic.

She becomes sex averse because these kinds of behaviors or misbehaviors shatter the fantasy. They deny her the possibility to express her core psychosexuality safely.


Let's repeat this. When the borderline is exposed, for example, in a relationship with a narcissist, to abuse, indifference, avoidance, nastiness, withdrawal, absence, malice, rejection, humiliation, all these, she becomes sex averse.

And she becomes sex averse because she can no longer idealize her narcissistic partner. She can no longer inhabit the shattered fantasy.

And without a fantasy, she can't express her core psychosexuality safely, for example, with a partner. She can't feel egosyntonic or legitimate about her psychosexuality.

And in this, the borderline differs from masochistic women and for submissive women in BDSM.

And so confronted with rejection, the borderline becomes pseudo stupid and passive aggressive or antisocial. In other words, the secondary cycle.

When the borderline's partner is as prone to fantasy as she is, for example, when she teams up with a narcissist or when he misreads her psychology entirely, she embarks on fantastic pseudo relationships that are founded on sex, but misinterpreted as love.

Having misjudged the nature of the liaison and being faced with the exigencies of reality, the borderline again results with fantasy. She ends up being discarded or she cheats on her intimate but sexless partner within a new fantasy action figure.

You see the role of fantasy in all these disorders. The main role of fantasy is to allow people with Cluster B personality disorders.

And not only Cluster B personality disorders, because this applies also to schizoid personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder.

One could generalize and say that the role of fantasy in personality disorders is to allow these people to function. They're unable to function in reality.

Reality impinges very critical dimensions and determinants of their personality. Reality drives them to experience extreme pain, discomfort, egodystony, fear. Reality creates injuries and mortifications. Reality is perceived as threatening and hostile.

So they can't function in reality. They need to deny reality. They need to put a boundary or barrier or partition between themselves.

In reality, this firewall is the fantasy defense within the perimeter of the firewall behind the firewall. They are able to act. They're able to act in a way that approximates that is asymptotic to who they really are.

And behind the firewall, they feel legitimized. And above all, they feel safe.

This is why it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to dismantle lifelong fantasy defenses and types of relationships with fantasy dynamics, such as trauma bonding or the shared fantasy.

Thank you for listening. And I'm open now to two questions.

You can pose the questions on the chat, or you can pose the questions verbally. The host will take care of it, I'm sure.

Thank you again.

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