Can You Treat an Addiction to Romantic Fantasies?

Hi Dr. Burns,

I have really enjoyed your podcasts – they make Mondays the best day of the week!

I am just a lay person but I’m very fascinated with how differently all of our minds operate. One thing you have talked about is treating addiction, and the resistance to treatment. I’m curious if you have ever seen a case where the addict is fixated on a fantasy, an idea in their mind that they perceive to be special somehow, but would be ordinary to any other onlooker. Specifically the example I had in mind was a romantic fantasy.

This type of addiction becomes devastating when the addict becomes aware of the reality and how different it is from their fantasy. Is there any way to cure a person who is addicted to a romantic fantasy? I think there are some who refer to this as “limerence” but I don’t think this is a widely accepted terminology.

Susan

Hi Susan,

Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoy the Feeling Good Podcasts, and I hope more and more people will sign up for them. Your support really encourages Fabrice and me!

Yes, I’ve treated many individuals who were addicted to some romantic fantasy, or some other thought or fantasy they were hooked on. You are right to call this an addiction, because the fantasy can provide a kind of mental high.

I cannot do therapy in this medium, but I can give you a general example of how I might proceed to work with someone with this problem. Keep in mind that your specific details will be different, so much of this will not apply to you.

The first thing I’d do, after empathizing for a period of time, so my patient felt completely understood and accepted, would be to help him or her list all the really great things about the fantasy. It is exciting, it provides distraction from other problems that may be causing anxiety, and it lets you hang on to the person you are fantasizing about, without having to let him or her go. It also shows that you have high ideals for your romantic life, care a great deal about others, and value loving relationships. Your fantasies are also a kind of fabulous compliment to the person you are fantasizing about. And, the fantasy may protect you from the problems of dating real people, who can seem pretty darn flawed and annoying in comparison with our fantasies about our ideal partner, who looks fantastic and fulfills our every dream. In addition, you can avoid the whole reality of dating, which can be massively time-consuming, energy draining, anxiety-provoking, and frustrating.

Then I would say, given all these benefits, why in the world would you want to give that up?

Now the ball would be in your court to try to persuade me to work with you, and to try to convince me that you really do want to change. If you cannot convince me, then I would “Sit with Open Hands,” letting you know that it is totally okay with me if you keep fantasizing. As long as you enjoy it, and it doesn’t cause problems, there is really no good reason to change.

But if you did want to change, there are a host of powerful methods we could use, such as Self-Monitoring (tracking each time you have the fantasy, using a wrist counter, like golfers wear on their wrists to keep track of their score), the Devil’s Advocate Technique, scheduled Fantasy Breaks, and more. We could also work on improving your dating skills and relationships with people you are interested in, with Smile and Hello Practice, Flirting Training, Rejection Training, the Dave Letterman Technique, Shame Attacking Exercises, Self-Disclosure, and more.

A business graduate student came to me for help because he’d broken up with his girlfriend, who was now dating another fellow in his class. And he kept having fantasies of the two of them having sex together. This disturbed him greatly, and made it hard to pay attention in class, but he couldn’t shake the fantasies from his mind. He also started driving past her apartment over and over, to see if the other fellow’s car was parked outside.

After trying several techniques that did not help, I suggested he wear a golf score counter, and count how many times each day he had these distracting sexual fantasies of his ex-girlfriend making love to her new boyfriend. I told him that all he had to do was just click his wrist clicker, and then just let the fantasy go and carry on with what he was doing.

At the end of the day, I told him to record the total on his calendar and reset the counter to zero for the next day. I told him to keep it up for four weeks, since the fantasies often diminish in the third week.

For the first three weeks, he averaged more than 90 fantasies per day. Then the numbers started falling, and by half way through the fourth week, they disappeared entirely, along with his depression.

Any one technique like that might, or might not, help. That’s why I developed dozens and dozens of techniques to help individuals who are feeling unhappy, or who are addicted to people or substances that are making their lives miserable.

One woman kept having romantic fantasies after her boyfriend broke up with her. She kept thinking about how wonderful he was and remembering some incredibly loving moment. After spending some time deciding whether she was really motivated to let go of the memories—since that would mean having to grieve his loss and admit he was gone—we tried a number of techniques. The one that helped was Image Substitution. Each time she had some wonderful memory of him, she would switch to some disturbing memory of him—and there were many! That did the trick nicely!

Thanks, Susan for your excellent question. I think many people can identify with thinking we “need” some person or something to feel happy and fulfilled. I could write much more on this topic, but this is already long.

You might also want to read my recent post on “Is Love an Adult Human Need?”

David

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