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Chapter 3: relationships: Maturity

Why We (Sometimes) Hope the People We Love Might Die

It feels very shameful – horrifying – to admit but there are times when we may find ourselves daydreaming about a terrible thing happening to someone close to us. Deep in the privacy of our minds, we may feel it would be a huge relief if a partner or family member could just vanish from the face of the earth. They might be run over at a crossing; their plane might go down; they could contract a rare and quickly fatal illness (it wouldn’t hurt at all).

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It would be hugely sad of course, but also in certain ways an immense liberation and relief. No sooner has this thought crossed our minds, we’re likely to chase it out in horror – and feel deeply guilty about our depravity.

However, to put our macabre imaginings into perspective, the first thing to remember is how little we know of what secretly goes through the minds of other people. We’re aware of our own darkest thoughts but rarely get to hear those of others. It’s often the case, therefore, that things will feel much rarer to us than they are in reality. It turns out that grim imaginings are very common. Counsellors and therapists – who get to hear more of the hidden workings of other people’s minds than anyone else – are never surprised when a nice, sensible, interesting client tentatively reveals an occasional wish that a loved one would be vapourized.

Being close to someone necessarily involves a high degree of what therapists call ‘ambivalence,’ a blending of deeply negative and positive thoughts. When people play an outsize role in our lives, when they have an enormous emotional power over us, when our debt to them is immense, we will both adore and at points resent them hugely. There will be tenderness and rage; attachment and revulsion. They can let us down like few others can, they know our weakest spots, they enchant but also exhaust us.

We’re not actually going to do anything – of course. We’re not even taking the tiniest preparatory steps; we would never buy poison or encourage them to go cliff-walking on stormy evenings. But there is relief to be found in the odd grim daydream nevertheless.

Fantasies are not plans of action. They don’t correspond to our real values or intentions. They operate as momentary escapes from powerful feelings. We fantasise about the death of a loved one not because we truly want them gone but because being close to them is such a large and therefore at times tricky part of our lives. Our fantasy is a strange but real tribute to the depth of our bond. The guilt is a symptom that despite the inevitable and very real tensions and disappointments of the relationship, we care about them very much. The meaning of the fantasy isn’t that we are sick. It’s that loving someone is never free of frustration.

Fortunately, it’s highly likely that our family member or partner also harbours similar fantasies directed towards us and that they too feel terribly ashamed and guilty in exactly the way we do. This isn’t monstrosity either, just further evidence of the beautiful and surprising subtleties of love.

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