On Rescue Fantasies
Of the many desires we might harbour in relationships, few attract as much mockery or suspicion as ‘the rescue fantasy.’ According to this longing, a lover – normally a man – becomes unnaturally concerned with finding a partner – normally a woman – who is suffering and unhappy. While ostensibly interested in assuaging her grief, the lover is in reality more concerned with exploiting her vulnerability – for what are assumed to be nefarious ends. He is excited, perhaps even sexually, by her sadness and far from rescuing her, uses her sorrow to aggrandize himself. Even before mentioning the horse on which the rescuer might ride into town, this is all meant to – and does indeed – sound properly ridiculous, if not outright sinister.
However, it is arguable that the longing to assist someone does in fact occupy a legitimate role in healthy love for both genders – and that we should dare to understand and recognise the appeal in ourselves and our partners. Emotional sanity may be wholly compatible with a powerful, intermittent attraction to distress.
It is normal if we are sometimes drawn to, and deeply touched by, what has made someone sad, what they find hard, what they have until now been very alone with. It is as we discover the fragile sides of someone that we have a sense of what separates them from casual acquaintances and recognise, with relief and a sense of new loyalty, how much they share in our own confusion and pain.
We can admire people for their accomplishments, their vibrant social life or their buoyancy of character. But in so far as we love them, it is often because of bits of them have known suffering, because moments of their childhood were difficult, because they can doubt themselves and are acquainted with melancholy and isolation. Nor should it surprise us if there can be an erotic component to our attraction, sex being bound up with a desire to be close, intimate and nurturing. Unless a partner allows us to see their vulnerable core, it may feel as if there is nothing for our love to hold on to. It would be impossible to love an invulnerable person; only, at best, to feel happy for them.
That said, there is a way in which the desire to rescue someone can go awry: when the intention is entirely asymmetrical: when we want to rescue but have a serious resistance to being rescued.
It is for some of us a great deal easier to fall into the caring rather than the dependent role. So long as we are assisting someone else with their fears, insecurities and shame, we can keep our own collection of vulnerabilities out of sight and mind. Perhaps, in childhood, we did not have a chance to come to a good accomodation with our weakness, we lacked reliable nurture, had to be strong before we were ready and now flinch at the prospect of opening up to someone who might betray us in the way we were once betrayed.
In such circumstances, starting to look after a lover can provide a psychologically-ideal scenario: another’s vulnerability enables us to get in touch with our own, while at the same time, not requiring us to show our weakness directly, with all the dangers involved. We can be vulnerable, as it were, by proxy; we can be weak via another while at the same time shielding ourselves from the risks of abandonment and hurt.
This suggests that healthy love isn’t one in which the desire to rescue is absent. It is one in which the desire is honoured as mutual; in which both parties have accepted the risks that come from showing the other their needy, dependent and fragile sides.
It is very kind to want to help someone; it is more heroic and truly brave at other points to let them look after us; to show them that we too are scared, small and ashamed, and could be desperately hurt by their indifference and coldness. A rescue fantasy isn’t wrong, it is simply only ever one part, and should never be a one-sided part, of what love really involves.