Parental Rescue Fantasy: Exploration of the Psychological Concept

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From Daniel Mackler: “About ten or fifteen years ago I came up with the phrase ‘parental rescue fantasy,’ and for me it’s been an incredibly helpful concept in understanding human psychology, particularly people’s motivations. What I have seen in the world is, some people, most people — perhaps all people, to a degree — had childhoods in which their parents did not fully meet a lot of their very legitimate needs. At some level, people were neglected, rejected, abandoned even; not entirely, necessarily, but in big ways, in so many different areas of their childhood need. And the result is, these children grew up to become adults who still had a lot of unmet need inside of them, a lot of unresolved need, all sorts of longings, and grew up with the deep, deep hope that finally somebody out there would love them and nurture them and witness them in the way that their parents from childhood never did. Someone out there, they hope, in their fantasy, would make up for all the bad things that happened to them and be their perfect parent. And from what I’ve seen . . . people have that fantasy and they live with it and they’re not aware of it. And they’re even less aware of it if they’re less connected to their history of childhood abandonment, childhood neglect, various forms of childhood trauma. So what does this parental rescue fantasy look like? How does it play out in adulthood?

Romance

Perhaps the most obvious way that parental rescue fantasy plays out is through people’s romantic relationships. It starts when people fall in love; I think falling in love at basic is parental rescue fantasy in so many cases. It’s this feeling that that other person is going to save me, that other person is my ideal of perfection, that person is going to love me and be there for me and care for me and respect me and nurture me and take me in, and be all the things that I really wish my parents had always done but didn’t do or didn’t do effectively.

Now what I see is that parental rescue fantasy is an unconscious process. So when people fall in love, they don’t think, ‘Oh, that woman or that guy or whoever it is that I’ve fallen in love with is going to be that parental figure for me.’ They don’t even necessarily connect it at all to their parents. All they think is, ‘That person is it for me.’ But really, what’s motivating it under the surface is all that unmet childhood need — that horrible, painful, fulminating loneliness and sense of dissatisfaction and harm that still lives within people, that doesn’t go away just because people have grown up; it’s just split off, it’s buried, it’s dissociated. So what they do in their relationships so often when they fall in love is, all of those feelings, all those ancient historical feelings of neediness, of unmet need, of longing, of pain, sometimes even of rage and anger and sense of dissatisfaction, of rejection and abandonment that so often come up in romantic relationships — it’s all motivated by what happened back then. There’s an expectation that so many people can so easily get that their romantic partner is going to save them. And sometimes they even take it a step further — lots of people do — they can feel it’s actually the job of their romantic partner to save them, it’s the job, the expectation of their romantic partner to be that perfect, ideal ‘object’ for them.

Now why do I say parental rescue ‘fantasy’? For me, it seems pretty clear — because when people have an expectation that it’s another person’s job to save them… they’re wrong, it’s no one else’s job to save us, to heal us. But, it actually was our parents’ job to meet our emotional needs in childhood. And where our parents failed us… they failed, as parents. And so when people get failed as children, it doesn’t mean those needs go away; they live on and on and on into their adulthood. And many people, most people, perhaps, never actually take the leap into realizing it’s not somebody else’s job to save me, because the only person that can save an adult from all that history of trauma and longing and pain and neglect and abandonment is ourselves, once we become adults. And it’s really not fair. It’s a terrible thing. But the only person who can really save us is us. Other people can help us in that process; but, really, we’re the one in charge. We have to take over the responsibility of becoming our own parents.

Now the sad thing is a lot of times, a partner will try to meet that fantasy, will try to be a perfect parent for their partner, will do everything, will meet all their needs, will listen, will witness, will care, will be there for them over and over again, even take a lot of abuse, take a lot of really disrespectful, horrible behavior to try to meet that parental rescue fantasy. But it doesn’t work. Most of the time it doesn’t even help; sometimes it even makes the people worse, the people who have this fantasy, because it then sends them a distorted message that it’s okay for them to have this parental rescue fantasy. And at basic it’s really not okay to have that parental rescue fantasy because it’s a setup for failure; it is a fantasy. Ultimately, the fantasy has to be broken and the person has to take the responsibility back for themselves.

The problem is, taking back that responsibility in itself is an extremely painful thing. Because what it means is looking at the horrible things that one’s parents did to us [or] didn’t do for us. It means going back and becoming again, embodying, acknowledging what’s within us — that very pained, wounded, neglected, abandoned, vulnerable little child that we once were, and to some degree still are.

Having Children

Now, a lot of people have children to play out their parental rescue fantasy. They look at their own children as parental figures; they want their children to save them. They have an expectation in their very relationship with the children that they create that it’s the job of those children to make up for what they themselves didn’t get when they were children. They want their children to love them unconditionally, to be there for them, to listen to them. And to me, that’s a horror. Because the problem is, when people look at their children that way . . . when they project parental rescue fantasy onto their children, the problem [is that children] are so needy themselves, so profoundly full of need that they have no choice but to try to meet their parents’ needs. And that’s the basic thing that happens to children when they become parentified children: They want to make their parents happy, they want to make their parents feel satisfied, they want to make their parents feel useful, feel stable, feel loved. And the reason that children do all those things, and do it to the best of their ability and profoundly distort their own personalities in the process, is because children have no choice. They are so full of need themselves that they’ll do anything — literally transform themselves into anything they can, including into the parents of their own parents — to get their parents to love them. It’s a profound distortion.

And the irony in this is by children trying to meet the parental rescue fantasy of their parents, the children end up getting neglected and don’t get their own needs met. And they grow up into adults who themselves are full of parental rescue fantasy, and they’re looking for someone else outside of them, something outside of them to save them in the way that their own parents never did. This is the intergenerational replication of trauma, the transgenerational transmission of trauma. It just gets passed right down the generations.”

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20 COMMENTS

  1. It’s my view that most people who become therapists and psychiatrists do so to receive the attention and adoration (from clients) that they didn’t receive from their parents. It’s usually unconscious, like any other parental rescue fantasy.

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  2. Sounds westernocentric the statement that partners are not the ones to “rescue” the corresponding partner. Rescue: “To cause to be free from danger, imprisonment, or difficulty; save. synonym: save.” If my partner is not obligated to free me from imprisonment or difficulty, hard to say it’s obligated to anything. My partner is under no legal obligation to testify if they want to put me in jail and she/he knows something about it.

    Partners do cause the other partner to drink less, smoke less, eat better, have better incomes, live longer lives, etc. That’s rescuing or saving the partner from danger even earlier death. Or from the difficulty of loneliness when being without a partner feels loonely.

    Extended families not only serve a supporting role, they rescue the children of monoparental families, specially when such monoparent is unable or goes away. They rescue children even from loneliness, hunger, poverty, abandonment, bullying, ignorance, etc…

    The comunity has a rescuing role too through the social care institutions and the laws that try to insure kids are free from violence, ignorance and enjoy entertainment and culture appropiate to their age.

    So, family does have an obligation, even a legal one to save/rescue a member. In my country up to the third degree.

    And sounds like a statement: you have to provide for your own needs, when actually part of those needs require another person. One cannot satistfy by one’s lonesome one’s romantic needs.

    How is then different ones child unmet needs from the “healthy” needs satisfied ONLY with a partner? Well: “ME, the therapist will decide that”.

    Sounds like the therapist’s subjectivity gets in the mix, validating what actually is a valid need as “adult” and what is an unmet need in childhood present now and demanded in inappropiate manner. Even roleplaying in a romantic relationship looks bad, so Freudian…

    And the therapist will ignore other cultural and moral values that dismiss the larger “rescuing” role of the family, even the extended one. Even the fact that kids between the 60s to the 90s were single kids, living alone at home while one or two parents worked all day. And that didn’t affect kids that now could be considered neglected.

    Sounds like the: lets pickup a common experience, loneliness in childhooh, exagerate it calling it horrible, painful, fulminating, and make a new syndrome out of that new and changing normality. Not saying for some it wasn’t, just according to research loneliness was not for most of those kids a problem, even today. There are sugesstions that even benefited some of those kids that now are leaders in what they do, and are leaders in different perhaps better ways than baby boomer leaders.

    And research has suggested strongly as far as I know that kids with their house keys in their neck are no different from any other kids, all else being equal. I haven’t read they are needy or clingy, let alone dependant!, far from it. Kids of that culture are actually vociferously independent and antiautoritarian. I imagine they wouldn’t want a partner that looks like a parent, they are against big brother things.

    And rescuing as a word is not defined, is an extreme word that leaves me wondering what it exactly means when the damages happened decades ago, like I have the fantasy of being rescued from the 1905 San Francisco fire, so I look to partner with firepeople. Hence the use of fantasy as an append to the confusion. But the fantasy might refer to the “Parental Rescue” concept as fantasy, like a Freudian slip.

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      • I agree. The only therapists of any value are the ones who recognize that there is no such thing as “professional objectivity.” In order to be truly helpful, we have to understand that everything we do is at all times influenced by our own desires and motivations, and that we are only aware of a small percentage of them. It requires “constant vigilance,” not some fantasy belief that professional training somehow cancels out subjectivity!

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  3. This is brilliant. I would add there is another version of this that I think is very damaging. Some parents realize what they didn’t get as kids, and have kids in order to create closure for themselves by ‘rescuing’ the child from the parent’s own traumatic history, of which the child isn’t and shouldn’t be aware. But what this creates is the inability of parents to meet their actual children in the present, because everything serves as a symbol and a proxy for themselves as children. And another really negative outcome is parents base their ‘redemption’ and closure fantasy in this case on the fact that they are the parent for their child that they never got, so it becomes intolerable to them when the child is actually hurt by them, because it destroys the fantasy: ‘maybe I AM just as bad as my mom? That’s not right — it must be the CHILD who is bad, they’re not responding the right way to my redemptive care! How dare they be hurt!’ Parents like this can’t adjust to what their kids actual needs are because they’re so busy projecting their own unmet needs on the child (i.e maybe you needed proximity but this child needs space, and you end up smothering them); AND when the child reflects back that they’re being hurt by the parent, the parent cannot develop self awareness and initiate repair, but instead becomes vengeful over having their fantasy of perfect redemptive parenthood rebuked. I see a lot of people out there glorifying ‘giving my child what I never got,’ but it’s a recipe for high stakes stresses parenting mixed with intolerable shame. Not that there isn’t benefit to recognizing how you were hurt so you can heal and not inflict the same damage on the child, but it comes from healing yourself not setting up the child as a proxy or some opportunity for salvation in a narrative.

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    • Maybe in both hypothetical cases there could be value in considering, without landing on callous/fantasy ground that for some agressions, when it comes to investing time into what happened, what went wrong and what to do about it, it might be better to consider them beneath one’s case. Particularly in childhood.

      I did some self reflection of my childhood decades ago, before any quack even asked me about it, and the quacks never contributed positively to my wellbeing, or provided any insight I did not got from brief self reflection. Be it genetic, biochemical or psychological explanations.

      So, why would I waste more time on that?, particularly when I already have an understanding of my situation then from what I saw, lived and remember.

      They never profered a usefull truth, lots of empty vacuous truths, misleading statements, falsities, lies..

      Finally the thing that could help me is the truth that I don’t know, not the explanations of fantasy prone, uncritital, colluded quacks about how that affected me. And since no MH quack has ever told me something about me or my past that I don’t know, I doubt they could be of any use but quackering.

      In fact, I do have reasons to believe if someone were to tell them something I don’t know, most likely they are going to cover it up, even in the record, and never say anything to me. I have some documental proof of that. Also with the excuse I really don’t want to know, or that I am not ready, or worse that I could be harmed if told the “truth”.

      More quackery, even if they were crimes and they are bound to tell me that, for several legal reasons that trascend their imaginary quackery rights and obligations, they showed me they have enough of those to write a new different constitution anywhere in the world, calling it specific ethics to their profession.

      Like a special illegal and inmorality code, to paraphrase, that somehow affected me despite I already had one Constitution!.

      By omitting info from me, misleading me, they supplanted the roles of the FBI, inmigration authorities, and my local and federal district attorneys, and probably some in the US, and with that also the Judiciary of both the US and Mexico. Literally, I am not exagerating, some of the things they covered up are serious felonies/crimes that crossed the USMEX border. One of the potential crimes I got exposed involved likely international crime of those against minors, simple as that, by an IT worker in a prestigious US University…

      And that potentially exposed other individuals, even minors, to more crime and violence, simple as that.

      And support groups can’t tell me what happened that I don’t know already when it comes to my childhood, so… But they could provide hints for my further analysis, but would that help me now?.

      After all my decisions, I guess like everyone elses, have to be within the boundaries of my rights and obligations and everyone elses. Ethicals too. And for that my mental “issues”, if there were any proven which is not the case, are irrelevant to what I can and need to do, simple as that.

      And I guess it’s the same for everyone else, at the end what one does is constrained and will be deceided as a free thinking feeling caring individual, and “mental illness” or disorders are not gonna change that. Medication and agression will, but how is that different for “normal” people?

      So a better investment of my mental time is to think what to do about it, not what made me think about it, or how it made me think the way I do about it. Same for feeling and perception.

      So, for parents, brothers/sisters and descendants issues, same thing: what we are entitled, what we do due, and what are the constraints to do anything or nothing about those relationships. Regardless of the motivations. With base of being caring, decent, and law abiding, which is not a given in any relationship.

      To me is like worrying about why to do math or physics when I have uses for math or physics that trascend my motivations, my personal history, and are probably way more productive than self reflection on my previous self that could or could not be relevant to my now self…

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