Why You Have Romantic Feelings for Someone You Hardly Know

The science behind becoming suddenly smitten.

Posted Jan 17, 2021

It can happen to anyone.  A colleague, acquaintance, or the familiar face next door.  Someone is on the periphery of your social circle, but suddenly you find yourself thinking about them, frequently.  Although you might have known them for years, you unexpectedly view them differently, in a more favorable, attractive light.  Accordingly, you begin to seek out more contact with them, maybe even strategize a plan to run into them—legally, ethically, and appropriately of course (I prosecute stalkers for a living). 

The strangest thing, as you imagine getting to know them better, is how positive and optimistic you envision your prospective relational quality.  You fantasize about enjoying quality time together, in a supportive environment of love and respect, as if you already know the two of you will be a match made in heaven.  Why do you think that?

Wishful thinking. In fantasizing about what a relationship with this person would be like, you have projected onto them all of the positive qualities you hope they have, often without any basis beyond infatuation for your beliefs.  Needless to say, you are likely setting yourself up for disappointment.  Back to reality, here are some things to consider.

Reality Is Revealing

Ironically, one way to dispel fantasy is through reality—actually interacting with the object of your infatuation.  Certainly never by invading boundaries or personal space, but through appropriate social contact when your paths naturally cross.  Sometimes it does not take much conversation to realize the person in your fantasy does not exist in real-time.  Although this can be disappointing, and some people are happier forgoing conversation and keeping the fantasy alive, imaginary romance is not a healthy use of precious time and energy. 

Another reason to avoid pursuing a crush, as wholesome as the object of your sudden affection might appear to be, is the adverse impact it could have on a current relationship.

Image by Anastasia Gepp from Pixabay
Source: Image by Anastasia Gepp from Pixabay

Can Infatuation Crush Your Current Relationship?

Charlene F. Belu and Lucia F. O’Sullivan in a piece aptly named “Roving Eyes: Predictors of Crushes in Ongoing Romantic Relationships” (2019) examined exactly that, how focusing on relational alternatives can damage current relationships.[i] While noting that such attraction is common, they recognize that eying potential relational alternative partners can jeopardize the stability of current relationships.  When does this happen?  They found the amount of attention paid to alternative partners predicted experiencing a crush while already involved in a romantic relationship.  

Although Belu and O’Sullivan found crushes did not necessarily have many negative implications for people in established relationships, many people find a partner’s crush on someone else to be disconcerting at least, and potentially devastating at worst, if it leads to actual extra-relational pursuit.  

Suddenly Smitten With a Stranger

Some people find themselves suddenly carrying a torch for someone they don’t know at all.  At least with someone you know, there is an element of rapport, familiarity, or common ground.  With a stranger whom you have never even met, all bets are off.

Yet it happens; especially when we are young.  Sara E. Erickson and Sonya Dal Cin (2018), examining romantic attachments experienced during adolescence, define parasocial relationships as including the idolization of celebrities or media personalities, which create cognitive, affective, and even behavioral responses to a stranger as if he or she were a personal acquaintance.[ii]  Although they recognize that for adolescents, such attachments can provide a way to bond with peers and consider what romantic relationships involve before embarking upon a dating relationship, query whether this rationale would apply outside this age group.  For adults, a sudden fascination with a stranger, famous or not, could adversely impact current relational stability or even occupational productivity, as fixation disrupts focus.

The Allure of Authenticity

Healthy relationships develop through a consistent, steady process of sharing experiences and building trust.  Rather than courting potential disappointment by projecting ideal qualities onto attractive acquaintances and strangers, it is more satisfying to spend time getting to know people who already display positive traits that enhance relational quality. 

Facebook image: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

References

[i] Belu, Charlene F., and Lucia F. O’Sullivan. 2019. “Roving Eyes: Predictors of Crushes in Ongoing Romantic Relationships and Implications for Relationship Quality.” Journal of Relationships Research 10 (January). doi:10.1017/jrr.2018.21.

[ii] Erickson, Sarah E., and Sonya Dal Cin. 2018. “Romantic Parasocial Attachments and the Development of Romantic Scripts, Schemas and Beliefs among Adolescents.” Media Psychology 21 (1): 111–36. doi:10.1080/15213269.2017.1305281.