Evan first encountered Emma at a local bar. After a brief chat, Emma happily gave Evan her number. While only knowing minor details about her—what she looked like, where she worked, and her alma mater—Evan found himself constantly thinking of her, eventually mustering the courage to send her a message. Emma responded warmly and struck up a conversation with him. With each message received, Evan would agonize over the exact response to send back: What could he say that would keep her attention, while also making him seem desirable, likable, interesting, and worthy? He would frequently message his friends asking for their input into crafting the exact perfect response, but the more he would fret, the more strained his responses seemed, and the less interested Emma became, eventually not responding altogether. Though they only exchanged messages over a short period of time, Evan was distraught, feeling deeply as though he had lost someone irreplaceable. Though friends tried to comfort him, reminding him that he hardly knew her, Evan felt heartbroken just the same: He had fallen for an idea, not a person.
Why do we do this?
Through our life experiences, the way we are nurtured, and our genetics, each of us develops a set of standards we have for romantic partners. These "ideal partner preferences" put forth a benchmark from which we evaluate the person before us in terms of suitability. These attributes not only help us to ensure we choose the right person to be our partner by comparing them to our ideal standards, but they also help us evaluate whether our partners continue to be "right" for us as the relationship progresses. Indeed, research has shown that the more our romantic partners match our ideals across several traits, the more positively we see them.
These ideal traits differ for everyone. One person may have an ideal for how attractive their partner should be, while attractiveness may not be as important to another—though, curiously, there has been no difference found between the importance of attractiveness shown by gender, contrary to popular thought—but we nevertheless use these ideal standards as a guiding light.
If, upon first meeting, we only glean surface characteristics about a potential partner that matches our ideals—as exemplified in the case study above—we may blind ourselves to aspects of that person which would otherwise pull him or her away from the ideal we have in mind. In fact, when we first encounter a potential partner, our brains are wired to look at them through rose-colored glasses, such that we ignore faults, flaws, and even red flags because, from an evolutionary perspective, we are also wired to find a mate. This is primarily because we are a social species who receives large protective effects from emotional intimacy, and we are also a rarity in the animal kingdom because we derive not only product (in the form of children), but pleasure from sexual intimacy, as well. In short, we need others to survive, and being around them tends to feel good, too.
As we feel a deep yearning to connect with a potential partner, if we see them in the truest of lights from early on (aka before our brains have a chance to bond, connect, and invest), it would be difficult to justify to ourselves coupling with someone while overlooking their annoying habits and social allergens, positioning them far from our ideal. In this sense, this initial overly charitable and positive perception we have of a potential love interest is meant to be protective, and while we fall in love with presumably who our partner is, we downplay the negatives and amplify the positives.
When we see someone from afar and only take in their surface qualities which happen to match our ideals, it’s easy for the mind to "fill in the blanks," particularly if we are prone to excessive fantasizing. Coupling these factors with being uncertain that our own feelings will be reciprocated, we may begin to naturally alter our own behavior to try to match what we assume our love interest’s ideal partner preferences are. This is a long-term losing proposition, however, for as time goes on, as people, we each need our partners to see us, know us, and accept us for who we really are (something known as the "self-verification principle"), and masking our true selves can lead us down a bad path known as the "Marriage Shift," described here.
While some masking of ourselves is natural in the initial stages of getting to know someone, when we significantly alter our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to essentially feel wanted by another person, there is much to lose. The truth of the matter is, happy and healthy relationships involve two people who deeply know each other and choose to be together, just the same: If you find yourself bending your behavior to fit into someone else's assumed mold, you'll never know whether the "real you" might just be the idealized partner they have been looking for! As cliché as it sounds, for long-term success when dating, have the courage to be yourself and to fall in love with an actual other, knowing them "warts and all," not just the idea of someone, projected outward from yourself.
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Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Eagly, A. H. (2011). When and why do ideal partner preferences affect the process of initiating and maintaining romantic relationships? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1012-1032.
Eastwick, P. W., Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., & Hunt, L. L. (2014). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 140(3), 623.