You meet someone online or maybe even in person who seems interesting. Your inbox and phone soon overflow with emails and texts from your new online love interest, every message sending a thrill to your heart. This person seems ideal, the one you’ve been waiting for, and you begin to fall in love.
Couple’s therapist Josh Gressel says, “If you stop to think about it, how can it be that a person you’ve only met recently gets transformed so quickly from a perfect stranger into the most perfect being on the face of the earth? When it comes right down to it, we’re falling in love with someone we really don’t know.”
Gressel says this transformation is due to a common psychological phenomenon called romantic projection where we project onto others the positive unclaimed aspects of ourselves. We create a dream relationship with a person who doesn’t actually exist.
And when we “wake up” from this dream relationship, we realize those qualities were never there to begin with. Or maybe we somehow also overlooked even more negative qualities. “This isn’t some malevolent bait-and-switch process at work, where the person we fell in love with tricked us somehow, but it is an experience of what it feels like to wake up from a projection,” Gressel explains.
Don’t Be a “Cat Person”
A great example of romantic projection appeared recently in a viral short story on The New Yorker called “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. After Margot and Robert initially meet, Margot goes home on break from college. Their separation provides the perfect opportunity to engage in projection. Their imaginations build up the other person as they “they (text) nearly non-stop.” Of course, when they finally do spend time together, the results are disastrous. They don’t have the simplest facts about each other, such as age or whether they even have physical chemistry. Ultimately, Margot “wakes up” as Gressel describes. Instead of waking up, Robert engages in negative projection.
Catfishing and Projection
Catfishers prey on our susceptibility to this common psychological phenomenon to create scam romances. They anticipate that the person they’re contacting will automatically start filling in the blanks that online interaction creates. A certain amount of projection is natural and even necessary for romance. But it’s potentially dangerous if you’re on the rebound or you’ve been looking for a relationship for a long time because you’re more emotionally vulnerable in those situations.
Filling in the Blanks
As philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeév says, “Falling in love in cyberspace is similar to cases of love at first sight: we do not have all the required information, but we fill in the gaps with idealized assumptions.”
To protect yourself from catfishers, do whatever you can to fill in the blanks. Gressel indicates the answer is two-fold: 1) awareness and 2) responsibility. Using these guideposts, here are some ways you can protect yourself:
- Remind yourself that you don’t really know this person yet, despite all the messages. People are never what they seem online.
- Remember that texting and private messaging aren’t substitutes for meeting and spending time together.
- Manage your expectations about who is actually behind that username.
- Try to meet with the person as soon as you can to get a sense of who they are. If they refuse or have a lot of excuses, move on.
- Recognize the difference when someone is actively lying and when they simply don’t live up to your fantasy. Plus, don’t forget both you and your new love interest are trying to make a good impression.
- Use Google, Facebook, and people search sites like Spokeo to verify their identity. Searching a phone number can reveal the owner’s name, location, social media profiles, criminal records, and much more. (Check out how MTV’s Catfish used Spokeo.)
As psychologist Hara Estroff Marano says in Psychology Today, “You don’t have to abandon the hope of finding love online. You just have to approach it with intelligence and restraint.” That might not sound very exciting, but lasting romantic love is worth the work.