I was once on an airplane where I spent the entire three hours talking to the professional Greek fútbol player next to me about love, religion, and dreams. We most certainly did exchange social media info and I absolutely did stalk him and fantasize about a life together. Would we live in America? Greece? Ireland (we were both on our way there for work)? Would we have a traditional Greek wedding? What language would our kids speak? What would be our first travel destination as a couple? Does he use Skype? Okay, okay, I got a bit carried away, but he was the first man I could see a future with since the breakup. The truth is, we all do it to some degree.
We fantasize about people we are particularly attracted to. When we meet them or even just see them from afar, we make judgments about what they must be like, wonder about their lives, find their Instagram and Facebook for visual aids, and then we use those visual aids, assumptions, and our own romantic ideals to imagine what life would be like with this person in it. The human mind is the perfect incubator for an ideal partner. Sometimes we forget they are just a figment of our imagination. We project this fantasy onto the person in front of us who looks like our new imaginary friend.
If you think it's worth it to make the fantasy a reality and you have the courage to actually reach out to this person, well, you won’t exactly have an unbiased first date. Since we’ve already imagined a beautiful life, say, in Greece with a really big family and an endless bucket list, anything they say on the date that contradicts this fantasy is a threat to your potential relationship. Therefore, you try to rationalize, forgive, and stretch the reality so that maybe things will change, the person will change, and your fantasy can come true. This is not healthy.
Our brains use “heuristics” to make sense of the world around us without having to interact with it, and they can be strongly influenced by what we are feeling in the moment. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that cause us to make immediate judgment decisions based on information we have previously learned about people, stereotypes, and the way the world works. These heuristics go haywire when browsing through social media or only taking tidbits from a conversation without fully listening and communicating. You see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear.
Ultimately, these heuristics cause us to make cognitive biases such as the halo effect and confirmation bias. Using the halo effect, we take every unattractive thing someone we are interested in says or does and spin it in a positive way, because this person is attractive and therefore must be an angel, right, especially since you’ve already pictured getting married and having a big family? After fantasizing, we steer the conversation in a way that confirms our preconceived notions and assumptions, and then we only remember the info that validates our fantasy. That’s the confirmation bias.
“What do you mean you want to settle down? I thought we were going to be nomads together. I mean, I guess we can only go backpacking once a year. Compromise, right?”
Basically, your brain is doing all these things for you and it continues to jump to conclusions in order to make your life easier. But you can train it to jump to a better conclusion, one that always says “we’ll know more if we ask,” and a healthier fantasy, one of you two, on a first date, getting to know each other without any preconceived ideas that you expect them to live up to. You can tell your brain that you want to start getting to know people the hard way by not giving it any information to fantasize over.
Don’t stalk their social media. Don’t ask friends for information. Let them tell you their story themselves, that way, when you listen, you will actually listen. You will not only be able to listen to them better, but you can listen to your instincts much better as well because you’re not trying to prove to yourself that this is the one. If you already had a date and still find yourself fantasizing, kind of like me, if you can call that airplane ride a date, it just means that you really do like this person. That’s beautiful! Just make sure to take it one step at a time. I should have thought about a real date first rather than a marriage.
Don’t assume that just because you know enough to have real feelings for someone that you actually know them. In fact, this is even more unhealthy than making assumptions about someone you don’t know and have no intention of talking to. When you assume things about someone you are actually dating or intending to date, they are affected by your judgments, too. They will be able to feel that you are looking at them through a certain lens and it can make them feel very misunderstood. I’ve been there. I felt like my ex expected me to always be the joyful, happy girl that I appear to be and I could feel his disappointment every time he realized that I’m not actually that girl. It broke my heart each time I couldn’t live up to his fantasy of me.
Save yourselves the drama. Make every effort to not assume anything about a person. The only conclusion you should be jumping to is that the only way to truly get to know someone is by communicating better, in real life, not in your imagination! Ask questions, listen to answers, and if something confuses you or rubs you the wrong way, don’t make excuses for them! It’s not fair to yourself or your partner to pretend they meant something else. So next time you catch yourself assuming things, remember: "I’ll know more if I ask!”