How can it be possible that some people experience love at first sight, only for that love to descend into chaos, whilst other relationships lack the initial fireworks, yet remain happy and healthy for a lifetime? There are of course many reasons, but let’s look at the biggest killer of most romantic relationships – projection.
Projection is a term used by psychotherapists to describe a certain phenomenon that happens between two people. In the context of relationships and dating, it’s when we project desired qualities onto a potential or existing partner. These projections are often a reflection of our own qualities, but can also be a reflection of our own unmet needs. As well as assuming others share our values, we also project onto others the things we (often subconsciously) feel we lack in ourselves.
When you meet someone for the first time and feel as sense of attraction, you will have already made assumptions about them, consciously and subconsciously. On a conscious level you might find yourself thinking, “I bet they’re great in bed” or, “I bet they’re really intelligent” and maybe even, “I can imagine they’d get on so well with my family.” You have already created a full image of that person in your mind. Sometimes you might just get a strong sense of desire for a person. Either way, on some level you have created a set of assumptions based on almost no evidence that this person will be a suitable partner for you and you’re in love.
The relationship continues and things seems to progress well for the first few weeks and months. You get on well. They seem perfect. You begin to imagine your future with them. Then, seemingly out of character, they do or say something that contradicts one of the assumptions you made about them. Perhaps they speak rudely to a cashier, or you notice a habit that is annoying, or they aren’t as good in bed. For all the weeks and months leading up to this point you held a certain view of them, and what you’re now witnessing doesn’t match up. You try to figure out what’s wrong with them.
The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with them at all - they have always been that way. It’s just your assumptions hadn’t been tested up until this point, or maybe you were blind to it because you were swept up in the honeymoon period.
At this point, you have a choice, and this choice will define whether or not your relationship will become healthy, dysfunctional or possibly even abusive. Do you accept that your assumptions (projections) about the person you’re dating were based on zero evidence and embrace the new reality of who they really are, or do you deny it?
Sadly, at this point many people go into denial. Why? Because the assumptions we made about the person are likely to be things we feel we need. To acknowledge the new reality and to accept that those qualities may not exist in the other person could be a threat to our needs being met.
Now instead of accepting that the other person is as flawed and imperfect as you are, you set out on a damaging mission – conformity. You are so invested in the idealised version of the person you created in your mind, that you set about making that person a reality. You try to manipulate them into being the person you had in mind when you first met – because that’s the person who will meet your needs. In extreme cases, this manipulation can escalate into controlling and coercive behaviour.
We have all done this at some point in our lives. It could be argued that projections are how we operate as a social creatures. The first assumption we make for our survival may be to decide whether someone is “good” or “bad”, but beyond this baseline assumption, all other assumptions have to potential to lead us into suffering.
Turning to successful healthy relationships that last the test of time, the difference is twofold. Firstly, each partner takes full responsibility for meeting their own needs. That way, those needs won’t be projected onto their partners. Secondly, and critically, decisions about compatibility are made based on evidence. If you thought someone had a kind heart when you first met, but after a few dates they behave in an unkind way, rely on that evidence. Be aware that if the projection you hold is strong, you may find yourself making excuses, or offering explanations for their behaviour, because you don’t want to shatter the idealised version you have of them. But excuses and explanations are just ways to keep the assumptions alive. Focus on the evidence.
Finally, we project our own values onto others. If you’re naturally empathic, you will find it hard to accept or even conceptualise the idea that someone could be intentionally unkind. Your minds way of making sense of this will be to come up with elaborate theories or justifications to avoid accepting the harsh reality that not everyone has the capacity to feel how you feel, nor does everyone share your values.
In healthy relationships, each partner is not reliant on the other to meet their needs. Because of this they are able to suspend their projections and ‘see’ the other for who they truly are – faults and all. With this clearer view of their potential partner, they can make a more grounded decision about their compatibility.
Toxic relationships stand the test of time often because people are blinded by the projections they place on their partners. Their mind cannot let go of those projections, maybe because of the grief that comes with the loss of the idealised version of their partner.
Identify your needs in the projections you place upon partners and people you date, then meet those needs yourself. Only then may you fall in love with someone for who they really are, based on their words and behaviours, and not an idealised version you created in your own mind. It’s the kindest thing you can do for yourself and the people you love.
I'm Adam, a U.K. based Life Coach and Psychotherapist working with people across the globe.
I struggle the same as every other human on the planet, but I think that’s what makes me credible. I’m just a regular guy, with people skills that I enjoy using. My sole focus is to help others improve their lives, which is ultimately how I improve mine.
I am a curious humanitarian and I speak as I find. I love to travel and I buzz off meeting new people. I live in Manchester, U.K.
Read more about me here.