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The Dangers Of Falling For Someone You Don't Actually Know

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Photo: Gabriela Alford.
Your eyes lock from across the room, and the attraction is instant. You later discover the object of your affection is part of your extended friendship group but they've not been in town for a while because they've taken time off their 9-5 job as a human rights lawyer to finish an MA in English Literature and Philosophy. They love Japanese cinema and are vegetarian, just like you. They are excellent with parents. They are bi-lingual and hilarious. They're a triathlete. You begin dating. Sound like a bad script? That's because it's entirely fictional.

This, here, above, does not happen. Yes it's an exaggeration, but IRL meetings that naturally flourish into relationships are a rare occurrence in modern life. No matter how many films, second-hand accounts and mythologies you've had forced down your gizzard as a woman growing up in Western society, moments like this tend to be reserved for the silver screen (or the straight-to-Netflix films) because this is just not realistic in 2016.

Take the first moment. You've seen someone from across the bar that you fancy. You slyly ask your friend, "Who's that with the full head of hair and lovely jeans on?" Now you know you don't have to risk anything by going and talking to him because, whatever else happens, you have his name. And that means you can look them up on social media. You'll establish who your "mutuals" are. You'll pass judgement on his profile pictures and things will go from there. Sound more like real life? That's because now it's closer to the reality of dating for most of us.

One inescapable side-effect of mobile love has been the increasing frequency and rapidity at which near-strangers suddenly enter our peripheral vision and penetrate our thoughts

Of course, there are anomalies, and we're being rather cynical here, but as much as your mobile device has aided your quest for love (in that you have a pool of eligible men and women in your pocket at all times) it's also complicated things an awful lot.

The ways in which social media and mobiles have impacted our love lives are myriad, complex and, well, too broad to discuss in one place. According to The Telegraph, Tinder alone had 50million active users in 2014. One inescapable side-effect of mobile love has been the increasing frequency and rapidity at which near-strangers suddenly enter our peripheral vision and penetrate our thoughts.

Apps like Tinder, Happn and Bumble, and even bog standard social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, mean we have access to the new demi-stranger's every move. The risks attached to viewing someone from a distance is that things can become blurred; it's easy to imagine a white picket fence and a few kids in the background if you squint, maybe a hot sex-filled holiday in the middle distance if you tilt your head, and almost certainly a drink or three in near sight.

Kimberley Wilson, Chartered Counselling Psychologist
refers to this as "projection". "The rise of the internet presents a very new challenge for the mind. While the interface – your phone or laptop – is physical [i.e. it can be touched] the internet and everything in it is intangible and in some senses, dream-like. In this way the internet presents a perfect screen for projection.

"Projection is a very early defence mechanism that has its roots in an infant’s need to keep ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in clear and separate categories until, with maturity, he/she comes to understand that these things often overlap into shades of grey. Projection is the unconscious process of attributing to others characteristics or traits that actually relate to the self rather than the other person. A simple example of this is when an unfaithful person in a relationship begins to suspect their partner of cheating, without any evidence. In this scenario they are projecting their own guilty feelings onto their innocent partner."

Essentially, we can easily imbue people we discern as attractive with other qualities we might admire, just as we do with characters in books and films; beyond sexual attraction, it's easy to romanticise. You can see how one might add a lust for travel excitement and spontaneity to a simple holiday picture. As Kimbereley puts it: "Typically the less that we know about another person, the more we are able to project on them, because there is less evidence or reality to interfere with the story we are creating in our own minds."

Maybe they've clicked attending on an event that would suggest a shared love of the same music. Of course, at a very sanitised level this is merely day-dreaming, a pastime lots of us indulge in when we meet someone who takes our fancy.
Kimberley stressed that there are potentially damaging side-effects to this kind of thinking, however. "There is a risk of reality distortion or ‘wilful blindness’, where we turn a blind eye to the things we do not want to see."

"The risk with any kind of fantasy is that it distances us from reality, with real emotional implications. We can all relate to the genuine feeling of disappointment of, say, a cancelled holiday. This feeling is related to the experience of loss."
"We become attached to the idea of the holiday, build expectations around it, anticipate what it will be like, what we will do, the fun we will have. It is the same with relationships. It doesn’t take very much for us to start imaging what a relationship will feel like, how happy and loved we will be and, without the counterbalance of reality, it is very easy to become attached to these fantasises and forget that the relationship we are experiencing is, for the most part, all in our heads."

I asked Kimberley about how dating apps might worsen a situation. "Dating apps allow us to choose our best photos, spend time creating a witty, funny biography and persona. In this way (creating ideal online versions of ourselves) we can collude in the projection; both people tacitly agreeing to this impossible version of reality. In the absence of any ‘faults’ to balance out this perfected picture, it is easy to see how we might become infatuated with a ‘flawless’ person."

But what do we do if we perceive the feelings we're experiencing to be profound and real? Kimberely suggested watching out for any moments where you might begin to be "distracted for long periods of time by thoughts and fantasies about the other person" or, if you find yourself compromising commitments or other relationships.

Kimberley's final advice, if you are struggling to negotiate your feelings, is to "confide in friends", respect the other person's right to not want to communicate with you (and if they indicate as much, desist from communication) and, finally, to be brave and "ask the other person for their honest feeling about where things are going" to avoid heartache.

If you would like to talk to a professional about anything concerning your mental health, head to Monument Health.
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