My Toxic Dating Problem? "Projectidating"

Here's when projection leads to 'the ick'

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Dasha Burobina for PureWow

When I was in high school, I had a massive crush on a kid named Will.* It was my third day of freshman year when I saw him standing with a group of juniors. His brown locks poked out of a backward hat, and he was dressed in what I can only describe as ‘suburban stoner’: vintage Budweiser T-shirt, khaki shorts, mid-calf socks. From a safe distance, I observed him like a hormonal teen on safari. There’s something about him, I thought to myself. He was more relaxed, almost unbothered, compared to the rowdy lacrosse players standing beside him. He didn’t jump at the chance to insert a stupid joke—nor did he laugh at ones he didn’t seem to find funny. “Who is that?” I asked my best friend, nodding in his direction. “You mean Will?” She looked confused. “He’s like the weirdest one. He doesn’t speak.” I was in love

Fast forward to the end of freshman year. My friends and I were invited to a party at a junior lacrosse player’s house, and Will was the first person I spotted when I walked into the backyard. He was sitting on a chaise lounge by the pool, smoking a joint with another lax bro I knew from study hall. Now was the time to put my liquid courage—four shots of Svedka raspberry—to good use. I dragged my more extroverted friend to the pool area, forcing her to strike up a conversation. It didn’t take long before said friend and study hall guy were exchanging saliva. 

It was me and Will alone at last. I took a puff of his dwindling joint, trying to hide the fact that I’d only smoked once before. (Big mistake.) In my ganja-induced haze, I noticed that Will did, in fact, tell stupid jokes—and ‘that’s what she said’ was his preferred punchline. I also learned he was a talker… about himself. First, he told me he didn’t like playing lacrosse; he wanted to be a billionaire. Then he told me, despite his previous statement regarding how much he didn’t like lacrosse, that he’d take a bullet for his teammates: “Did you hear the Northern Highland kids tried to fight my boys last weekend? We’re going to pummel them in the next game.” But the comment that caused me to completely dissociate was, and I quote, “My friends wouldn’t know culture if it hit them in the face.” 

After 15 minutes of witnessing his walking identity crisis, I got the ick. (OK, maybe some of it had to do with the pot.) And with a decade of perspective later, I have since given this phenomenon a name: projectidating.

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Pro·ject​​·i·date (verb)

To project your unconscious desires or emotions onto another person while overlooking unattractive traits

Let me start by saying there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy. (No point in having a crush if you can’t picture snuggly Sundays on the couch.) But the idealization-to-ick pipeline is a pattern I see all the time. My friend Neil* is a perfect example. For months, he pursued a girl he referred to as a ‘smoke show’—taking her to nice dinners, Rangers games, the works—and then, POOF! I never heard her name again. “Wasn’t who I thought she was,” he explained. And after my experience with Will, I knew exactly what he meant. So why do we do it?

“It’s easy to become invested in the idea of a relationship without considering whether you want this relationship, with this person, in particular,” clinical psychologist Michael Nettis-Benstock of Williamsburg Therapy Group tells me. “Our true feelings serve as data points we collect when evaluating how satisfied or comfortable we are with someone…we miss out on a lot of important information when we overlook this.” Translation? Projection, or mapping our own desires onto someone else, only goes so far when it comes to dating. Since relationships mean comfort, and feeling comfortable means vulnerability, there comes a point where you (literally) see someone for who they really are. You’re forced to address how they make you feel, outside of how you want them to make you feel. What’s more, the reality of who they are might look nothing like the picture you had of them in your head. And this is what leads to the sudden ick of projectidating.

So, how do you stop yourself from projectidating and feeling the whiplash of the letdown when your rose-colored glasses come off? Below, the doc has some advice. 

  • Give yourself time and space. The best thing you can do is pause between dates to process interactions with potential partners. Since projection occurs on a level outside of our immediate awareness, it can have the most influence when we stop ourselves from robustly reflecting on our feelings. Take some time to understand your wants and needs. This will make it easier for you to see a situation with more realistic expectations.
  • Study your history. Since projection is driven by our own internal experiences, often influenced by our relationship history with caregivers and previous partners, it’s important to be aware of these patterns. Noticing when something starts to feel too familiar can be helpful—and you want to identify how these patterns play out on dates or within new relationships.  
  • Be open to being surprised. There are parts of our minds that make us believe everything will always be the same as it once was. Using projection, along with other defenses, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy—trying to force external reality to fit an internal one.  Instead, you can try to open yourself up to new experiences and ultimately minimizing the way the past impacts our relationships in the present. Things rarely change when we keep approaching them in the same way.
  • Remember it’s not just you. Unless that guy from Hinge is using ChatGPT to reply to your messages, you’re always going to be dealing with another living, breathing person (who has their own thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires when dating). Try to take their perspective and be mindful that they’re susceptible to all of the same things you’re feeling—they’re not just a blank canvas for you project on to.

*Names have been changed to protect the victims of projectidating.

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Associate Editor

Sydney Meister is PureWow's Associate Editor, covering everything from dating trends and relationship advice (here's looking at you, 'soonicorns') to interior design, beauty...