How To Avoid Projecting Potential On A New Partner

Even before we enter the world of dating, we all have an idea of the type of people we see ourselves with. We envision perfection, wrapped in beauty, wit, and success. We assume that when we fall in love it will be forever and that person will be the pure embodiment of everything we've ever wanted in a partner. At no point in the fairytale do we see ourselves with someone complicated, a bit messed up, and lugging around a bunch of baggage — you know, someone human.

Because it's been so ingrained into our minds that there's a Prince Eric out there for us, when we come across, say, a Gaston, we project potential onto them. Sure, Gaston is a sexist imbecile who doesn't read books, but when you're projecting potential you believe that if he picked up a copy of "Pride and Prejudice," he would be different (read: better). In other words, you see potential there — you just need to dig it out of him and someday he'll be the person you want him to be. Now that's a lot of work to take on, because Gaston will always be rife with problematic behavior and will never evolve.

When we first start dating someone new we go into it with rose-colored glasses, which is very enchanting, but it's still important to peel back the layers and see the reality. It's in this moment that you need to decide if hanging onto what you think they can be or letting them go is the healthiest decision. Hint: It's the latter.

What does it mean to project potential onto a partner?

Projecting potential onto a partner is basically taking a chunk of clay and assuming that, in time, it will be a perfect vase. Despite the fact that you don't know how to make vases, you just know the clay has the potential to be a vase — which is true. Everyone has potential. The entire human race is walking around with potential, but that doesn't mean everyone will reach it. But when you're into someone new, sometimes you can only see the "someday" or "what if" part of the story. You gather up all the things you hope and think they will be and project them onto them. There's a name for this: fantasy bond.

The concept of the fantasy bond was developed by psychologist Robert Firestone to describe the illusion people create about their partners to form a connection. Fantasy bonds can vary, but it ultimately comes down to loving someone due to a fantasy you've scripted for them, which actually isn't real love at all. It's more like a façade that you've built either out of fear or self-protection. Because why else would you be with someone for their potential? Fantasy bonds are essentially non-relationships under the guise of being legit relationships. Because they're not real, it's easy to keep them superficial and focus on the impossible. You may not realize it, but according to Firestone, when you're dating someone for their potential, you're keeping yourself at a safe distance because you're not able or willing to get close. In fact, in these cases it's sometimes more about your red flags than your partner's.

How it's harmful

There are two people who are harmed when projecting potential onto a new partner: you and them. You're harming yourself because you're selling yourself a bag a beans, as they say, and you're harming your partner because you're trying to produce a person that isn't there.

"You have to remember that they are also a separate person with separate strengths and separate weaknesses," psychologist Dr. Chloe Carmichael tells Women's Health. "And just as you want to be loved and accepted for your whole self, so, too, do they."

The damage you inflict can be emotionally devastating to you both. On one hand, if everything you want for your partner never comes to be, you've let yourself down with your own projections. On the other hand, you've created something for your partner that they may not be able to achieve, leaving them to feel like they're not good enough for you. You're basically saying, "You're okay for now, but you're going to be great in three years and I'll like you more then." However, when three years rolls around and they're still the same, do you give them another three years? Do you play the potential game forever, never once coming to your senses or releasing them from the expectations that you set for them? It's a detrimental way to go about dating people, especially because everyone is injured in the process: You've settled and held out for something that doesn't exist, and they've failed you — as well as themselves. 

How to be realistic

Expectations are great! Expectations give us the get-up-and-go attitude that some people need, but they're also something that should be reserved for our personal growth. We have no business deciding how and what someone should become, then hanging onto them waiting for them to flourish into that person. It's not just exhausting, but a waste of time.

"Potential is great, but how a person uses their potential is way more important than just possessing it," licensed therapist Shamyra Howard tells xoNecole. "Potential is having the will and skill to be effective. Reality is actionable proof of how will and skill is executed."

If the reality and the potential aren't even remotely aligned, you need to step away. It's one thing to love someone and support them in their dreams, no matter how far-fetched those dreams may be, but it's another thing to create a world of potential for someone who lacks it. You're not under any obligation to love or even date someone who doesn't fit the mold that you've decided is the only thing that will work for you. Because of this, there's no sense in holding out for a better version of someone. The world is full of people, many of whom may already fit the bill. So, do yourself and your partner a favor and just accept that they are what they are. You either take 'em or leave 'em, but don't try to make them into a vase. Some people are more comfortable being a chunk of clay, and someone out there will love them for it.