Love

How "Fantasy Relationships" Provide The Illusion Of Closeness While Keeping Real Intimacy At Bay

Fantasy relationships

I remember the first time I became involved in a fantasy relationship. It was the summer of 2008, and I was getting ready to start my first year at U.C. Davis.

I’d matched on a dating site with a girl who was also an incoming freshman.

In long messages spread out across the span of several weeks, we talked about our majors (she was bio-sci with plans to become a doctor; I was Spanish and psychology, with a minor in English); our recent vacations (mine to Greece to visit family; hers to Ojai); and our celebrity crushes (Tibby from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants for her; Emma Watson for me), among other topics.

With every message exchanged, I felt anticipation steadily building (at least on my end).

She and I met a week after we’d both moved into our respective dorms. I biked down to her quarters, where the air was pungent with the smell of cow poop (U.C. Davis was an agricultural campus, home to many cows). From there we biked to a restaurant in downtown Davis, where we ate massive salads next to an oval-shaped lawn outside. Trees rained occasional leaves down onto the salmon-colored concrete ground beneath our feet. 

I remember it feeling… awkward. 

Her entire vibe was different than what I’d imagined. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel comfortable around her, or like I could be myself. 

It became clear to me that this girl and I hadn’t spent enough time in person before my mind had built up all these ideas about her. In the absence of face-to-face communication, it had filled in the blanks with its own projections and desired traits. 

Variations of this situation would repeat themselves more than once in the years to come. And with dating apps ubiquitous in this day and age, I’m not the only person who’s fallen into the trap.

Defining fantasy relationships

It’s not uncommon to engage in some level of fantasizing during the “talking” phase of online dating before you’ve met the person face to face: As Kira Asatryan wrote, “Just one picture on Tinder, one tweet we find hilarious or off-putting, and we think we know who the person is. As The Bachelor proves, no activity is more ruled by fantasies than dating.”

Anyone who’s had a celebrity crush has participated in a fantasy relationship, at least on some level. Developing an infatuation with someone you know you’ll never meet, likely won't form a meaningful relationship with, or who’s unavailable, can also be an example of it. 

“Ben doesn’t date people. He dates ideas,” says a character in the Hulu movie Plus One. 

What drives people to engage in fantasy relationships?

I used to think that people succumbed to the womb-like allure of fantasy relationships only when they lacked the social skills to form real ones. I, for one, was a pretty reclusive kid. For a while —due to internalized homophobia — boys were the objects of my un-acted-upon infatuations.

Yet the habit lingered to some extent even after I came out, grew out of my boy-crazy phase, developed more self-confidence, and started dating real people. It came with me every time I got involved with a girl and found myself unconsciously (and prematurely) putting her on a pedestal before actually knowing her. 

It was there each time I started developing feelings for the idea of a person, without having spent much time with their in-the-flesh counterpart. It was perhaps at play when I passed up a person for being too boring, or for “not feeling a spark” when I was with them.

Why else do we engage in fantasy relationships?

For one, they allow us to hide. Olivia Laing, in her book The Lonely Cityreferenced “what is described in the German as Maskenfreiheit, the freedom conveyed by masks. To refuse scrutiny is to dodge the possibility of rejection.”

Fantasy relationships also give us agency. Inside them, most of what we choose to show the other is pristine and perhaps unexplored — inclusive of only the endearing, innocuous, and easy-to-accept types of imperfections. We get to, in some respects, control the narrative.

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This happened to me the summer I was 19 when I had a relationship with a girl who lived across the country. She and I texted, vid-chatted lengthily, and wrote letters to each other — without ever having met. I can't speak for her, but I know for me at least, this set-up provided some safety.

Both of us could always end the call when we wanted to. No obvious lamps (such as in-person silence between us) could shine a light on the reality of our imperfect connection. The distance allowed us to never show the sides we didn’t want the other to see.

Often in fantasy relationships, the other person is a concept we carry inside our heads. We have control over when to tap into it, as well as when we want to shut it off. We can give as much as we want. It’s very comfortable and completely on our terms. 

Lastly, you might also just genuinely not be in an area where you are meeting many like-minded people.

Back when I was in high school, the idea that I would date women or even talk to potential dating prospects seemed unfathomable to me, so I channeled my impulse to connect into fantasy relationships on MySpace, with girls who lived in other states. These girls and I exchanged messages with the awareness that we would never actually meet in person. 

The Consequences of Fantasy Relationships

There are personal costs to engaging in fantasy relationships, though. When you’re in one, you’re more vulnerable to getting hurt. It’s easier for another person to dehumanize you, or for you to dehumanize another person.

Years ago, for example, I’d matched with a girl from an online dating app. In between tasks in my job as a social worker, messages with her became a restorative distraction. She was in school in Colorado at the time but would be returning to the Bay Area in a month or so for summer vacation. 

I was excited to meet her. Her responses were always quick, lengthy, and enthusiastic. She snowboarded, seemed sporty and outdoorsy, and in almost all of her pictures — many of them close-ups with dogs — her big bright smile lit up her entire face. 

After we’d texted for about a month, this girl abruptly ended contact without explanation. I was hurt by her inability to offer one and wondered if the ease with which she was able to cut off all communication (right in the middle of an innocuous conversation about French bulldogs) had something to do with the fact that, because we’d never met, she didn’t really view me as an actual person.

Involvement in a fantasy relationship also means time spent away from the here and now.

In real intimacy you can’t backspace or edit every single word before sending; you’ll say things that aren’t perfect, then accept whatever consequences result from this. Doing so is both a skill and an act of vulnerability. Remaining cocooned in the womb of full control that written communication provides, on the other hand, can lead your intimacy muscles to fall into disuse.

How can you avoid falling into a fantasy relationship? 

1. Limit written correspondence and time spent looking at their pictures, and meet sooner rather than later.

In fantasy relationships, a lot of interaction and impression formation happens through messaging. We draw conclusions from Instagram pictures, filling in the blanks with our own projections. When we read the other person’s texts, we imagine details that may not even be there.

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Practiced too early on — without meeting first to establish if you’re even attracted to each other — excessive written contact fuels the engine of fantasy relationships. For this reason, try to engage minimally in written contact, or at least balance it out with time spent face-to-face.

Disclaimer: There are exceptions. Sometimes you can meet and talk online, and get to know each other very well, and the connection feels just as great in person. That happened to me during the pandemic and I was just as (if not more attracted to) my “pen-pal” after meeting her in person. However, we're likelier to build someone up in our heads in the absence of external cues, or when we’re not keyed into the energy that’s actually flowing between the two of us. 

2. Perform reality checks.

Reality checks through spending time together face-to-face will also help you to decide whether you’re genuinely interested in a person or more attracted to the idea of them. For me, when I realize that a person and I have been intimate in my head more than we have in real life, I know it’s a bad sign.

With one girl for instance: I’d hung out with her once or twice. The time we’d spent in person wasn’t sufficient for me to know if the character evaluations I’d made were valid; I was pulling from isolated behavior. Not enough time had passed for a pattern to even form. Spending increased time face-to-face allows for that pattern formation. 

3. Practice embracing the positives of real, imperfect people. 

Being overly judgmental of the real people in one’s tangible world can either fuel a fantasy relationship mentality or be a symptom of it. Looking back on my own experiences, I can see that I did this at times.

Judgments leading to feelings of lack of attraction can be a sign that the relationship is getting more real. Often when they begin to siege the mind, the mysticism is gone. The other person’s messy humanity has sullied the sacred space they once occupied in your heart and mind — where the fantasy-prone stores the negatives, or the untarnished blueprint, of their idealized partner.

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Because of this, I’ve found it helpful to gently challenge or engage in dialogue with the judgments — especially if I was attracted to the person earlier on. (Please note: this doesn’t work if you were never attracted to the person, to begin with.)

I’ve noticed the judging voice subsides the more I hone into the present moment and really focus on fostering in-person connection. The more I see, hear, and build moments and memories with another person, the more I take each minute as it comes — calming my thoughts and guiding them back to their baseline when they begin to fixate on the flaws.

I try to remind myself that each of us is responsible for our perceptions. We are responsible for building a person up in our minds. And we are equally responsible when that golden statue version of them we’ve placed high up on a pedestal inevitably comes crashing down.

It’s within our power to attempt to see people for everything they are and to pay attention and take them in (rather than letting need or fear airbrush certain parts). Similar to how general mindfulness proposes we treat our emotional states, mindful dating might entail letting a person with all of her imperfections live and breathe before you.

4. Make sure your other needs are met.

 If they’re not, you may be more likely to unconsciously turn to a fantasy relationship in an attempt to meet them. For instance, the more time I spend scrolling through social media, the more I find the fantasy relationships mindset returning.

It flares when the weather’s gloomy or when I haven’t been sleeping well. It clouds my brain when I’ve been putting unhealthy foods into my body. It shows its deceptively glittering face when my body’s been moving around too much, scampering from place to place with insufficient time to rest.

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Practicing self-care makes implementing all of the above tips easier. The more grounded we feel in reality, the more we might find ourselves appreciating other people in their full complexity —and the less likely a fantasy relationship mindset is to sweep us away.

5. Consider alcohol’s role.

I believe that on many occasions, alcohol has colluded with the part of my mind that idealizes people before truly knowing them (which leads to let-down later on, because what goes up must come down).

Alcohol can obscure judgment. It can give you unrealistic rose-colored glasses. It can make you temporarily attracted to people you wouldn’t otherwise be attracted to. With sober eyes, we’re better at seeing people for who they are choosing to present as, rather than for who we want them to be.

Consider reducing your alcohol intake, at least at the beginning stages of forming a relationship.

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Fantasy relationships allow us to maintain our autonomy and self-sufficiency—but we don’t reap the benefits of true messy intimacy from them. 

As relationship coach Matthew Fray put it, “Without sharing the whole truth about who we are, we can never be as trustworthy as relationships require to remain healthy.” 

It's within our power to disassemble, bit by bit and piece by piece,  these fantasy versions we’ve inadvertently and perhaps unconsciously built of another person or relationship over time.

We can direct our attention back to what’s in front of us. We can then step out from the mind and into the present moment — where the construction of a reality taking place outside of it awaits. One that’s far more substantial, and likelier to give you a shot at relational fulfillment.

Eleni Stephanides is a LGBTQ bilingual writer and Spanish medical interpreter. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Uncomfortable Revolution, Breath and Shadow, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others. Follow her on Instagram.

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