Recently a friend and I were discussing 
a slew of dates we’d been on. He mentioned an experience he’d had with a girl named Carmen that didn’t quite work out.

“She said she hated going to the gym,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “How could I date someone who doesn’t care about her health?”
As he spoke, I felt a wave of anxiety crash over me. I wondered how many offhand remarks I’d made in the past that had immediately landed me on some guy’s “do not call” list. Even though I compete in triathlons, I could imagine making a similar comment about the gym, especially if I was under the influence of early-date jitters. For all Ryan knew, maybe his date hated the gym because she preferred to run outside. He’d never find out.

These details matter. “Your perceptions can be wildly skewed when you size up a potential partner,” says Dr Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love. “Where you meet, your mannerisms, your preconceptions – even movies you’ve seen – all shape how you perceive each other.” It’s not just those awkward first dates that spark perception errors. Wires can cross at any time, making it harder for partners to see each other as they truly are. So use our tips to check your perceptions against reality at every stage of your relationship. You may find that she’s far more interesting, complex and sexy than you imagined.

EARLY DAYS

Stage Manage Your 
Debut With Her
Even if you two haven’t exchanged a word yet, context and environment weigh heavily on your early perceptions of each other. Say you have your eye on someone powering down the bike path. You assume she’s athletic, which in your mind can come with a string of other attributes that might colour your view of her, for better or worse. Similarly, a woman may decide whether or not to message you solely on the basis of a certain band you mention in your dating profile. “We take the limited data we have and fill in the blanks based on our experiences,” says psychologist Dr Christie Hartman, author of It’s Not Him, It’s You. “Until these characterisations are proven otherwise, our brains cling to them.” 
To avoid any off-base assessments, try engineering those first impressions a bit better.

Ditch Drinks and Dinner
Think about doing something more unexpected early on, whether it’s taking a kayaking class or just grabbing coffee and going for a walk in the park. Mixing it up makes it harder for your brain to categorise her, Hartman says. It also takes you off autopilot. “Sharing an experience allows you to interact in the moment instead of swopping the same old 
getting-to-know-you stories, which can make you fall back into a role that may not be wholly authentic,” says Hartman.

Sit in the Glow of Her Friends
Sure, buying a round of drinks for her mates will make them like you, but the move warms her up to you as well. A recent Mississippi State University study found that the opinions of friends positively influence how potential partners are perceived. This is true even over the long term. “When your friends like your romantic partner, you’re likely to be more satisfied and committed to that relationship,” says lead study author Brittany Wright. Bonus move: spruce up your Facebook profile. A study in Human Communication Research found that users who had posts with attractive people were considered better-looking than people whose walls were filled with average-looking pals.

MONTHS IN

Fill in the Blanks 
of Your Perceptions
After a few months, you may still be seeing each other through rose-tinted glasses, thanks to the surge of hormones emitted when falling in love, says psychologist Dr Shauna Springer, author of Marriage, for Equals. “When you meet someone you really like, you also extend something similar to what’s called a ‘self-serving’ bias towards them,” Springer says. You’re motivated to perceive the object of your attraction in the best possible light. If, say, you see her being rude to the waitress, you’re likely to attribute it to her having a bad day rather than a sign of her character. Over time, though, you’ll see each other in a more realistic light. These tricks will help clarify your vision along the way.

Seek Out Adventure
It’s important to see each other when your routines are stripped away and you can more deeply explore your personalities. So find a destination – camping, an island retreat – that neither of you has ever visited. “It takes a year to really get to know someone, so even if you feel extremely close, you may still be seeing what you want to see and not who this person really is,” Tatkin says. Go with no plan and a mutual willingness to improvise – this will push both of you in new directions, revealing more facets of your personalities.

Don’t Sweat All The Small Stuff
So you’ve realised that she’s not the Kerry Washington clone you’ve been seeing in 
your brain – and she sees that you’re no Ryan 
Gosling. That’s normal – and it’s a good sign, says Tatkin. “The concept of permanency both excites and frightens us. The fear activates a threat response, which makes us look for flaws,” he says. “A client once raved about a man for weeks; then one day all she could talk about was how big his ears were. She’d focused all her fears on something she could see.” So when you find yourself fixated on something minor, mentally refresh your perception of her. Flip through photos of her and pretend you’re seeing her for the first time. Still cute? Then ask yourself how important those flaws really are.

YEARS LATER

Bring Fresh Perspectives 
to Your Relationship
If you’ve been together for years, your relationship is mostly rooted in reality, but perceptions still shift as each partner grows and changes over time. “Couples can fall into over-familiarity and assume they know everything about each other,” Springer says. Furthermore, gradually dropping activities or interests can alter your perceptions without either of you realising it. Say, for instance, you used to play guitar but stopped because work and life got in the way. She doesn’t know you as a guitar player, and you may have forgotten how important that was to you. Fixing such lapses can perk up your perceptions of each other. Also explore these other ways of being more in the moment.

Hone Your Compliments
Hearing praise from your significant other helps both of you continue to present your best selves, even as the relationship settles into a pj’s-and-Homeland routine. “Rather than risk discovering the truth that your beliefs about her aren’t correct, she may subconsciously put in extra effort to sync up with your compliment,” says Dr Gary Lewandowski, a psychologist at Monmouth University. Giving her specific praise – she’s really rocking that dress, her eyes look great in that light – also puts you in the habit of seeing and appreciating her in the moment, as she truly is.

Add Elements of Surprise
“People are susceptible to ‘change blindness’ in their daily lives,” says Lewandowski. They might not notice physical changes, like weight loss (or gain) or new haircuts, in their partner. The best way to reset is to see each other in contexts you normally aren’t privy to, whether it’s inviting her to come watch you shoot hoops or going to happy hour with her and her colleagues, Springer says. In those circumstances you’re each framed differently, and you may suddenly notice changes in your personalities or appearances. You may even come away with entirely new perspectives. She’ll see you as the player your buddies look up to, and you’ll see her as the hilarious trash-talker you never knew she was.

– Anna Davies