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"Play me Chopin. He died before I could know him, and so he remains beautiful."

"Almost five years [he had pined for her]! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart."
Nick about Gatsby and his flame for Daisy, The Great Gatsby
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The nature of emotional relationships often overlaps in confusing complications ranging from the simple crush to Freudian oddness. If this causes the writers to accidentally build things like harems, the easy way to get around this is to reveal the basal nature of a relationship. This is a form of Wishful Projection.

In the character's mind, one type of relationship was simply confused with another. This has some basis in reality, where some potentially romantic relationships are actually people seeking "figures". (Hell, who hasn't done this at some point?) They spend time with a person because he or she reminds them of someone else. For example, some characters attracted to older characters often have an absent parent or older sibling. This situation is often the inherent role of an Unwanted Harem's Unlucky Everydude.

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In some other cases, it turns out that the character was only in love with the idea of being in love and applied it to the first suitable person they met; and in others, a character falls in love with another character… or more specifically, some defining feature of that character. For example, Bob falls in love with Alice because she is incredibly beautiful, or a brilliant fighter, or incredibly smart, but he fails to actually comprehend Alice beyond that trait. This is easy to do to The Lost Lenore since she's not around to contradict an idealized version of her.

Doing this poorly can feel incredibly cheap if the "explanation" doesn't make sense or potential evidence wasn't presented beforehand, as it feels as if the writers are just going down the list of romantic opposition and checking them off.

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A sub-trope of Broken Pedestal, which is often what awaits anyone on the path of this trope.

Like Death of the Hypotenuse and Ron the Death Eater, this trope serves as a subtrope of Die for Our Ship in fanfic, to clear the way for the author's preferred ship.

If a character is Really 700 Years Old, this can keep the writers from having to deal with a Mayfly–December Romance.

The trope name refers to Éowyn's unrequited love for Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from the line "It is but a shadow and a thought that you love. I cannot give you what you seek."

Accordingly, compare and contrast with All Love Is Unrequited. Compare The Dulcinea Effect. Not to be confused with Fighting a Shadow.

See Post-Support Regret for the platonic version of this trope, though the two can overlap if the one who loved the shadow was an Only Friend who supported them and ignored all their wrongdoings, only to be proven wrong.

Most definitely can be Truth in Television.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Anya's Ghost: Like many typical teenage girls, Anya is infatuated with the Big Man on Campus, Sean, a handsome and popular sports star, and seeks Emily’s help to win him for herself. However, her infatuation vanishes when she discovers that the guy she has been pining for is a Manipulative Bastard who preys on his girlfriend’s insecurities so he can cheat on her constantly with her knowledge and even her help.
  • In Batgirl (Rebirth), Batgirl tells a childhood friend in love with her alter ego that he doesn't know anything about Barbara's current self.
    Kai: I'm sorry. I never meant... I love her.
    Batgirl: You don't even know her, Kai. You're in love with a memory.
  • Batman villain Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter, is sometimes portrayed as fixating on women (or, if the writer is prepared to go there, girls) who look like the title character of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, convincing himself they're "his" Alice, and then kidnapping and mind-controlling them. In his Joker's Asylum issue, he has a meltdown simply on noticing his current obsession has a name badge saying "Catheryn", because what kind of not-Alice name is that?
  • Convergence:
    • Because the Flashpoint Mera died before Convergence began, Flashpoint Aquaman is looking at her counterparts to find a suitable replacement. He's settled on the pre-Flashpoint Mera in Convergence: Justice League.
    • The Flashpoint Superman, Subject-One, does the same thing with the pre-Flashpoint Lois Lane. He's convinced she's his version of Lois and wants only to save her.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2020): Gamora gives this as the reason she went with Peter Quill rather than Richard Rider. Despite their feelings for one another, Gamora idolized Rich while he was presumed dead, but when he comes back, his Chronic Hero Syndrome scuppers any chance of them being together. It was easier to love him while he was dead.
  • A story from Giant-Size Hulk implies the hulk had a little of this with Caiera in Planet Hulk, as she reminded him of Jarella, another woman from an alien world who loved the Hulk... but Bruce is quick to remind the Hulk that Jarella loved him, not the Hulk.
  • Lois Lane often came across as this towards Superman back during her Stalker with a Crush days.
  • Amora the Enchantress' on-again/off-again fixation with The Mighty Thor showed signs of this.
  • Namor the Sub-Mariner's infatuation with Susan Storm-Richards/The Invisible Woman had a little bit of this on both ends.
  • In the New 52, Mr. Freeze's origin is given this unsettling twist. When Victor Fries was a child he became fascinated with freezing things when his mother almost died after falling through thin ice. As an adult, he became fascinated with Nora Fields, a woman who was cryogenically frozen at age 23 in 1943 when she was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. At the time she was in the care of Wayne Industries, so Fries applied for a job there just so he could have a chance to study her. He eventually became delusionally obsessed with her and started thinking she was his wife—a nasty change from his more sympathetic DCAU origin. Batman calls out Freeze on his delusional "love" of a woman he doesn't know who is old enough to be his grandmother. Needless to say, this hit Fanon Discontinuity like a brick wall and eventually also hit Canon Discontinuity, with Bruce explicitly stating that Nora is Fries' wife in All-Star Batman.
    • Canon Fries sometimes gets this treatment as well, with Batman questioning if he does his crimes out of love for Nora or just using her as an excuse.
  • Nightwing gets this all the time.
    • At one point he had upwards of six love interests, all of whom were infatuated with different shadows.
    • Raven feels this way for Nightwing for an arc in Teen Titans when she's permitted to feel emotions for the first time. Starfire has to pull her aside and explain that there are different kinds of love. At first, it looks like they're headed to a different solution, but they end up working things out in a mundane way.
    • This is one of the reasons that Nightwing and Oracle fell apart. She was in love with Robin and he was in love with Batgirl — Nightwing and Oracle's former secret identities.
  • An aborted Supergirl Bronze Age storyline had the titular heroine meeting her childhood boyfriend Dick Malverne. Dick would admit he was still in love with her, and Linda would retort he hasn't seen her in about a decade and doesn't know her anymore.
  • In an old She-Hulk comic, She-Hulk meets an old boyfriend who introduced her to his new girlfriend who looked just like She-Hulk only not so green. The two women glared at each other.
  • Spider-Man: A good number of Spider-Man's romances with anyone other than Mary Jane Watson are this. Either his love interests like Peter Parker or hate Spider-Man, or like Spider-Man but don't care for the Peter Parker side of him, leading few of them to really get to know the real him and be completely honest with each other:
    • The Black Cat was in love with Spider-Man and only Spider-Man; she had no interest in the man under the mask when Peter revealed his identity to her. She eventually grew to love Peter for himself, but by that time their relationship was long over and Peter was Happily Married to Mary Jane.
    • This is also the case for the Peter-Gwen romance, at least Depending on the Writer. In Tom Beland's one-shot "Web of Romance", Peter actually reflects this about his feelings for Gwen and how it compares to his relationship with Mary Jane (who's always been insecure about being a replacement for Gwen). Peter notes that with Gwen, he was always tense, nervous because of how emotional she was, never entirely relaxed, and that he was never able to be honest and open with her in the way he is with Mary Jane, and his feelings for his wife are greater than they were for Gwen.
      • The Sinister Six Trilogy includes a scene where Spider-Man, watching a holographic recreation of Gwen's death, reflects that he has come to recognize that he and Gwen wouldn't have worked out long-term, as she wanted a peaceful life where he seeks crusades, but that doesn't stop him from wishing that she could have lived a longer life.
    • In Ultimate Spider-Man, when Peter is in a relationship with Kitty Pryde during one of the breakups between him and MJ, he talks about Kitty to MJ (now Amicable Exes) and how she finds it easier to be in a relationship with Spider-Man rather than Peter Parker, then reflects that "she doesn't know me". He and Kitty do become close friends later on but at that point, while Kitty never stops having feelings for him, there's never a possibility of a relationship between them.
  • Watchmen: In a platonic example, Rorschach greatly admires and respects his father, considering him to be a good man. However, it's later revealed that his father walked out on his mother before he was born and Rorschach has never actually met the man.
  • X-Men:
    • Cyclops' unfortunate involvement with Madelyn Pryor (AKA: the clone of Jean Grey) was very much this. Note that it was originally intended to be a Decon-Recon Switch—Scott fell for a girl who coincidentally looked like his dead love, the girl called him out on it, and eventually, he came to love her for who she really is. Then Executive Meddling kicked in...
    • Wolverine's infatuation with Jean Grey, and redheads in general, has traces of this. Deep down he never got over Rose, his first (unrequited) love and one of his first (accidental) victims.
    • Colossus refused to see his sister Illyana as anything but his beloved little "snowflake" even after it was clear to everyone else that her time in Limbo and her transformation into a demon sorceress had changed her for the worse (it was even a factor in ruining his renewed romance with Kitty Pryde). Illyana got fed up with this and manipulated Colossus into temporarily becoming the new Juggernaut to teach him a lesson. In her own words, "there are no snowflakes in Hell." When Colossus realizes that she tricked him into becoming the servant of a God of Evil and let him suffer when she could have freed him at any time, he acknowledges that she's become a monster and vows to kill her the next time they meet.

    Films — Animation 
  • It could be taken that in 9, 5 gets so attached to 9 so quickly because he reminds him somewhat of 2, especially considering how much he muses about 2 the first couple of times they're together, his "You know, you're just like him—you forget to be scared!" line, and the fact that 2 is killed shortly after they meet.
  • Frozen (2013): Anna falls for Hans and agrees to marry him quickly because she's desperate for affection when the person to whom she really wants to be close again is her sister Elsa (not in that way). After reconciling with her sister and seeing that Hans is not the Prince Charming he made himself out to be, she's able to move on and actually spends time getting to know her new Love Interest Kristoff before getting into a serious commitment with him.
  • Strange Magic: Marianne, when commiserating on her love life with The Bog King, admits that she didn't really know her ex-fiancé Roland because she was blinded by his good looks.
  • Non-romantic example in Toy Story 4: Gabby Gabby is an antique doll who was never played with because she was defective right out of the box. She eventually ended up in an antiques store and became fixated on the store owner's granddaughter Harmony, probably because she looked like the little girl in the storybook she was sold with and was the only kid she saw regularly. She believed Harmony was the perfect owner although she’s shown to be fairly careless and probably a little spoiled as her grandma let her take whatever toy she wanted from the store free of charge, and her driving motivation is to replace her faulty voice box so she can finally be with Harmony. When she actually does manage to get Woody’s voice box Harmony casually tosses her aside, leaving her devastated. Fortunately she finds a child who appreciates her soon after.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In American Graffiti, Curt sees a beautiful woman in the next car and spends most of the movie trying to meet her. He knows literally nothing about her. When describing her to people, one person thinks that she's a married woman, while another identifies her with a prostitute; in both cases, Curt refuses to believe that they have the right girl, apparently just because he doesn't want it to be true. His ultimate decision to stop chasing her ties into his overall arc about needing to find an adult life outside of town.
    • Note that, in an earlier version, this trope would have been more literal: the movie was going to open with the girl, except that she was transparent, indicating that she wasn't real, just Curt's idea of a perfect woman.
  • Rob Gordon in High Fidelity realizes this about Charlie, his third ex. He spends most of the movie reminiscing about how fantastic, and sophisticated, and amazing, and profoundly intellectual, and out of his league she was—back when they dated in college—until he finally sees her again after having grown up a bit. It would be an understatement to say Rob discovers how utterly boring and shallow and repulsive she truly is and always was.
  • One of the waitresses in I Really Hate My Job wonders if her crush on Danny Huston is just this. Then she shrugs it off with wondering if he'd fall in love with her.
  • Subverted in Laura. When it turns out she is alive, she is what the detective hoped she would be.
  • Nurse Betty: Charlie falls in love with an idealized version of the woman he is chasing and argues with any suggestions that conflict with his opinion of her. This constantly annoys and baffles his partner Wesley. Ultimately, it turns into an oddly touching You Are Better Than You Think You Are speech during their last confrontation.
  • In There's Something About Mary, Ted explains that none of the guys pursuing Mary love her, but are fixated on her "because of the way [she] makes them feel about themselves".
  • A tragic example is Scottie's fascination with who he thinks is Madeleine in Vertigo, and his attempt to mold Judy into the same woman, indeed the woman he originally loved was never real to begin with.
  • The main character in While You Were Sleeping nurses a crush on a regular commuter at the train station where she collects tokens. Over the course of the movie, she comes to discover that, while not really a bad man, he's not the man she thought he was and finds herself falling for his brother, whom she gets to know quite well.
  • Bruce Wayne/Batman spends much of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy being stubbornly infatuated with Rachel Dawes, his childhood friend. The two actually have very little in common as adults, outside of wanting Gotham City to be a better place; and though Rachel promised Bruce she would wait for him to finish his work as Batman at the end of Batman Begins, they have even less in the way of chemistry, romantic or otherwise. But Bruce just can't seem to let go of his fixation with Rachel, having put her on too high a pedestal, even after she starts dating Harvey Dent. By the end of The Dark Knight, Rachel herself realizes that she probably had a little bit of this towards Bruce as well and finally realizes that she really isn't in love with Bruce while her heart truly belongs to Dent (which ends tragically for all involved). In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce gets into this again with Miranda Tate, who reminds him of Rachel until the end when she reveals herself to be Talia al Ghul and tries to kill him along with the rest of Gotham. In the end, Bruce finally finds something real with Selina Kyle and starts a new life with her in Italy.
  • Comes up in the James Bond films quite often, since James has never really gotten over losing Vesper and Tracy, the two women in his life he really cared about, and he often finds himself in the company of women who see him as a means to an end and he's not above sleeping with them and/or exploiting their feelings.
  • Princess Uracca had a bit of this towards Rodrigo in El Cid.
  • Zigzagged with Peter Parker's infatuation with Mary Jane Watson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man Trilogy, where he has put her on something of a pedestal since childhood while she barely seems to know he even exists. However, Peter's also aware that MJ isn't the perfect glamor girl she presents herself as and tries to respect her relationship choices while still offering her his friendship. MJ, for her part, was implied to be fond of Peter to an extent, and ultimately reciprocates his feelings because he genuinely cares about and wants to get to know her. Though the third film shows how their respective issues complicate their relationship.
    • MJ's initial boyfriends are a straighter example, as she breaks up with them when it turns out they're more interested in the image of her than her true self.
  • In (500) Days of Summer, it's made clear in the movie and by Word of God that Tom is fixated on an idealized version of Summer as his desired Manic Pixie Dream Girl and doesn't see the actual flawed human being in front of him, namely that Summer is not interested in a serious relationship with him.
  • In Problem Child 3, this becomes the main plot point. Junior falls in love with a girl and admires her from afar. Towards the end of the movie, he finally gets to talk to her and quickly discovers that she is a shallow Alpha Bitch. Not only does he quickly lose interest, but he also pulls a prank on her shortly afterwards.
  • In 27 Dresses, main character Jane works tirelessly for George, the owner of a camping supply company, because she's desperately in love with him and has built up an idealized image over the years. This leads to a bitter war when her sister Tess shows up and falls in love with George at first sight. When Jane finally confesses her love for George and kisses him, she realizes that there is absolutely no spark between them, and she's been enamored of the idea of him rather than the man himself.
    • This is also implied to be the reason why Jane loves planning weddings in the first place—she loves the concept of fairy-tale marriages and "happily ever afters," but doesn't really understand what it takes to actually be in a relationship.

    Music 
  • "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" by John Mayer features Mayer singing to some unknown woman, warning her that he is nothing but trouble and will only lead to heartbreak. He drives the point home with this verse:
    Who do you love?
    Girl I see through, through your love
    Who do you love? Me or the thought of me? Me or the thought of me?
  • Candle by Lunik:
    dreaming all day long
    you're too perfect to be real
    did I just make you up how I wished you to be?
    dreaming with the curtains closed between shades and candlelight
    was it all just in my mind and now I'm losing it?
  • "Shadow" by Maria Mena is a good example of this trope in reverse: Trying hard to be someone I don't even know/ I feel like a shadow/ walking behind who you think I am/... / thought I'd light me bright and new/ but my candle burnt out long before you. Likewise, Boston's "A Man I'll Never Be."
  • Conceiving You by Riverside is about eventually giving up the actual person to love the shadow.
  • "Ten Years Gone" from Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin
    'Vixen in my dreams, of great surprise to me; in the midst I see your face the way it used to be''
  • "Behavior" by Steel Train.
    A pretty girl.
    Followed her around the world.
    And when I caught her she said to me:
    "Look, at love, it's nothing but a shadow.
    Where you saw, a heart, that was hollow.
    Look, at you. You've been chasing shadows."
    And then I woke up.
  • "Her Pretender" by Off Course. Though it does turn out okay in the end since the singer sticks around as "her someone else" long enough for her to see him as himself.
    Like an illusion surrounded by fantasy
    A lover’s confusion; she only sees what she wants to see
    I guess I’m just an imitator soon to be
    The love I feel was never meant for me
  • "Love Through Her" by The Weeknd
    Am I going crazy?
    Do I need some therapy to get shorty out of my mind?
    Girl, my head is racing
    Heard shorty's been needing the rest of my mind

    Am I making love to you through her?
    Am I make love to you through her?
    Am I making love to you through her?
    Love through her (love through her)
  • "Shadow Lover" by Mary Jane Girls is about exactly this
  • A track from Rush's Clockwork Angels involves the narrator falling in love, only to realize when he is rebuffed that he had created an idealized woman in his mind and then attempted to graft his delusions onto a real person; he admits this was not the first time he has done this. The song is even called Halo Effect.
  • "A Forest" by The Cure, from Seventeen Seconds (Album), if interpreted metaphorically, has the protagonist looking for a girl who is supposedly lost, only to find out she "was never there". He then realizes, lost himself, he just ran "towards nothing", which we assume is not the first time in his life.
  • The song "Flawless" from The Neighbourhood is about the singer falling in love with an idealized, 'flawless' girl that he starts a relationship with... and then falls out of love with when he gets to know her and realizes that she's human and flawed the way everyone is.
  • Poets of the Fall's "Carnival of Rust" has singer Zoltar, a decaying automaton stuck in his fortuneteller's booth, desperate to leave the Carnival. It's clear that his pleas and demands for love from his latest customer stem from self-interested Wishful Projection. He taints her Tarot reading by declaring her "The Star," his Messiah Figure, instead of recognizing her as a person in her own right, and as a result, his affections go unreciprocated.
  • "Who's That Girl" by Robyn
    Who's that girl? That you dream of
    Who's that girl? That you think you love
    Who's that girl? What if I'm nothing like her?
  • Inverted in The Veronicas' "Everything I'm Not", A girl decides to leave her boyfriend because he's forcing her to be someone that she isn't.
  • "Slow, Love, Slow" by Nightwish has these lines:
    I wonder
    Do I love you or the thought of you?
  • "Dream Boy" by Waterparks is all about this.
    Awsten Knight: It’s about being built into something, based on an idealised version of you – an unwarranted one, at that – where people look at you as a certain thing...they put what they need you to be into their heads. It’s built into this thing that you cannot live up to, and it’s ultimately going to lead to disappointment – on their end, and my end, because it doesn’t feel good to let people down. But that’s just what happens. Pop banger, dude!
  • "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia refers to "him" (the imagined lover) and "you" (the actual person) as separate people. Per the chorus: "Illusion never changed / Into something real."
    I thought I saw a man brought to life
    He was warm, he came around like he was dignified
    He showed me what it was to cry
    Well, you couldn't be that man I adored
    You don't seem to know or seem to care what your heart is for
    But I don't know him anymore
    There's nothing where he used to lie
    The conversation has run dry
    That's what's going on
  • Tears for Fears: This is the meaning behind "I Love You But I'm Lost", as Roland Orzabal explains:
    This song is about the haziness, the blurred lines within a relationship, the sense of having someone and losing someone in the same instant; like putting your arms around that person only for them to instantly disappear into vapours, the idea or ideal of someone who is impossible to pin down or own.

    Roleplay 

    Theater 
  • Cyrano de Bergerac: One of the core points of the play is that Roxane doesn’t love Christian nor Cyrano, she is in love with their Shadow Archetype: An entity who has all the positive traits of both suitors, but none of their defects, a true shadow. It may also be questioned whether Cyrano or Christian is actually in love with Roxanne or just enamored of her golden beauty and wit.
  • In J. B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner, pretty much all the characters' unrequited affections for each other turn out to be this. The entire play is based on how none of them really knew or understood each other for who they were.
  • Into the Woods: Both the Princes fall into this with their respective maidens (Cinderella and Rapunzel). Tellingly, their I Want songs are all about their desire for what they have set their hearts on and the pain of not yet achieving it, more so than the actual women in question - they are briefly content after marrying their brides, but soon enough become bored of actually having them, and their eyes begin to wander to new challenges. To a lesser extent, Cinderella is also guilty of this; being with her Prince was more a dream of escaping her wretched conditions than anything about him specifically. Perhaps best summed up in Cinderella and the Prince's final words to each other upon their relationship's inevitable collapse:
    Prince: I...shall always love the maiden who ran away.
    Cinderella: And I the faraway prince.
  • Les Misérables had Éponine sum up this trope best with "And I know it's only in my mind: that I'm talking to myself and not to him... I love him, but only on my own."
  • In On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Mark Bruckner falls in love with Daisy Gamble by discovering her eighteenth-century incarnation, Melinda Welles.
  • In The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge, Pegeen Mike falls in love with Christie Mahon, despite knowing little about him, because the one thing she thinks she knows inspires her to imagine him as an adventurous, romantic figure, the "playboy" of the title. When it turns out that the one thing isn't true, she turns against him. The irony is that, partly inspired by her interest in him, Christie has blossomed over the course of the play into just such an adventurous, romantic figure as she imagined — but she doesn't realise this until it's too late to get him back.
  • Romeo and Juliet: Romeo begins the story utterly heartbroken that his one true love Rosaline has dumped him. The minute he sees Juliet, he is utterly infatuated with his new one true love. Some interpret this to mean he, being very Hot-Blooded and brimming with all kinds of intense emotions (he is 16 after all), is too needy or in love with the idea of being in love. However, such an interpretation is not popular because it destroys the notion that the play depicts love at its most ideal.
  • Subverted with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; at one point, Todd starts wondering what his daughter Johanna (whom he has not seen in 15 years since she was a baby) is like, and ultimately concludes that he can't really care about her. Played disturbingly straight with Anthony for Johanna (he seems mostly enamoured of the idea of rescuing her from her evil guardian); possibly also Mrs. Lovett for Todd.

    Visual Novels 
  • Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair:
    • Effectively what Kazuichi's crush on Sonia amounts to. He's convinced she's a Princess Classic, which in his mind, makes him her Knight in Shining Armor. In practice, he barely knows a thing about her and is constantly surprised when she shows aspects of her personality that don't fit in with his image of her (though that's not to say he dislikes them). For her part, Sonia is quite aware of this and considers him an Abhorrent Admirer.
    • Ironically, Sonia's crush on Gundham also has elements of this, since she is attracted to his Chuunibyou attitude because she is a Nightmare Fetishist... but it's made abundantly clear in-game (especially in Hajime's Free Time supports with Gundham) that this behaviour is a mask Gundham cultivated when he was young and relentlessly bullied, being an Endearingly Dorky Friend to All Living Things at heart, meaning that Sonia has feelings for who Gundham is pretending to be. She certainly doesn't know him well enough to suspect he killed Nekomaru and when she attempts to beg Monokuma to spare his life, Gundham scolds her for doing so. It's doubly ironic as Gundham is not so different from Kazuichi in that both of them behave the way they do thanks to their troubled childhoods.
  • Fate/hollow ataraxia: Ayako Mitsuzuri's little brother Minori has a crush on Sakura Matou and is jealous of Shirou Emiya for having Sakura's affections. After a talk with him, Shirou finds out Minori doesn't know anything about Sakura and just likes her because she is pretty and he has an image of her being perfect when in reality Sakura is far from it.
  • Little Busters!:
    • Late in Haruka's route, she becomes very worried that she doesn't love Riki, she just thinks she does because she's so broken and insecure that she'd be reacting this way to anyone who showed genuine affection towards her. Riki says that he doesn't care and loves her anyway.
    • In Mio's route, she rejects Riki's Anguished Declaration of Love because she believes he only feels pity for her and is mistaking that for love. She's wrong, obviously.
    • Sasami's route involves her realizing her feelings for Kengo weren't necessarily love, but rather an admiration towards him. Once she realizes this truth, she actually feels relieved when Kengo admits he doesn't reciprocate her feelings.
  • Lucky Me, Lucky You, a free visual novel by ebi-hime, centers around this. The protagonist, Nanami, has just been dumped by her girlfriend, and her best friend Ryo tries to cheer her up with a night of ice cream and...watching porn. One of the movies contains an actress called Misae Morishita, who was Nanami's first crush. After discovering that Misae is from the same area as Ryo's grandparents, Nanami impulsively decides to visit in order to find Misae and confess her feelings. Meeting Misae in real life drives home to Nanami that the person she was crushing on was just a persona from the beginning, and that the real Misae can't live up to her fantasy.
  • Mystic Messenger: Yoosung idolized his cousin Rika and was hit hard by her suicide. If the player character pursues Yoosung, he begins comparing her constantly with Rika which causes Zen and Jaehee to worry that he only sees the PC as a Replacement Goldfish for Rika. In his good ending, he overcomes this. In his bad endings... not so much.
  • Umineko: When They Cry:
    • George Ushiromiya is in love with Shannon, who's a shy and demure Meido. However, Shannon is really just an alter ego of Sayo Yasuda, who's actually incredibly troubled and is planning a Murder-Suicide on a massive scale.
    • An even more disturbing example is with Kinzo Ushiromiya. After his beloved mistress Beatrice Castiglioni's Death by Childbirth, Kinzo's grief made him delude himself into believing that their daughter Beatrice Ushiromiya was her reincarnation, which only got worse as Beatrice Ushiromiya began to resemble her mother even more as she grew older. Naturally, she couldn't understand or return her father's obsessive feelings for her, but this didn't stop him from eventually raping his own daughter thanks to projecting his feelings for her mother onto her.
  • Virtue's Last Reward, this is essentially why Tenmyouji has pursued Akane for so long after escaping from the Nonary Game in Nevada, despite the fact that the search destroyed his life. It isn't until the "End & Beginning" epilogue that he finally acknowledges (to his deep sadness) that the innocent Akane he once knew no longer exists.

    Webcomics 
  • Best Friends Forever: By chapter 23, Vincent finally confesses to Louis that his feelings for Ted are this. He has tried to compare other men to Ted in his mind, but realized that this is unfair to everybody, as he isn't really with Ted, and is much more in love with the idea of having a relationship with Ted and the mental image of a perfect Lovable Nerd he has of Ted rather than Ted himself.
  • Go Get a Roomie!: This is Roomie's reason for not wanting anyone to fall in love with her; she's afraid people only love the Manic Pixie Dream Girl image she prevents and be bored and disappointed with the real person with regular flaws. She takes a big risk with Lilian who falls completely in love with all of the person Roomie is.
    Rooomie: I'm sorry I'm not the person you thought I was -
    Lillian: You're so much more.
    Roomie: Oh God, fuck me.
  • Nanase is introduced in El Goonish Shive as Elliot's Girlfriend... just in time to dump him so he can hook up with Sarah. Elliot's social life was never explored beforehand, and it's pretty obvious Elliot and Nanase's relationship doesn't have much to it. Nanase doesn't know why she doesn't love Elliot, but soon finds out when she falls hard for Elliot's clone Ellen, who of course is a girl.
  • Haruna sees Onii-san as a replacement for her dead fiance Mamoru in Experimental Comic Kotone. However, later strips show that, while she may have originally felt that way, as time went on she fell for Onii-san for real.
  • This turns out to be the major source of conflict between Misho and Marena in Keychain of Creation. Misho refuses to have casual sex with Marena. He wants more than that. Marena wants that too, but won't commit to anything more until she's sure that Misho sees her as she is now, not as she was a millennium ago when she was Misho's First Age Lunar consort.
  • One arc of Least I Could Do has Issa introducing the guys to her new boyfriend, who bears a very strong resemblance to Rayne. The other guys notice this and wonder among themselves if she realizes this, as Issa has adamantly resisted Rayne's advances for the last decade or so.
  • Ménage à 3: Sonya takes up with Gary because she thinks that he’s a sex god and that her sleeping with him will make Yuki wildly jealous. When Gary turns out to be a sexually inexperienced nerd, and Yuki proves too depressed to get angry, Sonya drops Gary. Which said, all that time, she’s never denied that her real obsession is with Zii — which may be another, subtler instance of loving a shadow. In fact, most of the “deeper” relationships in the comic seem to feature elements of the trope; for example, Erik loves Zii as a cool rock chick, DiDi loves Kiley thanks to a dim-witted misunderstanding of something she said, and anyone who so much as looks at DiDi has their brain addled by lust.
  • In Namir Deiter, Cedric convinces himself that he's still in love with Tipper (his high-school sweetheart, whom he broke up with). Tipper tells him point-blank that he's in love with the girl she used to be and she's changed drastically since then. Not to mention she's engaged to someone else. Cedric doesn't take no for an answer. From Tipper OR her fiancee, Charles. It doesn't end well. Then again, Cedric has always been portrayed as a flake who tends to react first and think when forced to.
  • Whale Star: The Gyeongseong Mermaid: Poor Haruko can't get it through her head that the version of Uihyeon she loves, the sensitive young student who used to live in her home, is gone. Nevertheless she keeps trying to reach out to him, hoping he'll eventually like then love her back. He finally breaks off their engagement for good.
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal applies this trope to Charlie Brown's infatuation with the Little Redheaded Girl. His reaction when she inevitably doesn't live up to his idealized fantasy provides the trope image.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Arcane: What ultimately causes Jinx to embrace being Jinx is that Vi loves who she used to be as Powder and not who she currently is, making her decide that compared to Vi unconditionally loving her when they were children, the Vi of the present can't love her unless Jinx goes back to the way she used to be, which she cannot.
  • Bob's Burgers: Happened in "Can't Buy Me Math". When Tina and Darryl pretended to be a couple, she told him how to act as her boyfriend. Afterwards, she thought she’d developed feelings for him. He pointed out that she’d only really developed feelings for the person he was acting like, which was him just following her instructions and nothing like who he really was.
  • The titular character from BoJack Horseman does this to basically everybody who is nice to him or helps him to focus, he tends to over-idealize someone and ignore their flaws as long as they are by his side, often ignoring to even getting to know them properly. This is particularly done to Charlotte, a doe he met 20 years before the series starts a few times who was his best friend's girlfriend at the time, who left to go to Maine. He never really got to know her deeply, but grows to believe she is his last chance to happiness and wonder What Could Have Been. This is ultimately thrown in his face when he goes to find her in New Mexico, just to find out she is a Happily Married mother of two. When he finally declares himself, she Lampshades this: they never were really close, they never got to know much about each other, and they haven't seen each other in 20 years, so why would she choose him over her family?
    • Preceding this was his blow-up fight with Wanda, who lampshades it thus.
      Wanda: You know, it's funny. When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.
    • And in Season Three, he gives this advice to a Runaway Bride he'd accidentally inspired with his speech about the importance of finding a soulmate.
      Tanisha: I love Karen, but does she complete me?
      BoJack: Tanisha, nobody completes anybody. That's not a real thing. If you're lucky enough to find someone you can halfway tolerate, you sink your nails in, and you don't let go, no matter what!
      Tanisha: So, what? I should just settle?
      BoJack: Yes! Thank you! Exactly! Settle! Because otherwise, you're just going to get older, and harder, and more alone. And you're going to do everything you can to fill that hole with friends, and your career, and meaningless sex, but the hole doesn't get filled. And one day, you're going to look around, and you're going to realize that everybody loves you... But nobody likes you. And that is the loneliest feeling in the world.
  • An episode of The Pirates of Dark Water called "A Drop of Darkness" had the older Cray, who had once dated Ren's father. She threw a fit and left him when she caught him having a picnic with another woman. Ren looks like his father, so when Cray regains her youth, she tries to recapture how happy she remembers being. Either Ren marries her, or his friends meet messy ends.
  • Cyclops seems to have this for the missing Jean Grey in Wolverine and the X-Men (2009), not helped by her lack of characterization.
  • Kid Flash's constant flirting with Miss Martian on Young Justice had shades of this, as did Miss Martian's own relationship with Superboy (on both ends).
  • Doughy Latchkey in Moral Orel develops a crush on his teacher, Miss Sculptham, after she calls him "son" - something his actual parents don't. Aside from her clearly not being interested in a child, she just takes advantage of him to get free expensive gifts. When he realizes that their relationship is not mutual, he stops giving.
  • In Danny Phantom, one episode makes it clear that the titular character's mother Maddie would have never been happy with Vlad Masters, his Arch-Enemy, who use to be college friends with Jack, Danny's father, and Maddie, by showing an alternate timeline where Maddie married Vlad. Vlad is shown to be a control freak, controlling his wife's movements and preventing her from pursuing her passion in ghost hunting, while Maddie is still in love with Jack — who in this reality, took Vlad's place as the first halfa. This is because Vlad is in love with the idea of having Maddie rather than Maddie herself; hence, in the canon timeline, he is a Hopeless Suitor who has no chance with her, regardless of her marriage with Jack.
  • Harley Quinn (2019): What attracted Harley to the Joker was envisioning him as a man traumatized by an abusive childhood and who needed her for love and comfort. It's until after her relationship with him ends that Harley learns the story Joker told her about his father beating him wasn't even his but Ivy's. Soon after that, Harley realizes Ivy is the one she truly loves.
  • In Hey Arnold!:
    • In the early episodes, Arnold had a crush on an older girl named Ruth McDougal. She never really became an active player on the show; Arnold simply admired her from afar. In the Valentine's Day episode, he finally has a chance to talk to her and realizes that she's kind of a Brainless Beauty, making him lose interest.
    • in the episode "Preteen Scream", Phoebe has a crush on a singer named Ronnie Matthews, falling in love with his beautiful singing voice and heartful lyrics, until she wins a contest to meet him in person and finds out he's actually a shallow jerk who didn't even write or sing his own songs and can't get her name right. She gets mad at Helga for teasing her about having a crush on him, but Helga points out that Phoebe was the one who begged her to come with her and was the one who was gushing about how great he is in the first place. When Phoebe admits she was stupid for falling for his act, Helga tells her anybody can be suckered in by a pretty face and they head home while making fun of Ronnie.
  • Steven Universe:
    • Greg is clearly in love with Rose Quartz, a nigh-immortal humanoid alien. However (as shown by the Whole Episode Flashback "We Need to Talk"), early in their relationship, he realizes that she can't tell the difference between loving humans and being in love with a human, and becomes concerned about whether her affection for him is one or the other. Rose, for her part, may not even be aware that there is a difference until Greg confronts her about it, which marks a turning point in both their relationship and Rose's own Character Development.
    • Broken down a bit more explicitly in "Love Letters." Jamie the mailman sees Garnet rising from the ocean and instantly becomes infatuated with her, writing the titular letter and professing his love to her (in the rain, no less). After both Garnet's blunt rebuttal and Connie and Steven's attempt to let him down easy go awry, Garnet sits down with him and explains that it just isn't possible for him to be in love with her so quickly (they'd said all of two sentences to each other) because love is about knowing the other person and accepting their flaws, and he was just so swept up in the drama of Hollywo- Kansas that he had himself convinced infatuation was love.
  • An old Merrie Melodies short called "Ding Dog Daddy" features a hapless dog, who shares the voice of Goofy, eager to find love. After being cruelly rejected, he falls for a female dog he calls Daisy and faces down a vicious guard dog just to be with her. What he's unable to realize is that Daisy is actually just a metal statue of a dog, and his delusion persists even when "she" is picked up by scrap men to be melted down for making munitions.
  • Miraculous Ladybug: While Lila appears to believe that her feelings for Adrien are genuine, it's heavily indicated that she's more interested in the idea of Adrien — namely, a wealthy and popular Pretty Boy who she can turn into the perfect doting boyfriend — than in the reality of Adrien as a person, and reacts badly when Adrien says or does anything to break her illusion, as best seen in "Chameleon" (she accuses him of being self-righteous in his attempt to befriend her despite knowing she's a compulsive liar). By contrast, Marinette and Kagami were both won over by his kindness, and even Chloé has known him since childhood — all three of them, to varying extents, know the real Adrien far better than Lila would even want to.
    • Technically, this applies to all of the girls who've shown interest in Adrien, as he considers Cat Noir to be his true self (not that any of them know that), and his Purity Personified image is largely cultivated to please his Control Freak father. Lila's just more extreme than the other cases.
    • Kagami becomes a more obvious case in "Lies" - she gets irritated with Adrien's apparent Acting Unnatural for his portrait, not realizing that to him, "acting more like his real self" translates to "acting like Cat Noir". Needless to say, Adrien figures out that she prefers the mask to the real him, and their relationship collapses.
    • The episode “Kuro Neko” heavily implies that even Marinette herself isn’t immune to this, at least not entirely. Adrien has to use a new persona for his superhero identity and replaces the carefree jokey Cat Noir for a more serious, professional Catwalker. Ladybug is so smitten with this version of him that she can’t even focus on the job with him around. The problem is that “Catwalker” is more of an exaggerated version of the Purity Personified mask that he wears in public than an actual person, so essentially, Ladybug is more in love with an ideal version of her partner (which is basically Adrien to the max) than she is with Adrien’s real self.
  • For a non-romantic version, Shadow Weaver's twisted, manipulative pseudo-parental affection for Adora in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power largely ignores what Adora is actually like. In "Shadows of Mystacor", Shadow Weaver insists that Adora is a cunning, ruthless, cutthroat warrior who belongs with the Horde, while the actual Adora is The Hero for a very good reason. Inverted in grimly ironic fashion with Catra, where it's more like Despising A Shadow; Catra actually is the cunning and ruthless person Shadow Weaver thinks Adora is, but Shadow Weaver is focused entirely on building up Adora and she can't see Catra as anything other than a wastrel who exists solely to drag Adora down.
  • Totally Spies!: In the second appearance of the villainous mime Jazz Hands, Sam goes undercover as the mime Miss Spirit Fingers to find out what his latest plan is. Turning people to mimes. Again. Jazz Hands falls head over heels for Miss Spirit Fingers, even after he learns Sam was working against him -but he chooses to believe Miss Spirit Fingers is a buried part of her personality, rather than a completely invented persona created to trick him. It's both sad and creepy.
  • Deconstructed in the Family Guy episode "Run, Chris, Run." Chris gets elected to Homecoming King by his peers...but it turns out the only reason they did it was out of pity. Chris goes into denial, but when he sees them nominate a dead girl as his Homecoming Queen, a girl who got herself killed by driving while on PCP, he realizes that they only like the idea of helping a disabled kid like him, and not who he actually is. He angrily chews them out and storms off.
  • The Owl House plays a platonic version of this for horror. Philip Wittebane used to have an older brother named Caleb, who he murdered for falling in love and having a child with a witch. The Grimwalkers — of which Hunter is the latest iteration — are his attempts at creating a "better version" of his brother that would serve as his right hand man during his rise to power as Emperor Belos. However, all Belos wants from Hunter is complete obedience and subservience, which he cultivates through manipulation and abuse, meaning that the moments where Hunter acts most like Caleb are the moments where he's not around Belos. Word of God clarified that "Caleb" has been reduced to an abstract concept in Belos's mind, and he cares so little about Hunter's actual wellbeing that when Hunter discovers that he's a clone and brokenly asks Belos what happened to the previous ones, Belos tries to kill him on the spot, and later tells Luz that he'll have to make another one thanks to her.

    Real Life 
  • Considering how infatuated and in love Dante Alighieri was for Beatrice, more than a few people mistake her for having been his wife, not helped by some works inspired by the Divine Comedy like Dante's Inferno in which Beatrice is actually depicted as his wife. In reality, they were never in a directly romantic relationship, and even according to Dante himself, they only had met a sparse few times across their entire lives, and they both ultimately ended up marrying different people. This didn't stop Dante from idealizing her as the peak of purity, beauty, and love, the version of Beatrice that appears in The Divine Comedy.
  • Rita Hayworth complained of this. "Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me."
  • Henrik Wergeland when he courted and tried to win his first crush Hulda Malthe. On some poetic level, he seems to have understood it, and plays the trope straight in the poems he wrote on the subject. The poems are cosmic visions, to say the least, showing that the poet Lampshaded his position by literally trying to grasp for stars. He inverted it later when he met the girl he eventually married, Amalie Sofie. The poems he wrote to her are filled with flowers — a lot more obtainable in Real Life.
  • Due to his role as Edward Cullen in Twilight, Robert Pattinson amassed a significant "fanbase" of scarily obsessive young girls and middle-aged women. He once took one, who had been particularly zealous in her stalking, out to dinner and spent the entire time complaining about his actual, real-life problems. He never saw her again. It's hard to have sexy vampire fantasies about an incredibly human man.
  • Medieval Historian Dr. Eleanor Janega proposes that this Trope is fundamental to the whole theory of courtly love.


 
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"You've Betrayed Me"

In the heat of their fight, Ollie accuses Stan of Being "Hollow", saying that Stan had only ever cared about their studio-mandated partnership and never about him as a real friend.

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