Some observations on attraction, love, and complications

I have seen a lot of relationships over the years. In this case I’m talking about those intimate relationships we voluntarily enter into with a significant other, a spouse, a partner, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it. As someone interested in the behavior of humans, I’ve often thought of mine and others relationships as an active research lab to examine what makes relationships work and what doesn’t. Here is a preliminary report.

The way I see it, attraction generally falls into three categories. There is physical attraction. Sometimes we call this lust or “chemistry.” You have probably had folks tell you about this. They said something like “She was hot so I decided to talk to her.” Or “I saw this guy run by without his shirt on and it made me want to take up running.” My personal favorite “I just wanted to stare into those eyes all night…..and into the morning.” All of these denote little to no interaction with the person that tells anything about the person’s personality, intelligence, or your ability to connect with them. It is purely physical.

The second kind of attraction is emotional. If you’ve been through something traumatic, dramatic, or growth experience with a person, you may feel a bond with them. This bond is similar to friends who we’ve been through a lot of stuff with or family, but maybe in ways that differ because this person likely volunteered for this emotional journey with you. It’s the reason you still sort of smile when you think about your first crush or first significant other. The longer your are with someone, the more likely you are to have these experiences (especially growth).

It’s a bit of an extreme example but a friend, we’ll call her Jane, was dating someone who we will call Steve, and her mom died suddenly. It was very traumatic for her but Steve was there for her. For many years, Jane’s main building block of their relationship was that Steve was “there for her” when her mom died. Yet, neither was particularly physically attracted to one another or intellectually attracted so the relationship eventually fell apart. She still brings up what a “nice guy” Steve was and wonders if she should have stayed with him despite the lack of the other two attractions.

The third kind of attraction is intellectual. This doesn’t mean you have to be PhDs in the same field. What this means is that you have respect for each others intellectual pursuits and interests. These may be hobbies or work related. This doesn’t mean that you “endure” your significant other rambling on about some concept you only vaguely understand or “live with” the fact that they have a car/boat/plane/pet that consumes a bunch of their time. It means you actively try to learn a little about it. You ask questions. You engage them and encourage them because seeing them get excited about it makes you both happy. This also means people often end their relationships when they don’t see their partner as having any compatible intellectual attractions. “Oh you want to stay home all day playing video games instead of getting a job. Well then, I’m leaving.”

All of these attractions have to be a two way street. If they are only one-way, that won’t work either. You both have to have some amount of all three for the other person. (i.e. you can’t value the video games/car/boat/plane/pet more than the relationship for very long and be successful.)

Love is often confused with any one of these attractions. The one most of us can relate to is physical attraction. At some point, there was likely some Hollywood star, musician, or maybe someone you actually knew who you were attracted to. And then at some point, you saw an interview with them or read something about them, and you were like “ewww” maybe I don’t like them as much now. Because you didn’t actually know them well enough to have intellectual attraction or have experiences with them for emotional attraction, it was purely one dimensional. You said you were “in love” with them but actually you were “in lust” with them.

Love is a combination of all three of these kinds of attraction. They don’t have to be equal parts but there has to be some amount of each. If you hate your significant other’s passions/interests then you will always hate it when they engage in them. Eventually you will see their passions as competition to your relationship. If you have no emotional connection, you will seek that with friends who will be seen as competition to the relationship. And lastly, if you aren’t physically attracted to one another, then the you have a friendship but not a relationship. None of these are mutually exclusive bubbles. They overlap with one another in many ways but each seems to be an essential element that must be present.

But we are human. So there are complications. Love is also something that develops, matures, and grows over time through these three things and through experience and time together. Love needs a relationship. Love and relationships are overlapping bubbles but not the same. (Relationships – of all kinds – take maintenance. Which is a post for another time.) Many people get trapped in a fantasy where they build up these things as existing more than they actually did in some past or future relationship. But without the intimacy (not sexual but personal) of spending time together, growing together, experiencing each other together, it is just fantasy.

Another complication is that we can tell when we don’t have these things but we can’t objectively measure love or attraction. We can’t realistically compare these things in a non-partisan way. As Jane once said, “How can I compare my [physical attraction] for George Clooney with my [emotional attraction] to my boyfriend? I want both.” Yes Jane, you do want both. In fact, you want three things. Godspeed on finding all of them in one person.

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