Written about and touted in art, music, and literature over the centuries, romantic love—emotional intimacy and sexual attraction—is the most controversial of all versions of love. With maternal, paternal, filial love or love of country, most people agree that they’re highly positive emotions, but when it comes to romantic love, we are caught in an approach-avoidance conflict. Romantic love feels so good, but prickly thorns hidden in its rose-covered branches can create quite a sting.
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Unfortunately for most people, the romantic “being in love” feelings diminish after the honeymoon phase. Because novelty and fantasy are the prime ingredients that feed these exciting feelings, romance fades as humdrum reality sets in. In addition, unrealistic expectations accompanying romantic love regularly lead to disappointment and hurt feelings when they go unfulfilled.
The biggest reason for unhappiness in romantic love, though, is falling for the wrong person. And for many people, this pattern is difficult to change because they mistakenly believe that sexual attraction is love. And because sexual attraction is shrouded in mystery, avoiding mistakes is especially difficult for young people, for whom the US divorce rate is the highest of all age groups.
Factors Underlying Sexual Attraction
What turns us on? Why do we fall for handsome, life-of-the-party types when our sister is attracted to nerdy, serious souls? Or why are we turned on by beautiful women when the quiet, kind woman next door is a loving treasure who finds us fascinating? While the specific reasons are unique to each of us, they are primarily emotional, psychological qualities (except for sexual identity/sexual orientation, where biology is the main determinant).
Usually falling into the following categories, the factors are values (attractiveness, character, intelligence, money, strength, status), similarities (family background, educational level, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation), unfinished business (psychological needs left over from abusive, absent, or neglectful caretakers), positive past experiences (with important childhood figures), and pressing needs (recent self-esteem loss, rebound love, biological clock issues). Like complex equations with different variables and beta weights, these factors in combination create a fantasy that influences sexual attraction.
The following anecdotes illustrate some emotional factors underlying sexual attraction. When a successful, wealthy, obese man fell in love with a “gold-digging” fashion model, it would perhaps be easy to determine that beauty was one of his values and that money was one of hers. Furthermore, her interest in antiques was like his beloved mother’s fascination with art, thus intensifying his emotional investment in her. In addition, her father was at one time successful but was now struggling financially just as she was.
So, while the basis for their mutual attraction at the outset was clear, it was hard to understand why he continued the relationship despite her constant criticisms of his weight and her repeated “borrowing” of his credit cards to finance her extravagant expenditures. For him, however, having a beautiful partner who enhanced his own status was clearly at the top of his list of emotional attractions. Predictably, though, because they had little in common, their relationship didn’t last more than a couple of years.
In another situation, an English professor acknowledged falling in love with his wife of fifty years when he saw her laughing and gesturing enthusiastically while talking to someone in the library. For him, her quick wit and vitality were sources of pleasure throughout their relationship, reminding him of his jovial father, who died when he was a teenager. Her mother said that his laughing at all her jokes was the glue that kept their marriage together.
His wife, on the other hand, was attracted to his stability and writing ability, a talent she valued. Like him, she lost her father, when he moved to another part of the country and vanished from her life. Besides compatible psychological needs, they had similar backgrounds and shared many interests/ values, which buttressed their long and happy life.
For others, the initial attraction may be hair/eye color, exotic appearance (different from one’s own), or fame, eg One woman in therapy acknowledged that being teased was exciting for her, reminding her of a favorite uncle. Besides that, intelligence, masculine strength, religion, and Nordic features (like a favored sibling) added emotional power to sexual/emotional attraction for her.
Sexual Attraction and Conflict
The problems arise in romantic relationships when emotional chemistry conflicts with other values. A young man in therapy who was attracted to helpless, clinging women wondered why he eventually became upset by their helplessness. While he enjoyed the caretaking role—one he had performed in his nuclear family for his mother—he also valued self-sufficiency and independence in himself and others.
A young woman attracted to charismatic, masculine men also valued honesty and conscientiousness. Unfortunately, in her first two serious romantic relationships, she was involved with outgoing men who sorely lacked these two virtues. Another woman attracted to “edgy” men, the rebels of the world, also valued responsibility and respect for others. While involved in a series of relationships, she was unable to commit to any of them because the rebels regularly pushed societal limits, that is, took too many drugs, drove too fast, and disrespected others.
Conflicts typically create turmoil and distance in romantic relationships. When a person is attracted to a particular quality that conflicts with other emotional considerations, some modification of the competing valences needs to occur. Either the initial attraction needs to be altered or the conflicting values tweaked in some way.
With the caretaking man, for example, during therapy, he gave up his excessive need for caretaking and improved his partner choices. The woman attracted to charismatic, masculine men eventually modified her perspective about what constitutes charisma and masculinity, thereby broadening her circle of possibilities. And the woman who liked rebels recently married a bohemian artist who had toned down his rebelliousness substantially over time.
A Brief Exercise
To identify the qualities that turn you on, examine what was appealing initially in recent romantic relationships (the five factors discussed earlier may be a guide). Second, rank order the most important of the identified qualities in order of their emotional impact. Third, try to determine why these qualities have such emotional power and how compatible they are with your other values.
For some people, such an exercise can provide a new perspective that alters the emotional dynamics; For others, it may highlight when sexual attraction should be ignored in favor of moral, societal, or other considerations. If you’re primarily attracted to looks, for instance, make sure that the person’s other qualities match your values.
We tend to be seduced by a quality or two rather than a whole person. To avoid heartache, however, it is best to have a nuanced understanding of yourself and a potential partner. When we have a detailed map highlighting positive features and danger zones, we can feel more secure that our decisions are wise ones.