For weeks I have been talking about writing an article on attraction. It is one of my favorite topics in psychology. I often catch myself looking at couples and wondering why they are together, what their relationship is like. When I meet new couples I ask how they met. And of course I analyze my attraction to anyone I date, and even those I just find myself attracted to.
Most people would like to attribute attraction to some mystical force that brings people together. Even I do not want to completely deny the existence of some type of synchronicity in the universe which brings people together. My desire for mystery in life, for a belief in magic and destiny and some sort of celestial order fosters this belief. My rational mind admonishes my dreamy side for this and instead focuses on what science and the study of attraction has demonstrated.
I recently finished teaching an introductory course in psychology and one of the chapters focused on social psychology. In that chapter the author writes how most people want to believe they have or will find their perfect match. He then jokes it will more likely be their perfect match in a five mile radius. This joke demonstrates the power of proximity in attraction. We as humans tend to form bonds with those that are in close proximity to us regularly. Most of my serious relationships evidence this. One wife I met my first semester in college. Another I met at a job. I have dated extensively at places I have worked (completely ignoring the adage “do not defecate where you eat.”) I have also dated women I have met throughout my college career (I attended college for approximately 8 or more years of my life). When I think of those I have dated that were not from either of these locals (school or workplace) I can only credit the internet, other places I have frequented, or mutual friends who set us up. This speaks strongly for proximity.
Proximity isn’t just about meeting that special someone you find yourself attracted to. It is also about being in close contact with someone and developing an attraction as a result. I do not watch a great deal of television, but catch the office now and then (on Hulu when an episode catches my eye, and I had to google the names of those I reference now). On that show Pam and Jim met at work. She was dating / engaged to a guy who worked in the warehouse. Michael dated a woman from the company for a time, and I believe he also was in love with another who worked there. Currently Andy is infatuated with the new secretary. Granted, this is a television show, but many of us likely know of love (or lust) affairs that have occurred at our jobs.
There are sayings that “opposites attract.” Although I find this to be true in more subtle ways (more later in this article) the truth is most people marry within their own race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion. We tend to find ourselves attracted to, romantically and otherwise, people that are like us physically and in our beliefs.
Now that some of the preliminary facts of attraction are out of the way I’d like to discuss some of the deeper aspects. First, the best book I have read on love is called “A General Theory Of Love”. In this excellent (but often biological book) the authors discuss how our childhood experiences and memory formation lead to attraction to others later in life. Basically, and unfortunately summarizing nearly a full text into a few sentences, we form strong memories from our early childhood experiences. These memories, which remain largely unconscious, guide our attraction to others. The unconscious mind picks up on the most subtle of cues, and though consciously we may not understand why we are attracted to someone, we are. This theory beautifully explains when people find themselves attracted to someone who is definitely no good for us. How many people have been themselves, or know of someone, attracted to another who later turns out to be no good for them. And not only this person, but they keep finding themselves in a relationship with a similar type, whether it be an alcoholic (who at the time we met wasn’t a problem drinker) or an abusive partner, or someone who cannot be faithful. It doesn’t always have to be this dramatic either, but the extreme examples are more readily identifiable. How often was there a parent or other close caregiver that had a similar issue to the partner? This book does an excellent job of supporting this theory, and illuminating much of what goes into attraction.
The next aspect of attraction I’d like to discuss is the Jungian idea of projection. Many people confuse projections (of their ideal mate onto the person that they desire) with having found their soul mate. A projection is an internal ideal, thought process, or state that is attributed to another person. In other words, the individual knows what they want and need their ideal mate to be and they place these attributes and qualities into another individual. They observe this other person’s behavior and relate it to their ideal. If they do not recognize the projection, they then believe they have found their soul mate. Later, when they know the person better, the partner begins to fall short of their expectations. Falling short of expectations they cannot be the ideal, and often the search for the real soul mate begins again. This pattern of disappointment will continue until an individual realizes the reality of projection, and does not give in to the fantasy that they have found their soul mate.
Another aspect of relationships is the bargaining process. This is not an external event, but an internal one. Each person entering a relationship is aware of the attributes that they bring to the table. These can include attractiveness, financial security, a quality of sweetness, intelligence, being a giving person, being attentive, considerate, good in bed, etc. Knowing what attributes’ one brings to the table, the individual wants a comparable partner. This does not mean that we necessarily want someone exactly as attractive, nice, financially secure, etc., as we are, but it means that we want an equal or better bargain in line with what we value. For example, how many very attractive people have you seen with a partner who is financially secure. The person knows he/she brings financial well being and security and all the luxuries that come with wealth, and in turn he / she values an attractive trophy for a partner. The attractive person in this example knows they are very attractive and values financial security.
This example is simplified although it exists. The actual bargaining process is more complicated due to the amount of aspects to consider, but the example exemplifies the issue. It would seem rudimentary that we wouldn’t want anyone beneath what we bring to the table. At the same time, what if we ended up with someone who brings much more to the table? The result would likely be insecurity, as we would feel the other would soon discover we don’t measure up and dump us. We might constantly be on guard to protect ourselves and catch it at the earliest possible moment.
Earlier I mentioned opposites attracting, and wanting to return to that theme. In doing so, I want to discuss the psychological theory of compensation. In compensation, one overdoes an aspect where they feel insecure. For example, they might buy big cars when they don’t feel very manly. Compensation in regard to attraction is similar, although it relates more to the choice in a partner than a weakness. Carl Jung identified character traits people tend to favor: introvert / extrovert, feeling / thinking, etc. It has been my contention in regard to these attributes people tend to choose a partner that helps bring them to balance. For example, outgoing, social people often pair with quieter, more reserved types. This is often a function of compensation.
It is easy to see how although attraction is a multifaceted and complicated process, it is not all mystery and magic. There are some theories which help explain it and I am sure I haven’t even covered half of them. Hopefully you are able to look at your attraction, and understand it a little better, or at least question the next time you find yourself attracted to another.