As An NYC Therapist, I See A Need To Complicate How We Think About, Talk About And Understand Attraction
Is attraction as simple as being attracted to someone or not? Can you be both attracted to and repulsed by someone? What is the relationship between aesthetics and character? Is physical attraction fixed and independent of emotional attraction? What does it mean for attraction to shift over time as we change and age? Do we have a choice in attraction?
All these questions point to a need that I see in my NYC therapy practice to have conversations that push us to think in more sophisticated ways about how attraction works. Essentially, we need to complicate attraction. Whether helping individuals find a partner or helping couples deal with changes in mutual attraction over time, I find it’s important to help patients recognize a few things about how they do attraction. There are several ways that we tend to get attraction wrong so I’ve highlighted six myths of attraction that need to be reconsidered:
1. Attraction Isn’t A Pie Chart
We tend to think about attraction as being composed of a set of conditions that are summed to equal a whole. You take a certain amount of physical attraction, a certain amount of what we call personality, a set of practical conditions, and a certain amount we chalk up to mystical forces (that elusive “je ne sais quoi”). In this model, attraction is basically a set of discrete criteria that are additive. What’s wrong with this? The pie pieces are too discrete. Have you ever met someone who “grew on you” over time? Attraction changes and each part is able to be influenced by the others.
2. Appreciating The Practicality Of Attraction
We also often under-appreciate the practical in attraction or relate to it as somehow separate from what “turns us on.” However, in reality, the practical can also be attractive. Success is attractive. The qualities that make a stable partner or a good parent are also attractive. Thinking beyond a slice of the pie chart, these qualities can also be turn-ons.
3. Attraction Isn’t Just A Binary
We tend to think of attraction as binary–either you’re attracted to someone or you’re not. But reconsidering attraction without that binary opens up possibilities. Maybe you can find someone more attractive as you spend more time together. Perhaps you didn’t find him or her attractive at first, but that’s okay–you can trust that you find him or her attractive now (or, the inverse). Or potentially, you used to find him or her attractive, but you don’t anymore for a good reason like they’ve proven to be a jerk. It’s okay to let them go, even if you used to think they were so dreamy.
4. Don’t Leave Out Culture (Including The Culture Of The Family) In Attraction
We tend to talk about what we find attractive as coming from a similar sort of place as the color of our eyes or the shape of our nose. In reality, attraction is, of course, tremendously influenced by culture. Two examples prove this point: one is to examine the ways that what’s considered attractive culturally changes over time. For instance, look at female body types in 17th or 18th century art or even, think about how these aesthetics have changed between the 1950s and the 1990s. The other example is that of attraction and race. Many people of a given race report finding members of their own race more attractive. It seems unlikely that this is just an innate disposition. Both the broader culture and an individual’s familial and life experiences have informed what he or she finds attractive.
5. Attraction Is Often Misaligned With What’s Good For Us
We all know that we’re sometimes attracted to people who aren’t good for us. Things that aren’t so healthy can influence attraction. Sometimes we want to win someone over who maybe isn’t so good for us because he or she reminds us of someone who got away or hurt us in ways we want to redeem. There’s likely even some self-awareness around the fact that sometimes the things that makes someone bad for us aren’t the things we see past in being attracted to them. At times, they’re the very things we’re attracted to. In other words, we’re turned on by the exact opposite of what’s good for us.
When working in therapy on questions related to choosing a partner or avoiding unsafe relationships, better understanding the causes of the misalignment of what’s attractive to us and what’s good for us is important work. Sometimes (often) it relates to how we grew up, though often there are cultural influences–things culture suggests we should be attracted to that aren’t necessarily so good for us (the bad boy, aloofness, glamorizing unhealthy gender dynamics, etc.).
6. Attraction Is Dynamic And Relational
Attraction is dynamic rather than fixed. As we mature–get older, have babies, lose our hair, have surgeries, etc., our tastes change and our priorities change. In this, attraction is relational, not two discrete entities evaluating each other from an objective distance. Attraction can deepen over time through shared experiences. It is often what we create together that is attractive and there’s value in thinking about attraction as something that two people can create together.
Couples often talk about the desire to “remain attractive to one another.” There’s more to do to that effect than stay in good shape and take care of yourself. There also needs to be attention to the relational element of attraction. While you might be taking care of yourself, it’s also important to consider what sorts of things you can create with your partner that will continue to fuel mutual attraction.
Why Is It Important To Think Differently About Attraction?
We need to complicate attraction for a number of reasons. It’s important to realize that there’s tremendous subjectivity in what we deem attractive, while also recognizing that our views on attraction are vulnerable to influence makers i.e. corporations and the companies they hire to market their goods. Attraction and mutual attraction shouldn’t be the domain of people with “normal” or “able” bodies, but a broad range of races, ethnicities, genders and body types.
In looking for a partner, these restrictive notions of attraction also limit how we approach dating. We don’t let ourselves be open to being surprised or discovering attraction through shared experiences (dating apps tend to compound this by being both increasingly looks-driven and fixed criteria-driven). In all cases, thinking differently about attraction allows individuals to see how they might come to find different features attractive, that they may be corrupted in some way as to how they do attraction and that it’s worth trying to change it.