What draws us, even compels us, to love and desire one person rather than another? There will, no doubt, be a range of superficial similarities: points of connection, looks, attitudes and interests shared. But that’s the case with our friends as well – and we do not usually look at our friends in the same way we regard our lover. One convincing theory is that we see in our lover what could be termed a point of difference, or the embodiment of aspects of ourselves and of our own potential which are not fully accessible to us or with which we are not reconciled – and to which we feel closer when we are with that lover. It could be said that when we desire we see through a glass darkly.
The rules of attraction
There is a wide range of influences over our initial sense of sexual attraction to another person. Their looks, for example, are likely to be close in some way to our own and those of our nearest relatives, those who first taught us to love, and also to those of former lovers. The moment we meet them matters: incidental, circumstantial details can dictate whether or not two people get off to a flying start or barely exchange a look or a word. And the points of connection do matter: they form the basis of our first conversations and help determine whether or not we feel this is an interesting person and one with whom we’ll get on.
But then there is desire, which goes far beyond the attraction to surface detail. If you described for yourself the key psychological traits you have loved in each of your lovers, you might well find you are describing a part of yourself that you aren’t quite in tune with – or something you lack.
This has bearings on how you conduct and succeed in your relationships and how, within relationships, you succeed or fail in being intimate with your lover.
Here is one example. A man find himself drawn to men, especially younger men, who have something of a self-centred streak about them. When his relationships are not going well, he bemoans the ‘fact’ that they only seem to care about themselves, won’t put out to take care of his needs and wishes, only ever do what they want to do and seem unable to empathise with others – save on a heavily, ‘deeply deep’ level, accompanied, as it were, by sweeping, romantic soundtracks, as in Hollywood films. No prizes for guessing that this man is someway apart from the centre of himself, is uncomfortable with his own deepest emotions – has something of a nervous disposition, as it happens – and ‘uses’ his lovers to heal this gap within himself.
A second example. Two men are in a long-term relationship. We’ll call them Todd and Guy. They are 29 and 26 respectively. They row a lot. It would be an understatement to say that Guy has something of a wild streak. At the age of fifteen he basically decided he was going to live it up. (He has recently returned to school.) Todd, on the other hand, spent his adolescence in relative isolation. He doesn’t talk about those years: it wasn’t a happy time. Now he is exceptionally level headed, pulls in a six figure income and has life pretty much planned. An odd couple. What’s kept them together so long? Well, yes: each has something in his personality the other doesn’t quite have. For all the high-tension dynamics of this relation, that difference means this couple are mutually drawn.
One way of interpreting this ‘rule’ of attraction is to acknowledge that relationships give us huge opportunities to grow and develop as people. How boring, indeed deathly, it would be if were partnered with someone exactly the same as us. We’d risk never becoming more than we are already. We’d ossify. By being paired with people who have in the foreground of their personalities those traits with which we are not entirely comfortable, or which we’ve never experienced, in ourselves, we are given the chance to develop those sides of our own personalities – supported by the presence of our partner.
Conflict and intimacy
It is partly because of these differences between us – and, specifically, because the differences are of personality traits which are vitally important to us – that there is likely to be an element of conflict within relationships. This is not to say that we’ll inevitably row, or that rowing is healthy; it is to say that conflict can arise in the presence of our partner precisely when we are most aware of those traits that are actually drawing us to him.
Once this is understood, the experience of conflict can actually help to draw us closer to our lover and to be more intimate.
This requires a degree of inner strength and also emotional maturity. It is asking you to look within yourself for the quality you see in your lover – or for the relative lack of that quality. In other words, you need to be honest with yourself about yourself.
To return to our first example, one thing the man in question needs to do is to reflect upon his own emotional centre. He could take time sitting quietly, breathing deeply, relaxing and letting himself settle – within whatever thoughts, feelings, desires and remembered experiences he finds at the centre of his being. This will not obviate the love of and desire for his partner – the personality of each will always be differently emphasised. It will help him to find his way closer to his lover. Crucially, it will help prevent him flying to an opposite, radically de-centred extreme when the ‘self-centredness’ he finds in his partner becomes all too much to bear, because so alien and, to him, difficult.
In other words, where there is a conflict of personalities, within a loving relationship, the root source of that conflict needs to be located and resolved within the individual.
Where this process is engaged in, self-acceptance can be more fully achieved, essential if we are to allow ourselves to feel intimate and to allow other people to be intimate – bonded in deepest silence – with us.
Short term relationships – and beyond
It is useful at this point to remark on those brief relationships which often take place when we are young and only just emerging as a sexually active being.
It could be said here, that in these brief, emotionally super-charged affairs, we are seeking to gather experience, as much as we can and as immediately as possible, so as to grow ourselves. We are pre-programmed to reach out into life and seize it, all of it, as much as we possibly can.
The experiences, aspects of personality, we seek are often fairly rapidly gained at this point – at least, as much of them as we want at this stage. We fall in and out of love, partly because the draw or attraction is often relatively superficial in comparison to the attachments we later seek.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is a natural part of growing up. Still, to many, there comes the point where we do seek more permanent relationships – and have indeed found ourselves consistently drawn to similar personality ‘types’.
At that point, for the relationships to succeed, an understanding of how our lovers’ psychologies are working, of these rules of attraction, can, to say the least, help.