Surprising attraction truths
What underpins romantic attraction? Are men and women attracted to the same things? Is there an order to things when it comes to falling in love? This article explores a few interesting truths about attraction and how they might apply to your dating life.
Lust and attraction aren’t the same thing
I think we intuitively know that attraction and true bonding aren’t the same thing, but what about lust and attraction and how do these differ?
Biological anthropologist Helen E. Fisher PhD has studied the brain chemistry of romantic love. Her research findings explore how there are three emotional categories relevant to mating and reproduction (a.k.a. romantic love): lust, attraction and attachment (1). According to Fisher’s findings, each of these categories produce a different emotional experience for us because of differences in the brain activity underlying each.
Lust is when we’re feeling intense sexual desire. Our sex drive is in full flight. This feeling is underpinned by the release of testosterone (for men) and estrogen (for women).
Attraction is more about intense feelings towards someone and a desire for emotional connection. In this phase your brain’s reward centre is firing hard and releasing dopamine and norepinephrine. This explains that europhic feeling of “falling in love” with someone where we become really focused on the person (or persons) we’re in ‘attraction’ with.
Attachment is about true bonding. This is that feeling of being truly and deeply connected to another someone that enables lasting commitment. In attachment the brain will have replaced the dopamine of attraction with oxytocin (a.k.a. the ‘cuddle hormone’) and vasopressin. During attachment we’ll feel at peace, comfortable and secure.
According to Fisher, each of these three categories of our experience of romantic love has been developed for a reproductive purpose.
My simple way of interpreting these evolutionary foundations are:
Sex drive or ‘lust’ evolved to help us seek out sex (but perhaps without being too selective on who it’s with, or how lasting the partnership will be beyond sex). Still, we need to be motivated to seek out sex for the survival of our species.
Attraction evolved to help us become more considered in who our sexual efforts are directed towards. This helps us hone our reproductive efforts a little! Lust might have us physically aroused, but attraction goes deeper.
Attachment evolved to facilitate behaviours that are helpful to ensure the survival of our species. This explains the feeling of calm and comfort we get in true ‘attachment’. We’re supposed to feel like this. If we’re mating and running away all the time, who’s left in the figurative cave to tend to the children and ultimately ensure the survival of the next generation?
So, a simple way to think about these three experiences and how they differ:
I want sexual gratification (lust). I feel emotional connection (attraction).
We’re in a lasting connection (attachment).
Lust and attraction don’t always come before attachment
According to Fisher, love can start off as any of the three experiences above – lust, attraction or attachment (2).
As Fisher asserts:
“Some people have sex first and then fall in love. Some fall head over heels in love, then climb into bed. Some feel deeply attached to someone they have known for months or years; then circumstances change, they fall madly in love and have sex.”
In my experience as a dating coach and a keen observer of the romantic behaviour of men and women, I have certainly seen all of the above.
Men and women place different value on physical attraction
When I ask men and women what they’re looking for in a partner, men often start with a requirement that relates to something relevant to physical attraction, while women often begin by listing character traits.
He might say he wants someone with a certain body type.
She might say she wants someone with drive and ambition.
In fact, research supports the idea that our sex (male or female) impacts on the value we place on different traits in prospective partners (3).
Studies consistently support that men place higher value on physical attraction than women. Meanwhile, women tend to value the social level or status of a partner more than men do in potential long-term partners (4). It also seems that whether we’re male or female has more of an impact than sexual orientation on how we prioritise certain traits (3).
So how might all this apply to dating if you’re looking for a long-term relationship?
Beware of Sparkly Eggshells
- When you’re lusting towards someone, consider what’s driving you and how much genuine potential you see beyond the physial.
Is it an overwhelming urge for sexual gratification alone or is there more potential beyond the sexual desire?
‘Sparkly eggshells’ is the name I give to those people we pursue not because of deeper attributes that are likely to keep us together, but rather for reasons that are less likely to support long term compatibility.
Keep the whole picture in mind, YES… even during giddy attraction
- If we imagine for a moment that you’re dating someone for a few weeks and you’re both crazy for one another, these intense feelings can lead to a fixation on the positive and to ignoring some major red flags leading to disappointment downstream. Without bursting your bubble, just try to tune into the whole picture and pace yourself.
Don’t confuse sex with commitment
- Everyone has a different attitude towards sex and how early it should happen between a couple. One common miscommunication is to view sex as an unspoken agreement that you’re now in commitment or ‘attachment’. This simply isn’t true. For some, it’s just part of getting to know someone. For others, it means you’re now moving well towards something more lasting. If you’re looking for something lasting and exclusive, have the conversation before assuming this is what sex will mean for you two.
Don’t rule out friends
- Can’t see to find a decent man or woman anywhere? Have you checked your social circle? Sometimes our expectations of what love will feel like and our desire for those gooey feelings of attraction can lead us to thinking this must come from someone NEW, someone that we’re yet to meet. If we discount the idea that lust and attraction can come AFTER bonding, then we’re potentially doing ourselves a disservice.
Ladies, embrace your allure
- He can’t help that he wants to find someone he’s physically attracted to. The good news is, if he’s pursuing you, you already know you’re ticking a major box for him. Quite often women can be offended by this feeling that a man wants them to be physically attractive but honestly, he cannot help it, so you may as well embrace it. Show him your authentic self and put your personality on display and he’ll grow to love that too.
© My Wingwoman 2019
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