Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together maybe pulling you apart.

Can You Be Physically Attracted to Someone and Not Know It?

Unconsciously subverting your desire for a partner

I entitled my last blog: The Role of Physical Attraction in Your Relationship: Can You Get it if You’ve Never Had it? After reading the blog, one of my postgraduate students commented: “I believe a person can actually be physically attracted to someone and not know it.” This assertion sparked a controversy. Another student told the story of being friends with a young man. “I knew he liked me,” she said, “but I saw him as somewhat asexual—he was just a buddy. You know…he was the kind of guy you talk to about the problems you’re having with the guy you’re really into. But then one day we went to get a bite to eat and I noticed he was flirting with our waitress…and you could tell he was turning her on. Wow, it woke me up—like I was hit by a two-by-four. From that point on I saw him as a potential romantic partner and we soon began an affair which lasted quite a while. The attraction was under my nose the whole time, but for some reason I couldn’t feel it.”

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I countered that the student’s story didn’t necessarily support the notion that you can develop a physical attraction for someone you’ve never had one for. All it might say is that physical attraction can be repressed—it still has to be there to be brought out. I then raised the question: Why might a partner repress physical attraction? The students and I discussed several possibilities—which might be conscious or unconscious to the repressor. The following are just a few of the reasons we came up with. I’m sure there’s plenty more where these came from:

1. Fear of intimacy – If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not attracted to your partner you may avoid getting too close.

2. Fear of commitment – If you feel little to no attraction for a mate you can end the relationship more easily.

3. To avoid a taboo – You might want to disown an attraction out of guilt or because you feel it’s wrong (e.g., your family disapproves of your partner; you took your partner away from a good friend; you can’t allow yourself to get involved with someone you work with).

4. Fear of success – You might have an unconscious desire to wreck your relationship.

5. For protective reasons – Your unconscious might be telling you not too get too attached to an inappropriate partner.

One of the students then raised a most important question: “If a client can repress attraction, how can we as therapists tell if a client isn’t attracted in reality, or if repression is operating? If we simply take a client’s word that an attraction never existed—and we therefore believe that as a consequence it never will develop—we could mistakenly support a divorce.” I answered that it’s a distinction that needs to be made. The key is to know your client as best you can so that you can help him/her to differentiate between the two possibilities. It’s important to take into account your client’s sexual/relationship history. And you’ll need to gauge his/her ability to be intimate and to commit. Simply put, you’ll need to carefully assess the potential gains—conscious and unconscious—good and bad—that the client may achieve for repressing such feelings.

I believe this particular aspect of attraction is an intriguing one that receives only scant attention when relationships are discussed. Perhaps it’s a little too frightening to take head on. I also suspect that those of a biological bent might not give it much weight. Because they believe that attraction is primarily determined by a physical chemistry—if it truly did exist—they might view it as next to impossible to repress successfully. “I’m attracted, therefore I am.”

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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