With a blog title like Fatal Attraction, I am sure you are envisioning Michael Douglas and Glen Close. If not, possibly you’re thinking of Single White Female, Fear, or an episode of Snapped. Although I have just given you a number of excellent Netflix recommendations, the study of fatal attraction in relationships is far less extreme and dramatic.
Relationship reseachers have long studied what predicts attraction, but the process of fatal attraction explains how what was initially attractive can actually cause your relationship to fail (see Felmlee). Essentially, fatal attraction occurs when the specific behavior/feature that drew you to another person is the same behavior/feature that causes the two of you to break-up.
Imagine that you are attracted to Jamie because he/she is spontaneous. In the early stages of your relationship you view this spontaneity as fun and exciting. As the relationship progresses, though, you begin to view Jamie as unpredictable and this then becomes the cause for your break-up.
In order to better understand fatal attraction, Felmlee studied 301 individuals finding that 81 of them could explain a break-up via fatal attraction. She found three common fatal attraction patterns:
1. Fun to foolish. This was the most common fatal attraction process. With this situation, individuals were initially drawn to someone because he/she was “fun” but this same behavior became problematic. Envision being attracted to someone who is always telling jokes and is rarely serious. This may be initially attractive but, over time, you view his/her behavior as humiliating or lacking maturity.
2. Strong to domineering. Imagine that you are drawn to a person because of his/her opinionated and confident demenaor. Later, though, you begin to view these behaviors as too dictatorial, forceful, and/or authoritarian.
3. Spontaneous to unpredictable. This fatal attraction entails being drawn to another person because of his/her spontaneity but, later, viewing this same behavior as lacking predictability. Recall the Jamie example here: you’re initially drawn to his/her “fun” behavior but, over time, viewed that as unpredictable or unreliable.
Why does this process occur? As I have alluded to in earlier articles, similarity is a key predictor of attraction (termed homophily). Despite the arguments that students always have with me when I propose this idea, opposites largely do not attract. If you disagree that opposites mostly do not attract, take a look at your closest friend group…I’ll wait….OK, that group is largely similar both to one another and to you, supporting the idea that we are attracted to those who are similar to us. Thus, one explanation for fatal attraction is that the fatally attractive behavior/feature is too dissimilar from us.
When we are faced with dissimilarity, uncertainty is introduced. As I have discussed in earlier articles, humans do not like uncertainty (see Berger and Calbrese’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory, also http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/adventures-in-dating/201206/speed-da...). Berger and Calbrese’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory argues that humans are uncomfortable with uncertainty and will communicate to reduce uncertainty. This explains why, when first meeting someone, we ask that person numerous questions…and then stop asking questions when we find an area of overlap where we have something in common—essentially, similarity. Consider when you meet someone who went to college where your cousin also graduated from college. Your natural inclination is to ask “Oh my cousin went to West Virginia University. Do you know [insert his/her name]?” Reflecting on this question reveals how absurd it is, given that they likely attended at diferent times and the school has over 20,000 students. Still, we attach to the potential for similarity.
Felmlee’s research revealed that a rose-colored glasses explanation may be most appropriate in explaining how fatal attractions occur. Specifically, “individuals are romantically drawn to the strengths of another person and are aware of the associated weaknesses from the beginning, but choose to ignore or downplay these weaknesses” (p. 9). When the honeymoon is over, and attraction becomes less intense, these negative issues are difficult to ignore
So the next time you’re seeing someone new and think “this is so much fun! He/she is so different” be sure to recall this article. As I have said before, the more you know about relationship science, the more paranoid you may become. Happy hunting!
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Additional reading? See: Felmlee, D. H. (1998). Fatal attraction. In B. H. Spitzberg & W. R. Cupach (Eds.), The Dark Side of Close Relationships (pp. 3-31). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.