We can’t force our sexual attractions. Most of us have learned that the hard way.
Yet, as I describe in my book Deeper Dating, there’s something profound that most of us have never been taught: Although our sexual attractions can’t be controlled, they can be educated. This post will share some ways to cultivate sexual and romantic attraction to people who are kind, respectful—and available. Even if you’re relentlessly attracted to bad-boys or bad-girls, or to unavailable people, you can still develop this capacity. And these are not gimmicks; they are the lifelong skills of romance and intimacy—the very same skills you'll use to keep passion alive in your next serious relationship.
The Attraction Spectrum
Every time we enter a room full of people, we make choices based upon our attractions: Whom do we notice? Whom do we pass over? Deb, a young stockbroker from Chicago, once told me:
“You know, it’s almost magical. I can go to a party, and there’s always one person I’m most attracted to. If I date him, within a few weeks or a few months I discover he has the same emotional qualities as my previous partner. But when I first saw him from across the room, I had no idea at all that this would be true!”
Our attractions are forged in the deep space of our being, born of countless, often unknowable forces. When we encounter someone for the first time, our psyche and heart begin an astonishingly complex scan, picking up obvious cues like physique and facial structure, but also noting myriad subtle cues such as body language, facial expression, the contour of the lips, the nuance of the voice, and the muscles around the eyes. We instantly process this information without even knowing it. All we feel is desire or the lack of it.
Scientists tell us that a silkworm can smell one other silkworm moth of the opposite sex from six-and-a-half miles away. Our mating instinct may not be that developed, but nature has programmed our romantic radar with the sensitivity to find just the right person to trigger whatever emotional circuitry we need to work through.
All of us are attracted to a certain type that stops us dead in our tracks, be it a physical type, an emotional type, or a personality type. Let’s say that there is a "spectrum of attraction," from 1 to 10; the people at the far end aren’t physically or romantically attractive to us at all, but those at the upper end are icons—they’re compellingly attractive, leaving us weak in the knees and triggering both our longing and our insecurity.
Harville Hendrix, founder of Imago Therapy, illuminates this phenomenon in a way which sheds light on our entire intimacy journey. He teaches that these people are so attractive to us in part because they embody not only the best, but also the worst emotional characteristics of our parents.
All of us have unresolved childhood hurts due to betrayal, anger, manipulation, or abuse. Unconsciously, we seek healing through our partner. And we try to achieve this healing by bonding with someone we sense might hurt us in similar ways to how we were hurt as children, in the hope that we can then convince him or her to finally love and accept us.
Our conscious self is drawn to the positive qualities we yearn for, but our unconscious draws us to the qualities which remind us of how we were wounded the most.
This partly explains why we get so awkward and insecure around people to whom we’re intensely attracted. It also explains why our greatest heartbreaks often occur with these most intense, fiery attractions. Some of us react to past heartbreaks by dating only those on the low end of our attraction spectrum; we're frightened of the intensity and the risk of painful loss when we approach people on the higher end. We often feel safest with people who don’t do much for us on a physical or romantic level because it just feels more comfortable—but the downside can be boredom, frustration, and a lack of passion.
Many others only date people on the high end of their attraction spectrum, because they believe that’s where real love and passion lie. With someone who is a “high number” on your attraction spectrum, you can tell that you’re attracted in a fraction of a second. This can be achingly exciting, but it’s rarely comfortable or secure.
In my experience, people who only date those on the high end of their attraction spectrum are much more likely to remain single. By contrast, however, attraction to people in the middle of our spectrum is rarely immediate; it usually takes more time to get a sense of how interested we really are in such people.
People who are willing to date in the mid-range are more likely to find real and lasting love. It’s not a matter of selling out, because immediate attraction isn’t the best forecaster of future passion. Intense immediate attractions can blind us to the actual quality of our interactions with others, and to the actual characters of the people we date.
Attractions can grow—and many of us have had the experience of becoming more attracted to someone as we got to know him or her better.
Cultivating Attractions of Inspiration
So what do we do when we meet someone who inspires us, and we feel some spark of attraction, but not enough to fall in love?
Sexual attraction is much more mutable than we’ve been taught. We all have types that turn us on immediately and intensely. But as I said, attractions can grow. It's doubtful that you’ll become attracted to someone who isn’t at all physically appealing to you. But if someone holds a spark of attraction for you, and has other qualities you love, your attraction can blossom. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, don’t make a snap decision based upon whether you’re instantly attracted on a physical level. If you’re not sure, go out with them again. In time, something lovely may happen: He or she may actually become more beautiful to you. And if not, you’ll know that it’s time to stop dating them.
If you’ve ever seen artists working on a portrait, you will notice that they often squint. Squinting helps them focus on the essence of their subject without getting distracted by its harsh outlines. We need to do the same in our dating life. It’s so easy to get lost in the hard assessment of people’s imperfections, but it serves us better to simply sense their spirit. That is what makes attractions grow.
As we start to care more deeply about someone, invisible tendrils begin to grow in our thinking, in our sexual imaginings and longings, in our growing sense of dependence on that person. Our psyche, our sexuality, and our hearts begin to create attachment to that person, to make him or her our own.
When we build a muscle through exercise, our body creates new capillaries to feed it. When we create new love, something similar happens. New neural pathways, emotional pathways, new rituals, sense memories, and needs get created. An entire web of new connections is created, as our hearts allow this once-stranger to become our loved one. We become specialized in them in so many ways. That’s why breakups can hurt with real physical pain—these lovingly-built tendrils are ripped out, and that experience is anguish.
In many attractions of inspiration, it can take time for our attraction to build. In such cases, it can be difficult to resist fleeing in search of something more clear-cut. As a result, many potentially wonderful relationships are cut off before ever being given a chance. The truth is that we can deepen our healthy attractions, and intensify their passion.
The more we focus on the things that trigger our desire, the more our passion can build. If there’s a spark of attraction to someone, and you want to make that attraction grow, start by giving yourself space. No matter how wonderful the person, you’re not obligated to be more attracted to him or her than you are. Forcing your feelings will only block the natural flow of attraction. Instead, allow yourself to reflect on what attracts you to them—what turns you on and what you appreciate.
Think emotionally, but think physically too. Take time to let your fantasies unfurl. You might simply want to hold hands at the movies. Or to kiss, or just gently touch for a long time. You might imagine quick hot sex or long, lazy sex Honor whatever you’re imagining, and, as appropriate, see if you can ask for what you want—that’s how we can grow our passion.
My advice: When we desire someone and then postpone the sex (for at least five or six dates), surprising new pathways of attraction form. It’s a great way to grow passion. More important, having sex too early is like Miracle-Gro for any fear of intimacy we might have. It makes us want to flee. So go slowly on the outside, but allow yourself free rein in your fantasy life.
And if your desire is more sensual than sexual, that’s fine too. A client of mine met a man who lives in Europe. She knew she liked him but she wasn’t attracted enough to want sex. She just wanted to cuddle. He invited her to visit but she wasn’t sure if she should make the trip. Speaking to her dating buddy, she said, “I don’t know if I should go all the way to Europe just to cuddle with someone.” Her wise friend replied, “Really? I can’t think of a better reason to go to Europe!” My client took the trip, and over time, fell deeply in love. She was wise enough to take all the time she needed, and he was wise enough to let her.
© Ken Page, LCSW 2015
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