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The Role of Physical Attraction in Your Relationship

Can attraction grow with time?

Key points

  • Many people live together without physical attraction or little to no sexual relations, sometimes valuing companionship or security more.
  • For many others, a marriage without sex is unsustainable.
  • Chemistry needs to be considered before going into a marriage; without this key element, the odds are stacked against the couple.

The concept of attraction has been defined in many ways by many different experts in the field of relationships. Some look to biology to explain why we are attracted. Others believe we unconsciously replicate our attraction to our opposite-sex parent. Some believe we’re attracted to those with the same level of emotional maturity or differentiation of self. And still others believe that our unconscious, internalized conflicts choose our partners.

These are plausible theories that have been supported by research and clinical experience—and all are deterministic. The biological theory offers that our nature chooses our partners for us (e.g., hormones in love); the latter three psychological explanations contend that partner choice is rooted and shaped in early youth in relation to our parents. Relationship therapists usually abide by the theory that they were initially trained in, so it’s no surprise that it’s impossible to get a unanimous agreement between them on attraction.

Nevertheless, the question that seems to create the biggest debate, even bringing experts from different orientations together against those who share their theories, seems to be: Can a partner who’s never been physically attracted to his or her mate grow this attraction with time? This question has produced some very interesting and sometimes heated debates at professional organizations.

I have to admit that I err on the side of the naysayers. In nearly 35 years of practicing couples therapy, I’ve never seen a partner “get it” when they “never had it” to begin with. I’ve seen a few who “had some” and “grew more,” but even those who were attracted to non-physical aspects of their partners (such as intellect) couldn’t seem to harvest a physical attraction. In this sense, you either have it from the beginning or you don't.

But let me be clear: I’m not saying that a lack of physical attraction will necessarily mean the demise of a marriage. Many people live together without physical attraction or little to no sexual relations. Other things outweigh physical attraction to these people such as companionship and security. Some find their mates interesting and stimulating. But to many, this type of relationship may be a so-called “house-of-cards.” Consider the following examples:

Janie, a very attractive woman in her middle forties came for couples therapy with her husband Tim. Janie lost the desire to have sex with Tim but couldn’t give a good reason. Tim seemed very much in love with his wife; he also kept himself in great shape and was a good provider. Even Janie sang his praises.

Sensing something was awry, I separated the couple only to find out that Janie was having an affair. She told me, “Tim is a great guy who treats me like a queen. But as nice and handsome as he is, I’m just not attracted to him.” When I asked Janie the magic question: “Have you ever been physically attracted to Tim?” “No, not really,” she answered. “I needed to get out of my house because my parents were both terrible alcoholics and Tim promised to take care of me. The rest is history.”

Wendy and her husband Larry presented for couples therapy because Wendy lost her desire for Larry; she hadn’t slept with him for almost two years. Larry was a handsome man who according to Wendy was also a dedicated husband and father to their three children. Nevertheless, Wendy admitted in an individual session that she was never physically attracted to Larry. “I knew he was a good guy with the same values. We also shared similar religious beliefs. I guess I never thought that physical attraction was that important. Now it’s something I really miss and I just can’t get myself to want Larry. I keep fantasizing about being with someone I really have the hots for.”

Seth and his wife Sarah came for couples therapy because Seth lost his desire for Sarah several months prior. However, in an individual session, Seth admitted to me that he was never very attracted to Sarah: “She’s not my type: I like tall brunettes. I had sex with Sarah for years but it was never that good. She’s a great woman and I guess I never wanted to hurt her feelings.” In treatment, Seth came to realize that he was more enamored with Sarah’s family than he was with Sarah.

Pete and his wife Allison came for couples therapy because he admitted to Allison that he was thinking about leaving her. In an individual session, Pete told me that he was never attracted to Allison, but that he liked her a lot as a friend. “I screwed up and now I’m going to crush Allison. It’s the same old problem: I can’t say no.” Pete was raised by very controlling and manipulative parents; saying no to them wasn’t an option. When Allison questioned Pete's desire to marry her, he wasn't able to tell her the truth. Pete realized that he couldn’t manufacture authentic physical attraction for Allison and for this he expressed tremendous guilt—little consolation for Allison.

None of the partners who lost desire disliked their mates. All felt guilty about their behavior and expressed empathy for their partners. I can also attest that each one of these couples tried very hard to salvage their marriages but to no avail. Most of them saw two, or even three therapists before they got to me. These were truly sad and painful situations.

One could only hope that all of these individuals found partners who served as a better fit. Making a relationship work is hard enough; starting out with a key element stacks the odds against you. Whether the theory you support is based on the biological or the social sciences, chemistry needs to be considered.

More from Stephen J. Betchen D.S.W.
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More from Stephen J. Betchen D.S.W.
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