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Why We're Often Attracted to People We Can't Be With

The psychology of "forbidden fruit."

Have you ever found yourself fantasizing about someone you shouldn’t be thinking about in that way? Or maybe you just look forward to the days when you’ll be around a particular person—meetings with an attractive coworker, say, or dropping off your child at soccer practice and chatting with the coach. You know you shouldn’t like this person as much as you do, and you know you won’t act on these feelings, but you still have that little secret hope that your crush feels the same way about you. Before you start beating yourself up, take a breath and a step back.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that sexual and romantic attraction are often simply basic and normal physiological responses to attractive stimuli. So you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you realize you’ve developed a crush on someone you shouldn’t. We don’t consciously tell our brain to generate attraction to particular people; it does it on its own. It’s like looking at a decadent dessert and your mouth-watering: You can’t stop a natural reaction like that. While it isn’t easy to avoid these instinctual reactions, it is within your control to avoid acting on them. You don’t have to be hard on yourself for finding someone attractive, but you don’t have to give yourself permission to act on the attraction, either.

It’s Hard to Stop Thinking About What You Tell Yourself to Stop Thinking About

The brain is a funny thing; it turns out that the things that we believe are “forbidden” are things that we typically want even more because of it, at least for a while. Studies have shown that people trying to cut back on calories are more likely to think about the high-calorie foods they are trying to avoid (Israeli & Stewart, 2001). If time away and time spent thinking about other things is what you need to give yourself a break, then it’s definitely worth trying. If a tempting treat isn’t in your fridge, you’re not going to be able to gobble it down.

Most of the time, though, repeated exposure to a stimulus (the hot crush) will actually dull your attraction. The novelty wears off and you can begin to see the faults a crush has that were “invisible” during the early stages of attraction.

Why Do We Find the “Wrong One” Attractive?

If you find you’re most attracted to people who are off-limits, you might first ask yourself whether you’re relationship-phobic and are choosing people who would never really be attainable as partners. If you're afraid of commitment, it's safer not to let your heart crush on potential partners.

It may be that you’re crushing on a specific type of unattainable partner—maybe you’re crushing on “dad types” or the husbands of your friends—and while it’s not so much that you find the guys attractive, perhaps you really dig the idea of motherhood and wish for a partner who would be the kind of dad these guys seem to be. Or maybe you’re a guy crushing on friends who are new moms because you’d really like to be a dad at this point in your life.

Sometimes, the persons who are most attractive to us are those who have qualities we would actually like to have ourselves. Say you’re always attracted to assertive but compassionate people. Maybe you wish you could be more assertive in your own life or a little kinder to others. That would explain why people with these qualities were the ones who caught your attention subconsciously.

If you’re just falling for the same “bad boy” or “bad girl,” even though you’re thirtysomething, your rebellious streak from adolescence may not have run its course and you still long to ride off into the sunset to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack.

Before You “Confess" Your Crush

Don’t risk existing relationships by sharing a secret with the wrong person or in a way that could damage connections you value. Telling a close friend that you have a crush on your sister’s partner may be okay, but telling your sister is unlikely to be wise. If you talk to a friend, you might get the issue off your chest. If the crush has become an obsession, which can happen when we’re trying hard to “not” think of something, you may benefit from a session or two with a therapist. Often, talking about something makes it a lot easier to handle; it can often be the fix we need.

Often, what we really need from a therapist is someone who is a safe “stranger” to whom we can tell our secrets. When we feel trapped and overwhelmed by an issue—whether it’s a diagnosis of an STI, a prior decision we wish we hadn’t made, or a relationship we regret—opening up about it can actually normalize our feelings and experiences. Once this occurs, we often feel relieved and ready to let go of the burden and move on.

Should You Ever Take the Risk and Pursue Forbidden Fruit?

If there’s really no taboo in place to keep the relationship from happening—such as workplace rules proscribing office romances—you should still think through the emotional consequences of starting a relationship with that person. If the person is a coworker and the relationship ends badly, would you be able and willing to consider a hunt for a new job to avoid the emotional and personal fallout? If you began a relationship with an ex’s friend or the ex of a friend, would the collateral relationships be able to survive? For instance, would the ex’s best friend sacrifice their relationship with your ex if you began dating? Would they be okay with losing that friend in order to pursue a relationship with you? Would your friend “bless” a relationship between you and their ex? Or would you be losing a friend in the hopes of a potential romantic relationship with their ex?

No relationship happens in a bubble; there are collateral people and relationships involved. Sometimes the thrill of the crush can flatline once the forbidden nature of it is removed. Think about that high-calorie treat: You crave it and long for it, but seconds after swallowing the last bite, you’re already regretting that you gave into temptation and are imagining what you’ll have to do to undo it. Treat giving in to a “forbidden crush” the same way.

Facebook image: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock


Israeli, A. L., & Stewart, S. H. (2001). Memory bias for forbidden food cues in restrained eaters. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25(1), 37-47.

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