The Consequences of No Physical Attraction

Living in a house of cards.

Posted Aug 01, 2016

Source: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

There are many reasons why people enter into committed, long-term relationships or marriage that have little to do with physical attraction. Some people marry to please others such as their parents: One client became engaged to a man she had little attraction for primarily because of enormous pressure from her mother to settle down. As an older, Italian woman the mother placed a high value on marriage and family. Other people marry for reasons of age and reproduction such as those fighting their biological time clocks. And others do so to escape loneliness or to create an instant family. People who are lonely or come from broken homes might be more compelled to unwittingly commit under these circumstances. Others strive to make up for a loss. Such might be the case of a partner who recently lost a spouse. And finally, some people attempt to escape societal pressure or to fit in: A client remarked: “It’s a couple’s-oriented society and I hate feeling like a third wheel.”

Many people believe that the importance of physical attraction is overrated. These individuals contend that other factors such as an emotional connection, friendship, the ability to communicate, the willingness to start a family, and safety and security are just as vital if not more, to sustaining a healthy, long-term relationship. But I beg to differ. While these factors are important to a viable relationship, so is a passionate, physical attraction. I’ll even submit that if physical attraction “never” existed between partners then many are living in a veritable “house of cards.” When choosing a life mate many of these individuals came packing with a “check list” comprised of tangibles but lacking in physical attraction. “I was never raised to consider such a thing,” said a female client. “I was taught that looks and sex weren’t that important. Honesty, productivity and loyalty were important, and above all else, religion and family. Now I don’t even want to kiss my husband. When I see a man that I find attractive, I get excited. It’s as if I’m finally freed up to feel my desires.”

It is true that many people manage to stay together with virtually little to no physical attraction. Severe health issues not-withstanding, some of these people are engaged in child-centered marriages or they’ve found a way to sublimate their sexual desire via work, sports, or even substance dependence. Others consciously submit to living with a big hole in their lives. But for many, sooner or later the void craves filling and trouble ensues. It’s only human.   

In marital therapy, I always request that each partner attends at least one individual session. During this time, I inquire about the state of attraction and its history. I ask if there is current physical attraction and if it ever existed. I also ask detailed questions about each partner’s sexual activity both past and present. Fantasies are also explored as these can reveal what partners are “really” attracted to. In some cases, a couple may be having regular sex—albeit obligatory and relatively unsatisfactory. Most often however, the least interested person has lost the need to even try to stir up a little passion. To put it bluntly, if you ignore physical attraction when choosing a life-partner, your relationship may be temporary. Here are some of the consequences you may eventually face:

1. Poor Sex Life: People who are stuck in a relationship lacking physical attraction will most likely have little to no sex. I’ve treated some couples who haven’t been sexually intimate in 10-15 years. Some of these marriages were unconsummated. Many partners sleep in separate beds—even relatively young couples. Oftentimes the couple has never experienced a good sex life and you can discover this by asking about early dating or honeymoon activity.

The least interested partner is often accused of never “initiating” sex, or doing so at the most inopportune times making it less likely to happen. But don’t be fooled by the mate who claims to want more sexual intimacy. They too, often enable the sabotaging of their sex lives. Some do so by turning it down when it is initiated, or complaining that it is never good enough. This in turn, can cause the partner who finally initiated to retreat or completely shut down.

2. Affairs: The lack of attraction in a primary relationship oftentimes leaves an opening for a third party to enter. The initiator of an affair might be the mate who claims to have attraction but feels deprived by the other. However, in my experience it’s usually the partner with little attraction that seems to find a lover in the world. Work or the gym seem to be the most popular place for affairs to develop. Running into someone that finally electrifies you is hard to resist. And once an affair becomes physical, it will that much harder to stop. If emotional feelings are involved—look out. This is in part, why I liken an affair to a Zombie: As in any respectable Zombie movie when you think a Zombie is destroyed, it surprises you and comes back again.

3. Nitpicking: When a partner feels trapped in an unhappy relationship they tend to consistently find things wrong with their partner. The way they smell, the way they eat, the words they use. The things they may have once found endearing are now annoying as hell. Some of these critics hope that the partner will get the message and end the relationship—something the nitpicker may be scared to do; others are simply projecting their own frustrations onto their partner. Nitpicking in this context may be considered a sadistic act but because it is usually unconscious it is difficult to stop. In my clinical experience, once the underlying reason for the nitpicking surfaces a couple may find themselves forced to deal with their attraction issue—a more authentic, yet dangerous place to be.   

4. Distance: The partner who isn’t attracted will find a way to stay away. This could manifest in both physical and emotional distance. To quote Roseanne Rosannadanna: “There’s always something…if it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

5. Lack of Respect: An individual who isn’t attracted might show a lack of respect for their partner. While the nitpicker is always on the watch, demonstrating a lack of respect might be less consistent but more stinging. Insulting a partner in public seems to be a fan favorite, or unfavorably comparing your partner to a neighbor, family member, or someone at work. A nice touch is to compare your partner with one of their competitors or someone they despise. Humiliating your partner on the grandest stage is often a sign that you’re very unhappy with your relationship.

6. Lack of Affection: A lack of attraction with little to no sex may be bad enough, but many couples who are stuck in sexless partnerships oftentimes demonstrate little affection towards one another. There is usually little hand holding. Rarely do they put their arms around one another or sit in close proximity. One female client made a deal with her distancing husband: “At least sit next to me on the couch while we watch television. I promise I won’t touch you.”

I realize that Victorian roots are still at play for many. But social media routinely uses attraction and sex to sell. Divorce is still stigmatized—less so now than in previous decades—but it is certainly not celebrated. And yet we still don’t pay homage to all that can make a relationship work. The next time you’re looking for a life partner, remember to add physical attraction and sexual compatibility to your list. If you truly want a strong foundation, consider all the variables, or pray that your house of cards doesn’t experience a strong wind.