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The Mystery of Love and Attraction

Who are we attracted to? Who do we love? And why?

Who are we attracted to? Who do we love? And why? And who loves us? And why? Attraction and love are a mystery, but Wendy Paris’s article “The Laws of Attraction” is an excellent review. I would like to follow up and discuss the two most common theories of attraction. They are, as we might expect, contradictory. These are the “Opposites Attract” theory (a complementary theory), and they often do; and the “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” theory (a mirror or clone theory), and they often do. Contradictory theories, therefore, and both are right and wrong.

Opposites really do attract, as we are attracted to those who have personality attributes and qualities that we lack or need or admire, and that complement our own. This is the “other half” theory, (which goes back to Plato) or even the “better half” theory. One friend told her husband in front of me: “You complete me!” He is Australian and seemed a bit surprised, but let it go. Her friend who heard this was horrified. She said she did not feel incomplete and did not need anyone to complete her. Still, extroverts and introverts may be drawn to each other, intellectuals and athletes, old and young, black and white (illegal in many states until the Loving case in 1979), the poor to the rich (not so much the other way round) and other opposites. (And almost everyone is attracted to the attractive: attractiveness attracts, opposites or not). The attraction of the unknown, the different, the learning, the exotic, even the dangerous, may be alluring. This theory of the opposites amplifies the definition of the sexes as opposites, problematic though that definition may be.

The theory is “embedded” in our culture: Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria in “West Side Story,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Cinderella,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Beauty and the Beast”—transgressions respectively of family, ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, personality and even species, with varying outcomes. The odds of such relationships lasting are lower than average, and the more lines and boundaries crossed, the lower the odds. Add religious and political differences, and the odds would worsen; but, and it is a big BUT, the relationships may still be wonderful, fun, and loving while they last—and they may last.

The exotic is erotic. And such loves do happen. Barack Obama is the product of an interracial marriage (and divorce) when such marriages were banned in many states. Marilyn Monroe married a top athlete first, Joe DiMaggio, and then a leading intellectual, Arthur Miller. Opposites attract, but they are probably never totally opposite, there must be some chemistry and some compatibility. But none of these marriages lasted long.

One vivid example was offered by Trevor Noah, who discussed his parents during the apartheid era in South Africa: his father was white and his mother black, hence the title of his memoir Born a Crime. “He’s very Swiss, clean, particular, and precise. He’s the only person I know who checks into a hotel room and leaves it cleaner than when he arrived… My mom was wild and impulsive. My father was reserved and rational. She was fire, he was ice. They were opposites that attracted, and I am a mixture of them both” (2016:104).

The “birds of a feather” or clone or mirror theory is also useful in understanding love: for love loves like: It sees itself and loves itself in others. It sounds almost narcissistic (Poor Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool, could not escape his love and so died. Oh dear.) But it’s not. It is still love for another. A similarity and compatibility of values, interests, traditions, language, age, lifestyles, and even looks, makes life and living together easier and less conflicted. This theory of love perhaps accounts for more marriages than the other one: men and women often marry the girl or boy next door, they're childhood sweethearts, they're best friends, though in a mobile culture this trend may be declining. Now the trend seems to be “assortative mating” in unromantic jargon. The professionals seem to be marrying each other, creating new elites and more economic inequality. This is still like liking like, but not the old sweetheart but rather the lawyer, the professor, the doctor or dentist next door or from the same university or with equal or similar social capital. Such relationships may or may not be so exciting and erotic and exotic, but they may be more lasting because more comfortable. This now begins to sound more like an old shoe theory.

Consider the lawyers: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Cherie and Tony Blair; and the royalty: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip; yet the new British royals may be bucking the trend: Prince Harry married Kate, a beautiful “commoner” (what a British term). And there is one name for the couple, Brangelina, (two in one, like sex) or there was, until they split. People sometimes seem to love themselves in the other (or their opposites, in the other theory).

On the downside: Opposites might clash, will clash, and clones might be safe but boring. What is to be done? The solution seems obvious: A compromise. Some similarity and commonality but also some difference and space; some togetherness, bonding and unity but also some apartness, autonomy, and freedom.

If both individuals have their own lives (maybe work outside the home) as well as each other’s, then the loving relationship should work, in theory. But our folk wisdom is ambivalent even about such an excellent idea. On the one hand, yes: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” So true. We can see it every day at the Arrivals areas in airports. On the other hand, no: “Out of sight, out of mind” and “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” The cat too, come to that.

A third theory might help to integrate these two opposed theories: The social capital theory. The concept of social capital derives originally from Marx’s theory of capital as an economic asset. But there are other assets: beauty, political power, fame, talent, education, a sense of humour, intelligence, youth, and so on. And people try to work out some sort of calculus of their own and the other’s capital as an investment in the future. So people talk about marrying up or down, a whiskey taste but beer income, or people being out of reach. This is a calculus.

Bruce Springsteen’s song “Brilliant Disguise” captures this discrepancy:

Well I’ve tried so hard baby / But I just can’t see / What a woman like you / Is doing with me.

(Don’t worry about the inequality, Boss. Check your self-esteem levels). One can see the calculus here.

People tend to love and marry those of equal market value. Sorry! Not romantic, but real. Alpha males and alpha females. They may be opposites or clones, but equal in social capital. As Alpha opposites consider Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, Carla Bruni and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Posh Spice and David Beckham, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio and then Arthur Miller, Donald and Melania, cheerleaders and quarterbacks, and rock stars attract groupies. Beauty, fame, power, wealth: All attractive.

The basic theory is that attractiveness attracts, and physical beauty is often the first factor for men, as may be status and financial stability for women: Grace, Carla, Posh, Marilyn, Diana, Melania—so beautiful, so attractive, so attracting. And their partners are also so alluring: the prince, the president, the millionaire soccer star, the famous athlete, and the famous writer, another prince and the TV star. Alphas of the world unite: Each wants the other. And yes, of course, personality counts.

There are so many other theories of romantic love: love as chemistry (Helen Fisher), the major histocompatibility complex (HMC): beauty is in the nose of the beholder), the sensory type theory (Sheila Dunn), the old one that men and women often marry their opposite-sex parents, and all those personality theories.

Love, it seems, may be mediated by capital (of various types: economic, aesthetic, erotic and so on) oppositional or feathered, but it may also be blind (another possibility).


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