On attraction and love

March 13, 2020

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Much is written on the subject of attractiveness. It has become synonymous with beauty. Attractive celebrities, attractive influencers, attractive art. And through this myopic lens, attraction becomes something ugly. Something that people have or do not have. Something to be jealous of. Something to be torn down. But it doesn't have to be. It can actually be something very beautiful indeed.


Much is written on the subject of attractiveness. It has become synonymous with beauty. Attractive celebrities, attractive influencers, attractive art. And through this myopic lens, attraction becomes something ugly: something that people have or do not have. Something to be jealous of. Something to be torn down.

The old way of thinking about attraction isn't dead, but it's old

Indeed, this is something very much encouraged by some branches of science. In particular one has slipped into the public consciousness, and lodged itself there. Without nuance, it has become a poison. The idea that men are driven to impulsively seek beautiful (read: fertile) sexual partners, and women are driven to seek out status and resources above all else, stems from an evolutionary theory about sexual attraction from some decades ago. It says we prioritise reproduction, and the jealous guarding of our spouses to ensure our safety and the safety of our children. The theory itself has validity, but only when we contextualise it amongst other factors that play a role, like cultural values and socialisation. In fact, when we take these considerations into account we find that actually both men and women seek traits like warmth, kindness, intelligence, and trustworthiness above anything else. These kinds of findings seem somewhat at odds with social trends that prioritise appearances or wealth at the expense of depth of connection. It doesn't even particularly gel with the evolutionary theory.

When we place too much burden on one theory to explain human behaviour, much is lost. And indeed, other, competing evolutionary claims exist that mean we may need to rethink this rather superficial approach to our sexual drives. For example, this theory believes that we are intrinsically egalitarian, including with regard to our sexual appetites. It claims that a community engaging in free love, or polyamory, makes more sense from an evolutionary perspective. Without the certainty of which children belong to whom, the children become the communities' collective responsibility. It is merely the advent of the agricultural revolution, and the concept of property ownership which encouraged a false insularity in our family groups.

Both theories have evidence in support. Both theories have flaws. Theories are by their nature incomplete, which is what makes them theories and not facts. As such, Aristotle's golden rule applies: the object lies somewhere between the two extremes.

In the case of attraction, this golden middle tells us something beautiful about ourselves.

Attraction is a beautiful concept

To me, it's a shame that attraction has been reduced to ideas about beauty and sex. For two reasons. The first, because:

Too much has been written about beauty... Beauty is that which satisfies the ├Žsthetic instinct. But who wants to be satisfied? It is only to the dullard that enough is as good as a feast. Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore.

- Somerset Maugham - Cakes and Ale

The second, because attraction itself is a beautiful concept. In some academic circles, it's a technical term that describes something very fundamental to the human condition.

In the parlance of interpersonal psychology, attraction is simply what draws people together or pushes them apart. It's the glue that binds us to our friends, our family, our partners and our workmates. Attraction is what makes people want to get to know us, and to stay.

For psychologists, 'you're attractive' means 'you're doing something positive for me, so I feel positively about you'.

Seen from this angle, attraction becomes something a little less superficial, no? But also, it hints that attraction has something to say about every relationship we share with others; every connection we make.

There are many ways to be attractive, and some have nothing to do with us

There are more ways to be attractive than merely the physical. We can be make people feel good by being competent for example. Or by being pleasant to talk to. In some cases, these are more important to us than physical attraction. Which makes sense. We want our leaders to be attractive. We want our employers to be attractive. We want to associate ourselves with people who make us feel good, whether by being trustworthy in their roles or by being considerate of our feelings.

But our attraction for other people, as often as not, comes from less expected places. Even very unlikely, or oddly specific ones. The mere exposure effect is the most alarming. That familiarity to a thing makes us prefer it over something we've never seen before seems intuitive. Similarly, it makes sense that this effect would transfer to people we come in contact with. But that our preference for something can be changed by exposure to it below the level of consciousness seems quite strange indeed. It hints at very deeply ingrained cognitive processes, over which we have little control.

Yet the one uniting facet of these environmental factors that influence our attraction is that they seem to be related to a preference for things we see often, interact with often, and engage with often. For any organism that coalesces in groups, these are sensible features to build within us. It makes us a community, and that makes us stronger.

The most powerful influence on attraction is simple

It should come as no surprise then, to learn that possibly the most powerful influence on our attraction to others is the notion that they are attracted to us. To be told, or merely to have a sense, that someone likes us, agrees with us, and is paying attention to us, is enough to spark a strong desire for connection what that person.

If attraction is simply the thing that makes us feel positively for each other, then setting out with someone who already feels positively about us is a shrewd strategy indeed.

All of these attributes bring into sharp focus that attraction, at least in the interpersonal sense, is about community; bringing people together. Whether through their common interests, their common experiences, or their common beliefs. These things build intimacy. Literally. Sharing these things has a direct influence on how we feel about others, and how they feel about us. Thus we are attracted, we share, we build intimacy, and the connection deepens.

Attraction, intimacy, and love are all about friendship first

Another insight comes to us in the form of a study of love. Love, of course, is impossible to define. But like the sharing of intimacies to develop intimacy, love appears to be a function of how much we perform loving acts. The more we facilitate each other's goals, and the more we build ourselves into each others' lives, the stronger the love we feel.

Where our initial attractions may stem from our context, our love for others appears to come from our actions toward them.

As such, the building blocks that characterise friendships looks exactly as those for romantic relationships. And the psychological dimensions of love, to the extent we can know them, dedicates equal space to companionate love as romantic love. Indeed, companionate love, the love we have for friends and family, comprises two thirds of what most would view as the pinnacle of romance. Companionate love is comprised of commitment and intimacy, in the absence of passion. The addition of passion is all that remains to take it to that pinnacle of consummate love.

Romance extends the foundations friendship built

The overlap extends to the stereotypical ways people come together. We start by testing the waters, and then begin to develop idiosyncracies that distinguish this relationship from others. Eventually, for a lucky few, the relationship becomes something quite unique. The same patterns are evident even in the formation of groups. Romances and friendships are subject to the same rules and the same needs. Our desire for them stems from often similar places. And of course, they share the same characteristics, alas, in the ways people sometimes come apart.

So how is romance different?

But our romantic relationships are different from friendships, and rightly so. Despite the aforementioned turn toward our proposed 'atavistic' tendency for free love, it would be stressful to be in love with everyone. So how is love different?

It's not exactly clear. Friendship is certainly less complex than romantic love. As mentioned, it misses the dimension of passion. But also, romance includes includes elements of fascination, sexual desire and exclusivity. It would appear that these can come later, after the friendship is developed, as in arranged marriages, or relationships that start between friends. But it's not clear why. More commonly, these elements appear first, often with strangers. This temporary madness, or 'limerance' as it's called, is intense but also notoriously brief. These two things appear distinct from one another, but it's not exactly clear how. Only that, as in the wisdom of Captain Corelli, the former, more enduring kind of love is "what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident."

Epilogue

And thus, attraction and love are about togetherness at their core, absent a need for physical beauty or sex. To me, this is beautiful of itself. To be attractive, there is no requirement for anything other than the consideration of others. To maintain love, the crucial thing is to be loving. This, I think, we all have the capacity to do.

The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.

- Hemingway - Letters

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