“Some enchanted evening
Someone may be laughing
You may hear her laughing
Across a crowded room
And night after night,
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter
Will sing in your dreams."
South Pacific sound track 1950
These lyrics from the very romantic , very popular, musical South Pacific reflect the joyous belief that when we meet ‘the one’ there is a kind of magic in the air, something happens, there is a once in a life time opportunity for happiness. The lyrics suggest that we must grab this opportunity sent from heaven or “All through your life you may dream all alone”.
The sentiments of the modern rock song are more likely to focus our attention on the sensual attraction:
“Your lips are so sweet, honey you’re my every need. You got a smile so rare. A love like yours I just can’t compare………………”
‘Aint That a Lot of Love’ Rolling Stones
So, how many of us believe that there is just ‘the one’ that we are romantically attracted to as soon as we meet? One that we will spend our lives with? Or are we simply overcome by the sexual attraction of the person we see ‘across a crowded room’? Our thoughts of the future do not go beyond what is going to happen next. Perhaps there is a mixture!
When I work with couples and we explore the history of their relationship I invariably ask about the initial attraction. The answers vary but there is usually some exchange of smiles and straightforward reference to the mutual physical/sexual attraction: “We could not get enough of each other” This type of remark tends to be followed by the naming of such qualities as, “she made me laugh, we had great fun”, “I felt that I could trust him” “He made me feel safe” “I just enjoyed being with her ” “As soon as we met I knew that this was it.”
The question as to what was the attraction in the first place is not always well remembered or even considered to be very important. Subsequent experience of each other in the demanding business of living together and meeting the challenges of life to say nothing of the strain of meeting each other’s needs may cause a degree of AMNESIA about what the great passion was all about.
Without being too cynical it might be worth observing that our great passions tend to be influenced if not sometimes prescribed by external pressures. People seem to be drawn to others whose family and social backgrounds are similar, to those who have similar educational backgrounds, cultural and leisure tastes, socio economic position, age, ethnicity. This may seem strange given that we are supposed to be living in an open choice society. Have a look around at you extended family group to check to what extent this is true. In my experience of working with clients from different cultures I am constantly reminded of the powerful social pressures that our culture exerts on us, whether this be Catholic, Islamist, Jewish. Any religious or ideological commitment by those who were responsible for our upbringing will have had a profound impact on our choice of partner.
Some suggest that girls marry their fathers and men marry their mothers, others observe that we simply marry our mothers.
There are of course many exceptions to this general observation. Classical and popular literature celebrates the challenge to prohibition against partner choice across tribal, religious and class boundaries. Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, Lady Chatterly are just a few of the many accounts of ‘Illicit’ attraction that have engaged minds and hearts.
We are sometimes reminded by the media of the tragic consequences for those who challenge the constraints imposed by some extreme religious groups on their young. Those who pursue their attraction to another from a forbidden alien group may suffer death or are simply cast out from the family.
These mythical and factual stories remind us of the frequent tragic consequences of pursuing a socially forbidden love affair but they also highlight the overpowering drive to consummate a passionate love affair, to pursue the loved other to the gates of hell believing that it is really paradise.
So how do we explain partner choice? Why do some people become sick for the love of a particular other ? Perhaps it is simply to do with the power of physical attraction or do we have to look to the hidden parts of our mind, to the unconscious?
The Natural Impulse
To begin with we can think of the question at a crude Darwinian survival of the species level. The young male is powerfully attracted to the young healthy female who at a conscious level feels that sex with her would be just great. At a more unconscious level he believes that she will receive his seed and bear him healthy children. Similarly the young female is sexually excited, attracted to the strong healthy male who will be a good hunter, a protector and will provide the seed that will fertilise her eggs and ultimately perpetuate the species. However In a world where many people have these qualities to be chosen as a mate it is necessary to find other explanations than the purely physical for specific choices.
The Search for Completion
The Greek philosopher Plato sought to explain this phenomena and suggested that what humans are seeking is the completion of themselves as human beings, their other half. Human beings are made up of both male and female genes and to be complete, whole human beings, according to Plato, need to unite with a being of the opposite sex. It is rather strange that Plato did not acknowledge same sex relationships given their importance amongst Greek warriors.
Whether we are seeking completion of ourselves with a member of the same sex or of the opposite sex, as suggested by Plato, the idea is that we want to be whole, to be complete. Indeed many find their soul mate without fully realising the full significance of the relationship until one partner passes on. The full impact of the traumatic loss is often expressedby my clients when they have lost a loved one to death: “I have lost my other half, there is a void in my life.” “ My heart has been cut in two”. “I just sit there staring into space wondering who I am now.”
Attraction of the Bad Boy
Not only are we attracted to others who carry positive qualities that are missing in ourselves we may also be attracted to those who complement our darker side. I am sure we are all familiar with the attraction that the ‘bad boy’ holds for the ‘nice girl’. The reverse is also of course true. This tendency may in part be a reaction to parents who are “nice” and have put a lot of pressure on their young to be “nice”. The breaking of sacred norms is often great fun; the challenge to parental restrictions is a normal part of separation. Rescuing the law breaker, the failing other may have a great appeal to the internal rescuer, the need to rescue, to feel strong, to dominate, to be omnipotent. The ‘bad boy’ is often the one that makes things happen, is never boring.
We may also be attracted to those who carry similar characteristics, the values, the beliefs, the looks, the sexual needs, as ourselves. We may like to be affirmed, to be ‘told’ that the character that we have is fine, acceptable even dazzlingly attractive. It is hardly surprising to see “the beautiful people getting together”.
The fact that the original attraction does not always last is a matter of common observation. Mutual beauty seems not to be enough in itself to sustain a relationship. It may not be enough to feel wanted on the basis of just one quality, there is a need to be loved for one’s real and whole self, ‘warts and all’. Perhaps we need to remember that people who have an excessive need to be adored have been damaged by their experience of life and in some ways have become a victim of their need for reassurance. They sometimes drown in it as did Narcissus, the problem is they may drown the person they believe they love.
Humans seek their partner in varied and often wonderous ways
We humans seem to have certain basic needs that propel us, often unconsciously to seek a partner that will complement us, provide us with a suitable parent for our children, provide us with emotional support in our strivings for life, fulfil our sexual fantasies. Help us to feel comfortable in our own skin while making us feel that life is great after all and that it is possible to be happy and have great fun. I imagine not that many people go around wondering about why this person ‘makes me feel so great’, they just get on with it. Perhaps it is only when some of the magic, the energy and excitement leave the relationship that we begin to wonder about why and what has happened.
As a couple therapist I see people who need help to explore their relationship and come to an understanding of what has broken down. In our efforts to find explanations we carry out a type of excavation. I get my clients to explore their individual history, the history of their courtship and cohabitation, what their hopes and dreams were, what is going on in all aspects of their relationship now. As a Psychodynamic therapist I am particularly interested in the childhood relationships that my clients had with parents and siblings. I believe that these relationships play a very important part in our views of ourselves, who we choose as a partner, what we hope for from relationships, what we can expect from others, what we can give to another, our dreams and ambitions our sense of self-worth.
“Love is a many Splendored thing” Indeed it is. The rationale for our love choice is often not however completely clear. It is important to make a distinction between the accidental meeting and flowering of chemistry between two people on a one night stand and the considered long term relationship of two people who seek happiness with each other. When we pursue our attraction for another each of us have conscious realistic expectations and hopes for our happiness but we also have dreams and hopes that we are not aware of, they are unconscious. These hopes fuel our initial attraction. Unfortunately our sexual desires for our ‘ideal’ may be so powerful that we make our decision on the basis of fantasy rather than reality, we do not see the real person rather we see what we have created in our imagination, our projections, what we want to see. Unconsciously we may be transported back to our very early relationship with mother who offered us a blissful ‘Garden of Eden’ experience of unconditional love where all our needs were magically taken care of. Frustration is inevitable, we may expect our relationship to repeat this first maternal love experience, deliver us magically to a nirvana where our hopes and dreams will be realised. Alternatively our early experience of maternal love may have been very unsatisfactory and choice of partner may be based on a drive to compensate for these experiences.
It may be difficult to accept that we internalise both consciously and unconsciously all our relationships from infancy and these form and guide our feelings and thinking as we go through life. Our appetite for intimacy and closeness and the opposite need for separateness, our capacity to love and to receive love, our ability to trust all seem to be developed during the early stages of life. Inevitably how we seek to meet the needs of our sexual drive and our choice of partner are importantly influenced.
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