How important is attraction?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#11 in a series)
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How important is physical attraction in a relationship?

A friend of mine used to teach psychology in her local high school. She designed an elective class in relationships which proved enormously popular with the students and eventually became a nationally recognized curriculum.

At the beginning of the semester, students would be paired up by random draw to play the roles of “husband and wife” as they navigated exercises and discussions designed to help them learn relationship skills and household responsibilities. She told me that many of the young women hoped at the outset to be paired with the star quarterback or the “cute guy.” Those who were so chosen acted as if they had won the lottery.

Until they started doing the exercises. Then a miracle happened. The very same young women began to wish they had been paired up with someone else. Suddenly, the nerdy kid who was less self-absorbed and good at listening seemed to be the better catch.

The moral of the story is not that all jocks are self-absorbed, nor that all nerds are good at relationships. The point is that we need to make a distinction between what draws us into a relationship and what keeps us there.

Let’s face it: you’re not likely to start a romantic relationship with someone you don’t find at least a little bit attractive (or at least not openly repulsive, for whatever odd reason). Hollywood stereotypes, of course, don’t help, with images of handsome guys and voluptuous women setting an unrealistic standard.

But it’s funny how attraction can sneak up on you. You are, after all, friends with a much wider circle of people than you would choose to date. The better you get to know someone, the more you may come to appreciate things about them and their character that aren’t obvious from their Facebook profile alone. A different kind of attraction comes into play: the imagination that this is someone you could happily be with for a long time. And when that happens, you begin to look at them differently.

Think about those increasingly rare couples you see that make it to their 50th wedding anniversary. You may see them holding hands and think, “That’s so cute!” But what does “attraction” mean to them? Their hair is thinner and grayer. Skin that used to be taut and smooth is creased with wrinkles. The shape of their bodies has changed. You won’t find them on the cover of any fitness or fashion magazines.

But ask them if they still find each other physically attractive. Some will say without reservation that they do; others might laugh, as if that were the most outrageously irrelevant question they’ve ever heard.

What is it that keeps them holding hands? In the long run, that’s the kind of attraction that matters.