Attraction  Chapter 1
On Relationships

Revised October 2003

 Empowering People

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What attracts us to one another? 
At first blush, you're likely to say that you're attracted because he or she is handsome or pretty or treats you well, is fun to be with, is great in bed, and so on. But, to a great extent, these beg the question. They don't really reveal what it is about the person that leads you to see him as handsome, or her as fun to be with. 
When I'm strongly drawn toward someone, we call it "chemistry." This term implies that why I'm attracted is past comprehension. It is a common view, but I don't believe it's so mysterious. 
 It seems to me that there's no "neutral" here: I'm either attracted to or repelled by someone, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. What attracts me depends upon whether I believe I'm worthy or unworthy of love and, therefore, whether I'm seeking or shunning intimacy. By intimacy I mean a reciprocal openness, one grounded in a mutually experienced and lived-out safety to be and to become freely and articulately who each of us is. It arises from a realization of shared values and mutual appreciation. 
In my view, intimacy (with myself or an other) is the sole occasion for my human fulfillment, the sole opportunity for me to genuinely heal, grow, love, and create. But intimacy has its price: it requires truth and, ultimately, commitment (both very frightening for most of us).
If I believe I'm worthy, being truly intimate excites me. In this case, what attracts me to another person is his or her invitation to genuine intimacy. Its presence draws me closer and closer to the attractive Other.
On the other hand, to the degree that I view myself as someone unworthy of love, the intimate presence of the Other will frighten me, because it will seem to threaten to expose what I believe to be my deficiencies. But, at the same time that I'm repelled by and flee from it, I also long for and reach for that presence: I take a vacillating stance towards it.
I'll try to keep from being exposed as flawed by adopting a (toxic) stance through which I'll strive to conceal myself and to control myself and others; and I'll be attracted to someone who does the same. 
In the words of the Eagles' song, then, I'll be "looking for a lover who won't blow my cover;" someone who will fail to call me to the truth of my being, who will support and validate my futile hope of eluding my pain, my magical belief that I can somehow avoid dealing with what I fear. 
There are numerous variations on the avoidance theme. I may be attracted to your apparent weakness, fearfulness, neediness, etc. Here, I may be trying to rescue you, to win your approval by being your "knight in shining armor," or to avoid being exposed as deficient by focussing on you and your deficiencies, all in an effort to prop up my own sagging sense of worth . But eventually, you're bound to recognize my seeming appreciating for the deprecating that it is.
Perhaps it's the challenge you present that appeals to me. In this case, my aim might be to prove my adequacy by attempting to meet your challenge. But proving worth is always impossible. In addition, my attempts to prove my worth will objectify you by making you a mere pawn in my struggle to triumph over my pain. So this is simply another way to avoid intimacy. Here, my excitement will be in the hunt, in my over-and-over-again attempt to prove I'm worthy of love, rather than in the success which, since it is characterized by intimacy, will seem to threaten to expose my unworthiness and betoken my abandonment.
What attracts me to you might also be some quality you have that I imagine I lack, such as courage, strength or spontaneity. It's as though I believe I could come to possess this quality through you, or could get you to serve me by fighting my battles. But, ultimately, this initially attractive quality in you can do no more than remind me of what I lack. Consequently, your being flattered will eventually give way to your disappointed realization that I'm not with you to help with your fulfillment.
In all these situations, what we've recognized in each other is our ultimate unwillingness to commit and, thus, to grow closer. In any case, it's just not possible for me to truly commit myself when I believe that no one I'm attracted to could value me for who I am, could really believe I'm worth committing to. Groucho Marx described this when he said, "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."
Whether I see myself as worthy or unworthy, I'll experience the discovery of my being attracted as an acute and exciting departure from my usual situation. I'll see it as a rebirth of my hope for love and, consequently, as an unburdening. No matter whether my excitement grows out of my anticipation of intimacy and fulfillment or out of my expectation of deliverance from pain, I will be attracted to someone with a similar desire to either be close or avoid closeness.
My appetites--what attracts me--for people, food, work, or whatever, are my mentors. They reveal what I want and, therefore, what I need. (My needs are in service of my wants, not the other way around: For example, if I want a safe driving record, I need to drive carefully.) I'm suggesting, moreover, that our appetites are our sole means of knowing what we want and need, that what we're genuinely attracted to, truly hunger for, is in fact what we need (e.g., when I crave peanut butter, I may be in need of iron or specific kinds of protein.) 
In other words, I'm truly empowered when I'm acting to satisfy my appetites, not when I'm trying to conquer or control them. I'm empowered to the degree that 
  1. I know what I want; 
  2. I recognize my right to reach out for and achieve it; 
  3. I foresee the possibility of achieving it; 
  4. I reach out passionately for it; 
  5. I enjoy the process; and 
  6. I take pleasure in achieving it, or embrace my distress when I fail to do so.
Contrary to the general belief, I can't choose what I desire, crave, long for, relish, like, hunger after, have an appetite for; am attracted to. I discover these. But, while I can't will my appetites, attractions, or desire to commit, I can will my actions. I can choose, for example, to reach out honestly for what appeals to me. 
Unfortunately, most of us tend to take a very perverse, self-distrusting view of our appetites. (This is evident in such cliches as, "Whatever I want is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.") Such discounting of appetites is disempowering. It's cost is great. When I discount my appetites, I deceive myself about what I'm hungering for and what it means to me. Consequently, I try to fill the wrong "space." (For example, I try to fill my loneliness with food, or with someone who is not truly my match.) The more I act out of harmony with my appetites, the more I lose touch with my self and others; the more I become confused about how best to proceed with my life; the more I lose the ability to effectively minister to my self, to truly act on my own behalf.
The way out of this quandary is through: it's taking the risk--with proper precautions for my safety--of honestly pursuing my attractions, my appetites. The more out-of-touch with myself that I am, however, the more disturbing this process will seem and the more I'll be tempted to try to fill the wrong spaces, instead. But, it's also true that I'll become more and more aware of what I want and don't want. As I do, I'll also become more aware of my right to pursue it, more and more empowered and more and more able to genuinely commit.
I believe that risking this is ultimately the safest course of action. To do otherwise is to cheat myself, big time, of the pleasure, growth, and fulfillment that comes from pursuing and achieving my dreams. Moreover, I will also cheat others of the pleasure and insight that my happiness could provide them.


© 2003, Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. Empowering People


What attracts me depends upon whether I believe that I am worthy or unworthy of love and, therefore, whether I am seeking or shunning intimacy.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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