There are many ways we live on automatic without thinking about what we do. One of the best places to see automatic emotional responses is when we choose a mate. We like to think we are deliberate and aware of what we seek in a mate but we are not. Only some people excite us romantically. Other people hold no such exhilaration. We assume passion means our attraction is the real thing and call this love.
Viewpoints both pro and con say that we are attracted to people like us or perhaps people different from us. Most of these views consider attributes of possible mates––looks, job, goals desired, interests, etc. We are unaware of the hidden or unconscious reasons for this attraction. Some of us realize we are attracted to people very different from us but can go no deeper in uncovering why.
Homer B. Martin, MD and I write about the “why” of romantic attractions in our book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships. Over a combined 80 years we heard from thousands of people in long-term dynamic psychotherapy. We discovered what was in their minds as they were beginning relationships. We also saw people well into marriages, those in the process of divorce, and those setting up lives again after divorces.
Unconscious Reasons for Romantic Attraction
Dr. Martin and I discovered that the reason we are attracted to some people and not to others is based in emotionally conditioned responses to others we learned as children. We develop these responses or roles growing up in our families. As teenagers and young adults we rehearse these same roles with new partners. We are attracted to partners because of our emotional responses to them. We do not look at reality factors of what our partners and we are like.
Giving and Receiving Emotional Support Controls Our Mate Choices
We may set out to choose a mate with certain characteristics––kind, attractive, smart, having a good job, respectful, reliable, has shared goals with you. But, we discovered that romantic relationship choices revolve around the giving and receiving of emotional support. Neither sex nor gender of the two people matters. If as children, you were expected to be supportive and giving to others you will look for people to give support to. This fulfills the role you learned as a child. This role is familiar and makes you feel contented. You will not feel particularly comfortable with receiving emotional support for yourself, only with giving to others you see as needy.
On the other hand, if as a child you received a great deal of emotional support from parents/siblings, you will seek romantic partners who give you lots of emotional support and nurturance. This makes you feel whole and contented. You will not be good at giving emotional nurturance to others.
Our opposite or complementary ways of emotionally responding determine the choices in our mates. This means we fall into rather predictable romantic patterns of attraction to others. These unconscious patterns drive our linkups.
Rationalizations Enter the Picture
After these unconscious emotional responses take place we discovered that people rationalize why they are attracted. We invent reasons why we are attracted to him or her. Sometimes we realize the other person is quite different from us and has qualities we lack––more outgoing to our shyness or being a conscientious worker to our laziness. Then we elevate the other person’s attributes that we lack to a level of admiration. We admire their traits as traits we wish we had.
What happens next is we think how great it would be to be associated with the person having such admirable qualities that are so different from us. Such an association makes us feel whole. Each person compensates for what the other one lacks. We idealize the match. This becomes our fantasy of how terrific this relationship will be going forward.
Why Marriages Unravel Over Time
But what happens over time with these complementary attractions, relationships and marriages? Often they unravel. The traits you admired become the downfall of the relationship. For example, you may have been the reserved, conscientious, hyper-responsible man who married the spontaneous, devil-may-care, life-of-the-party, irresponsible woman. At first she got your romantic juices flowing. You were smitten. Your relationship may have been highly charged sexually.
Resenting the Traits That You First Admired
But, as the early years of the relationship pass, you and she wear down. You are both unable to shed your emotionally conditioned roles learned in childhood. Neither of you is sufficiently flexible with the other. You become frazzled with trying to satisfy her emotionally. Your pessimism and unhappiness grow. She grows increasingly angry and unhappy that you cannot give her everything she wants and emotionally satisfy her in all the ways she desires.
The two of you come to resent those aspects of one another you first admired that drew you together. Cracks develop in your relationship. You both become frustrated, angry and bored. The stage is set for arguments. This may lead to adultery, emotional illnesses, substance abuse, separation or divorce.
If we could discover our emotionally conditioned roles from childhood, we could steer away from these emotionally automatic hookups in our relationships––especially in first marriages. Then we could be more deliberate in choosing a mate because we’d know the unconscious emotional roles that rule us. We could discover how to work around our emotional conditioning when choosing a lifelong mate.