Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.
As a novelist who writes romantic fiction, I am naturally interested in what attracts a woman to a man and a man to a woman, even though I know that many of the things that draw us to each other are indescribable. Still, in this article, I am taking a look at some of things that scientists have worked hard to describe in their attempts to explain what causes romantic attraction. I'm also looking at some of the things I believe are involved in romantic attraction that are not so easy to explain or to describe.
Before examining possible causes of romantic attraction between two people, let’s first take a look at what it is that we are referring to when we think of the word “romantic attraction.” What is it? Perhaps we can begin to examine it by looking at something a person can have a romantic attraction for that is not a person. Let me explain what I mean.
I grew up on a small farm in the southern Mississippi countryside, and because I did, I grew to have a deep, emotional attachment to nature. I love flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees and orchards, grass, and even different kinds of dirt. Yes, dirt! I love the smell of dusty, dry soil when the first drops of rain splatter upon it, mixing with it to create a fragrance that, to me, smells like the happiness it seemed to give to my dad; happiness that probably began in his heart, that shined out through his eyes. You see, when the ground was dry, that meant crops could be ruined. So, when it would finally rain, it often signaled the end of a dry spell that had endangered precious crops by lasting much too long.
Even though I cherished the happiness rainfall sometimes brought to my dad, most of all, I loved the rain. In fact, I grew up loving water in all its manifestations: ponds, streams, lakes, rivers, oceans, and seas. Because I love water and just about anything associated with it, for me, what I experience when thinking about this type of love feels like a romantic attraction. When I stand or sit near the edge of a pond or a lake, I feel a deep emotional reaction that permeates my being, entering my soul. To me, there is nothing as beautiful, as peaceful, as soothing and serene, as divine in nature, as flowing water. And when the sun begins to set over a body of water, I must say, I feel love enveloping me in a safe and secure “closeness” to God that is undeniably perceptible, yet somehow, indescribable.
No one actually taught me to feel the way I do about all things water; and I don’t think I learned it. I believe there was just always something inside, something God placed in me that has always connected me, on a spiritual level, with water. I'm sure lots of people feel this type of attraction to water, and that the way I feel about it is something with which many can identify. And that's what makes this feeling a good example of how you can have a romantic attraction to a thing that is not a person.
My father dug and maintained a pond on our small farm, which he stocked with fish and in which we were able to play and swim. When I was a child, I remember spending many days and evenings on the banks of that pond simply enjoying the peacefulness it brought to the surroundings. And that is what a romantic attraction feels like to me: A feeling that makes you desire to experience a close, serious, loving, life enveloping/life sharing, God-connected relationship. I believe that when what you feel for someone is romantic attraction, your desire is something you feel throughout your body, inside and out. It is something you experience internally, and on a spiritual level, because it connects with you on a different plane than other types of love, or other types of attraction.
Scientifically Speaking, What Causes Romantic Attraction?
Romantic attraction feels magnetic. You can be in a crowded room, on a crowded elevator, walking down a busy street, or even on an Internet social networking site where visitors post actual photos of themselves. Wherever you are, there are a lot of people all around, but there is one person that you see, talk to, pass by, stand near, or nearly bump into that you feel drawn to; that makes you do a double take as you feel your heart pounding a little harder.
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Science has not quite figured out exactly what causes one person to feel a romantic attraction for another. Even though everything even remotely related to this topic has been thoroughly studied and examined, including facial and body shape, angles, and symmetry, armpit sweat and other body odors, and more, there is still no conclusive and widely accepted evidence to support any one scientific theory. After much investigation, it is believed that a lot that is related to the subject of romantic attraction happens on a subconscious level.
There is evidence based on many different scientific studies that such things as body symmetry (left and right sides are mirror images), facial structure, and waist-to-hip ratio (measurement of waist compared to hip dimensions), all factor in—to a greater or lesser degree—to make someone appear more desirable as a potential romantic partner.
Potential mates with an attractive set of characteristics in all categories (and the desired traits differ for males and females based on how much testosterone and estrogen—the sex hormones, were added to someone’s genetic recipe), are more desirable to the opposite sex. Scientifically speaking, as human members of the animal kingdom, we are "programmed" with a primordial motivation to desire potential mates who can help us pass on attractive traits to our offspring, hence, creating greater chances for the survival of our gene pool.
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The human body produces natural odors called pheromones, and the odor produced by pheromones is influenced by a cluster of genes related to the immune system. Interestingly, researchers have found that scent factors in significantly to romantic attraction, because it seems to be associated, favorably or unfavorably, with body symmetry. The more desirable a person’s symmetry, the more desirable will be his or her natural scent/smell.
A study conducted at the University of Chicago in 2002 found that women prefer the scent of men with genes somewhat similar, but not genetically identical, and not totally dissimilar to their own. In the study, Dr. Martha McClintock tested 49 unmarried women by asking them to smell T-shirts worn by men. The men had slept in the T-shirts for two consecutive nights, and, according to the researcher, the scents collected were "mild," or similar to "what you would smell on someone's pillow or sheet." The test subjects weren't told that the scents were made by humans, but they were asked which they preferred.
Study analysis found that the women preferred scents that were similar to their own, but only somewhat. Researchers saw a meaningful correlation between the preferred scent and the woman's own odor components produced by her immune system--the part of it that she inherited from her father. This, they believe, could explain why the women preferred a scent that reminded them of their father, but not too much. Their father, after all, is a male known to possess genes that have already reproduced a certain type, and by choosing a man with a similar set of genes, the scientists suggested, a woman is more likely to pass on "a tried and tested immune system."
On the other hand, other scientific studies have examined "not-so-sweet" aspects of love. A 2009 article posted by Sam Vaknin, on mental-health-matters.com, used a headline that asked the question, "Is Love a Mental Illness?" In the article, the author said, "The unpalatable truth is that falling in love is, in some ways, indistinguishable from a severe pathology." This article cites results of a variety of different studies that examine or compare love responses to brain "events" that appear similar to mental illness.
Most of us who have been in love (or thought we were in love) know that it can often feel like madness, in between feelings of romantic sweetness and delight.
Beyond the Science of It
So, does all of this mean you don’t have to know someone in order to feel an instant romantic attraction toward them? Yes. In fact, sometimes, getting to know a person can actually free you from any initial romantic attraction you may have experienced. What I mean is, once you begin communicating with or learning more about the person, you can discover that your initial feelings can dissolve considerably (or completely disappear), because you don't like what the person is really like. Has that ever happened to you? Well, it has happened to me many times, and it is something I think of as an emotional bucket of cold water. And, it is because it's possible for this to happen that I do not believe romantic attraction, alone, is enough to sustain a relationship.
So then, what are some of the "not-so scientific" things that can spark, as well as help to sustain, a romantic attraction between a man and a woman?
Following are five of the most important characteristics that I believe are (or should be) on the "must-have" list of desired elements of romantic attraction, for women and men:
1. "It." It is related to chemistry, and it's either there or it's not. It's that initial flow of magnetic energy that draws you toward someone. I believe that "looks," while not the only consideration, is definitely part of it—part of the chemistry of romantic attraction. We all have in our mind our ideal "type," or how our "perfect mate" looks. And, even though we don't necessarily expect to ever meet our idea of perfection, I think we're magnetically drawn to those who come close. That means it's not likely you'll be attracted to someone who does not appeal to you physically.
In addition to looks, I think maybe those pheromones have something to do with the chemistry of romantic attraction, even though, consciously, it's not about the other person's scent. Scent is simply included in a totality of things that click for you. The person you're drawn to magnetically is someone possessing a lot of the characteristics that turn you on, and all these traits just come together so seamlessly and irresistibly that nothing in particular really stands out as the reason you're drawn to them--you just are. And while it is part of that "immediate" attraction, alone, it is not enough to sustain a relationship.
2. Caring.This is something I'll describe as the ability to care, to have a desire to protect and to care for someone in particular. Who wants to be with a person who doesn't seem capable of providing caring sustenance for him or her, in the form of both words and actions? I think both men and women prefer and look for someone who seems capable of providing care, "in sickness and in health," even if they aren't actually searching for a marriage partner. You still want to know that the person you're with genuinely cares about your well-being, how you feel, and what you think.
3. Sexual Desire. If the human race is to survive, men and women must procreate. Therefore, sexual desire/sexual chemistry, is the foundation of the biological drive to find a good mate. And even though many romantic relationships are formed for purposes other than procreation, women and men seeking a partner of the opposite sex still use the same biological "blueprint" for selecting a mate. In other words, romantic attraction preferences don't change just because one or both members of a couple might not want children. For this reason, most people look for a potential mate that they are attracted to sexually, and that they feel will be able to fulfill their sexual needs/desires.
4. Generosity of Spirit. Included under generosity, for me, are such things as being kind, loving, and communicative. Someone who is not "stingy," someone who actually enjoys talking to you and listening to you; someone who genuinely enjoys spending time with you. It is not easy to sustain a romantic relationship with someone who is stingy with his or her time, does not seem to enjoy being around you, is not kind toward you, doesn't invite you into their life by talking about things that matter to them, doesn't seem interested in what you have to say, and who does little or nothing to show loving behavior toward you. Having a partner with the ability to be "generous" in giving of self to the relationship, in all ways, is part of romantic attraction since it is something we all need in a romantic relationship.
5. Compatibility of Interests. Whether we do it consciously or not, most of us want the person we're attracted to, to have interests that are similar to or at least compatible with our own. When it comes to things like culture and/or subculture, work, hobbies, spirituality and religion, ethnicity, and other possible associations, we are more likely to need and to look for similarities, not differences. Even though society and culture can help to influence our choices, ultimately, we desire to be with someone who possesses a mixture of things attractive to us as individuals, including biology, beliefs and cultural values, and personal values based on similar morals and upbringing.
Other Important Considerations
I don't think romantic attraction either begins or ends through the fulfillment of my "top five" characteristics. While I do believe the five considerations above represent "deal breakers" for many, I believe there are other things that factor into the causation mix, as well as into a mutually satisfying, mutually respectful, and mutually beneficial relationship that can last.
With this in mind, I believe many people look for a mate that they feel might have a set of strengths and weaknesses that will enhance the relationship. In other words, we want someone who can bring to the relationship things we believe we are missing, things we need. For example, when it comes to fixing things around the house, I'm all thumbs. For this reason, I think it would be great for me to find a man who, among his many other positive qualities, is also handy around the house. Not being handy around the house would not, by itself, be a "deal breaker" for me, but I can tell you truthfully that I would not go out seeking a guy who is as clueless as I am when it comes to fixing things.
Some people look for partners who seem to either possess, or not, qualities they feel their past or failed relationship had/did not have. For example, if your past mate cheated on you, you might be likely to seek a new mate who you believe might be more trustworthy and loyal. Or, if your ex-partner scored high on your list of "must-have" qualities and you were badly hurt when the relationship failed, you might seek a new mate who doesn't score so high in so many categories, so as not to risk ever having to feel that much hurt again.
How do you know when someone is "into" you? If someone is interested in you as a potential romantic partner, I believe you will know it. Although there are many successful romances that are the exception to this, I believe romance works best when men are the aggressors in making initial contact by communicating interest. Still, a woman needs to show interest, and not repulsion, once interest is initiated. If a woman shows a man she is not interested in him, he should accept her repulsion/rejection at face value. If she is interested but still rejects him, then she could be dealing with issues of her own that she needs to work on before becoming involved, romantically, with anyone. If a woman is interested in a man who shows no interest in her, she should accept his lack of interest as a lack of interest. I believe that men and women who are ready for a healthy romantic relationship will find ways to successfully transmit their interest in one another, to one another.
In conclusion, I believe that too often, after partners discover each others imperfections, instead of staying committed to working on the relationship, instead of dedicating their lives to finding ways to stay together in spite of each others imperfections, too many people flee only to find themselves in search of another partner. It seems that it is difficult for many to understand that no matter what mix of "must have" ingredients are involved, all romantic relationships require time, hard work, dedication, courage, and commitment—that is, if what you want to build is a relationship that can stand the test of time.
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD