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Interpersonal Attraction: The Forces that Draw People Together
Copyright – Elizabeth Ryan, February, 2004

"I recently read that love is entirely a matter of chemistry. That must be why my wife treats me like toxic waste."
(- David Bissonette)

The phenomenon of interpersonal attraction has fascinated poets, philosophers and people in general since time immemorial. Why do we become smitten with one person and feel indifferent about another? What makes us fall in love? Before we explore these questions, let’s briefly consider the popular theory about how to lure love. Accordingly, women should play hard to get and men should woo their interest. Dating becomes a game we must win at all costs. This and other notions that focus on how to snare a potential partner by employing deceit, manipulation and control are anathema to anyone who strives to operate from integrity in establishing a solid base for a loving relationship. 

Although we might aim to develop a healthy union, we’re somewhat hampered in doing so because we’re yet to have attained perfection. The maturity of our behaviour around attraction, falling in love, and relating in general, therefore is dependent on the degree of our emotional development. We need to accept this notion without self-criticism or a sense of defeat. Many of the forces that motivate our attraction are unconscious. One of the ways we can raise our level of emotional development is by increasing our awareness. When we’re better informed we tend to make better choices. Let’s uncover some of what’s known about what sets our heart racing when we’re interacting with potential mates so that we might make more informed decisions. 

Looks play a big part in what we tend to find captivating. Studies reveal that both sexes are more likely to be attracted to people who have a 
well-proportioned, symmetrical body. The facial features we prefer are large eyes, prominent cheekbones and a big smile. For a man to be considered really desirable, in terms of facial features he also requires a large chin, while women need a small nose and chin, narrow cheeks, and high eyebrows. To some extent, however, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some heartwarming research shows that the longer a couple is together the more attractive they tend to consider each other. 

A potential partner’s personality variables also are a determinant of attraction. People who are perceived as warm, amiable, humorous, gregarious, positive, smart, interesting or confident are clearly more ingratiating than those who are considered belligerent, boring, insecure, negative, insensitive, irresponsible or unstable. Extroverts are often initially considered more attractive than introverts. Another factor in attraction is mutual attraction. Our attraction to someone tends to lead to mutual attraction because we’re likely to be very pleasant to people whom we fancy, which in turn makes us more attractive to them.We also find similarity appealing. In order for people to meet, they are likely to live in the same vicinity, and be of similar age, cultural background and education standard. Because of our desire for peace, harmony and minimal conflict, we tend to attract people whose attitudes, beliefs, interests and values are consistent with our own. When we move beyond attraction to developing a relationship, the partner we choose is likely to have a comparable level of physical attractiveness to our own. You might think that we’ be attracted to remarkably competent people, but research shows that we favour people with a similar competence level to our own in matters of intelligence, education, interpersonal skills and sporting prowess. People who appear exceptionally competent are often considered less impressive because we’re likely to feel inferior when we’re around them.

Although we prize similarity in some areas of our lives, some contrast also figures in attraction. Dominant people, for example, are likely to choose 
submissive partners, and, of course, males generally prefer females, and females generally prefer males. They complement each other. Strong extroverts are likely to develop an attachment with introverts. When both partners are strong extroverts there’s potential for sparks to fly, and not the type that emanate from sexual chemistry! Strong extroverts are likely to find themselves competing for the limelight and interrupting each other when they’re in company, so extroverts tend to prefer a partner who’s serene and reflective. Two extroverts may feel an initial attraction to each other because of our inclination to find extroverts more attractive than introverts but strong extroverts tend soon to lose interest in each other. Of course gender differences also underpin attraction. Men, more particularly than women, value physical attributes and youthfulness in a potential partner, characteristics that are associated with fertility, while women favour men with qualities that result in nourishment and protection.

Generally when we find someone initially appealing we project onto him/her the qualities of our ideal partner, most of which are the residue of imagined or unmet childhood needs. Rather than seeing our potential partner for the human being she/he is the child part of our nature fools us into believing that this person will respond positively to our every whim and provide an idyllic future for us. This is the point at which we fall in love. The in-love phase is therefore largely predicated on illusions, self-serving motivations and personal preoccupations that lead us to idolise and idealise our ‘beloved’ rather than see his/her true nature. Real love, on the other hand, comes from accepting and loving the actual person rather than what we want the person to be. The degree to which we see a potential partner without the taint of rose-coloured glasses is a direct indicator of our emotional maturity.

There’s overwhelming evidence that many of us are attracted to people who are consistent with our ideal self. If we would like to be more patient, more compassionate and less judgmental, those qualities being part of our ideal self, we’re likely to be attracted to a person who possesses these attributes. We’re also likely to be attracted to someone who encompasses some of the characteristics of our parents – particularly the parent with whom we had more difficulty. This explains the painful propensity for children of alcoholics to attract alcoholic partners. 

Clearly, what draws us to someone initially is different from what endears us to that person down the track. Attraction is not confined to the beginning of relationships. How the person behaves along the way becomes an ingredient of attraction over time. As you can imagine, we can fancy someone with beautiful looks but if that person participates in dynamics that result in us experiencing pain, then our interest in him or her is likely decline. Our self-esteem, which is associated with our emotional maturity, also has a powerful influence on our partner selection. This topic, as well as impression management, will be discussed in a subsequent article.

First published “Free Spirited” Magazine April, 2004
Copyright – Elizabeth Ryan, February, 2004

Elizabeth Ryan (BA Hons Psych) is a relationship counsellor relationship educator, based in Melbourne. 
See her website for more information: 


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