Why did you fall in love with your spouse instead of with someone else? Though many mysteries surround romantic feelings, current psychology has insights into the agendas and illusions that lie beneath the glow of romance.
by Shannon Philpott
When I think back to the moment I first laid eyes on the love of my life, my memories evoke the romantic nature of our chance meeting. Through my eyes, he was mysterious, gentle-natured, and handsome with those blue eyes that made me melt. He spoke softly and said all the right things. I was immediately attracted to his smile, his intelligence, and his spirit.
According to relationship expert Alisa Bowman, though, that perfect moment may have been an illusion. Bowman, author of Project Happily Ever After Relationship Rules, asserts that couples often begin relationships with blinders on.
“I have a theory that when people meet each other, they see what they want to see,” Bowman said. “You see qualities about yourself within this person and ignore the qualities that are actually different. It’s a stage in a relationship where you really don’t know each other—it’s an illusion.”
This illusion has led scientists to explore the mystery of romantic attraction in depth, pondering why some couples fall in love at first sight and others court for months or years before an attraction is established.
Clinical pastoral counselor Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. explores this phenomenon in his book Getting the Love You Want: A Gude for Couples. According to Hendrix, there are three primary theories that explain the mystery of romantic attraction.
● Bio-logic Theory. Some scientists contend that courtship behavior is enhanced by a sense of survival of the species. In this theory, whether or not a couple plans to wind up parenting children, the species' need for offspring plays a role in what men and women find attractive in potential mates.
As Hendrix explains, “Men are drawn to classically beautiful women--ones with clear skin, bright eyes, shiny hair, good bone structure, red lips, and rosy cheeks—not because of fad or fashion but because these qualities indicate youth and robust health, signs that a woman is in the peak of her childbearing years.”
On the other hand, Hendrix asserts that scientists have discovered that women choose mates for a very different biological reason. “Women instinctively favor mates with pronounced ‘alpha’ qualities, the ability to dominate other males and bring home more than their share of the kill. The assumption is that male dominance ensures the survival of the family group more than youth or beauty.”
● Exchange Theory. According to Hendrix, romantic attraction is enhanced when we select mates who appear to be our equal. Hendrix explains that couples “size each other up as coolly as business executives contemplating a merger, noting each other’s physical appeal, financial status and social rank, as well as various personality traits such as kindness, creativity and a sense of humor.” Unlike the bio-logic theory, the exchange theory is based on the person as a whole, Hendrix said.
● Persona Theory. When entering a new relationship, couples often contemplate how others will view their mate—hence the persona theory. This theory revolves around our need to enhance self-images, according to Hendrix, and suggests that we often choose mates who will do just that. “We have all experienced some pride and perhaps some embarrassment because of the way we believe our mates are perceived by others; it does indeed matter to us what others think,” Hendrix said.
The “one and only”?
Beyond scientific theories, there are still puzzling aspects of romantic attraction. While there are often thousands of people with whom we could have fallen in love, it is likely that we have only been attracted to a mere few, Hendrix said. Ironically, Hendrix asserts that the few people to whom we have been romantically attracted likely have similar traits, both positive and negative.
“We appear to be searching for a ‘one and only’ with a very specific set of positive and negative traits,” Hendrix said. “What we are doing…is looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us.”
Hence the illusion that Bowman asserts exists at the beginning of every relationship. We see what we want to see—our childhood, our parents, ourselves—within a new mate.
This illusion unravels after a few months or even years, Bowman said. “There are different stages of disillusionment once you are married or in a relationship for awhile. You realize that your husband is actually a man—that the opposite sex is different.”
Reclaiming the romance—for real
According to Bowman, this stage can lead to another dangerous stage for relationships. “You can start to grow apart and have separate lives. A lot of people start to ignore it and have to take the steps to come back together.”
In order to reclaim the initial romantic attraction, Bowman suggests taking the time to get to know your mate once again. With an open mind and the determination to reestablish the romantic attraction she felt when she first met her husband, Bowman embarked upon a four-month project to save her marriage.
“I accepted that the illusion wasn’t real and was excited about getting to know him for the first time again,” Bowman said. “My husband is a typical strong and silent man, and I have found out more about him by watching and observing him—it’s a never-ending getting-to-know-him game.”
Shannon Philpott is a writer/reporter with 10-plus years of experience, and a college journalism instructor. She maintains a blog about writing, reflecting, and teaching at shannonphilpott.com.