What is romantic attraction? Why do some people fall in love at first sight? Why are some relationships full of anger, passion, jealousy and fighting while others are calm, friendly and companionable? Why do opposite yet also similar personality traits attract?
Evolutionary biologists, biological anthropologists, interpersonal neurobiologists, social scientists, psychologists, visual artists and many others have tried to answer these questions. What is romantic attraction?
Numerous theories have evolved, each revealing different perspectives on this fundamental mystery. I’ll discuss ideas inherent in one perspective. I’ll argue that the unconscious mind (which occurs below your conscious awareness) is highly influential in your choices. This is partly due to an idealised internal blueprint of love we each have and partly due to the fact that searching for satisfaction outside of yourself is a given in unconscious human existence.
You meet thousands of people in the course of your life
Why is it that only a few of these people appeal to your particularly unique and discriminating tastes? Most of the singles I counsel in my practice have some version of the following complaint “There just aren’t any good women (or men) out there. All the good ones are taken”. Another curious issue is that of the few individuals you find attractive, why do you eventually discover uncanny similarities in their personality traits, both the positive and negative ones?
As a counsellor, I see recurrent patterns in how romantic attraction influences the choice of partners my clients make. We all have specific attachment styles. Could it be possible that each of us is repeatedly searching for a mate with a very specific group of positive and negative traits? Are you searching for someone who matches a deeply unconscious blueprint of love?
The role of the unconscious mind in romantic attraction
To understand what may lie behind the strong correlation of traits between the partners you choose, and your drive to choose them, you must take into account the role of the unconscious mind. Many of us highly underestimate the influence our unconscious mind has on our choices, including that of picking a mate. Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” goes into great detail about the role of the unconscious mind in our decision-making.
The apparently logical, slower and ordered functioning of your conscious mind is the surface layer obscuring the ever-active, fast, and always functioning unconscious mind. As psychotherapist Allan Schore says, we have “…nonconscious insecure internal working models of strategies of affect regulation encoded in right brain implicit memory in infancy not available to left brain explicit memory recall.” Put more simply, in a baby’s preverbal growing time, its repeated interactions with carers imprint patterns of emotional response with them. These are stored in the unconscious mind as implicit memories. They are not readily accessible to your conscious, more logical mind.
You are unaware of most of the functions and processes of your unconscious mind
The unconscious mind is the part of your brain which governs self-preservation, reproduction, muscle contraction, breathing, circulation, digestion and sleeping. It is the source of physical action. Its main concern is “safety first”: it focuses on survival. It is always on the alert and has only a generalized perception of outside phenomena. It takes in “big picture” information through the five senses (what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch) and makes lightning-quick assessments (which can often be wrong) based on what these senses pick up.
For instance, when you meet a new person, you are instantaneously assessing whether that person is someone to attack, submit to, run away from, have sex with, be nurtured by or nurture. This is the basis of romantic attraction and our intimate attachments. But the good news is that you can learn, through repetition, to be more conscious and have more choices when prompted in these ways. You can learn to deliberately engage our conscious minds in picking our partners.
The best way to think about how the unconscious mind assesses people and environment is to remember that it has no conception of time. Everything that’s been imprinted in the unconscious exists only in the now. It responds to any stimulus that resembles past experiences as if they’re the same thing. This is called implicit memory. Our unconscious is hard-wired to have only three responses – fight, flight or freeze/appease. Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain explains how you can use the frontal cortex (logical part) in your brain to train yourself, with practice, to moderate the fight/flight/freeze & appease reaction which is your impulsive, knee-jerk reaction to threat.
This one fact about your unconscious mind helps you to understand why at times you have extreme responses to others, and particularly your partners. These responses are totally out of proportion to the stimuli that trigger them. One of my teachers humorously says “We have a $20 reaction to a 10 cent stimulus”.
This all relates to romantic attraction
Your unconscious mind stores memories of repeated childhood interactions with your carers in great emotional detail. Until the end of the first few months of life you had no awareness of yourself as separate from your carers and the rest of the world. You were immersed in blissful union. If you received “good enough” caring and attunement, your unconscious mind was deeply imprinted with the felt sense of oneness and unconditional acceptance that you were born with. The developing brain has no capacity to see itself as a separate being.
But, even if you were very lucky and had safe and nurturing carers, no human carer can be available 24/7 for the complex and very dependent needs all infants have after the first few months of life. Herein begins the tale of frustrated needs and expectations.
An immature yearning for total connection
In your adult relationships, your brain holds a deep memory of and yearning for this state of total connection. This is represented by the myths, visual arts, poems and songs of many cultures. Romantic love is an attachment bond. In romantic attraction you have a mostly unconscious expectation that your mate somehow has the supreme power to provide you with unconditional love. And you expect this love to reconnect you to your lost feeling of wholeness. You have a fantasy that their love will magically intuit and fulfill your every need, and that it will return you to feeling adequate, whole and totally lovable.
However, your love object sooner or later fails to deliver. In fact they often unwittingly frustrate your unspoken needs and desires, partly because they are looking to you for exactly the same reconnection. So conflicts, disappointments and dissatisfactions set in. Watch Alain de Botton talk about why we’ll marry the wrong person.
This is similar to the original feelings of frustration and disappointment which begin in the first months of your life, when your needs were not instantly met. No carer can be totally attuned to a child. So all of us have had experiences of being neglected, frustrated or hurt. Yet it is a sad truth that some of us have received deeper wounds than others, as shown by the ACE’s studies.
Because a baby (and the unconscious mind) resides in an eternal now and has no sense of time, if a carer takes a few minutes to respond, it feels like an eternity to the baby. These repeated gaps between becoming aware of a need, seeking its fulfilment and eventually having the need satisfied, gradually teach the baby that it is a separate being. Babies must learn that their parent and their environment are not there just to serve their every need. This frustration is needed for developing a good enough sense of self.
This sense of being separate, of not being in total connection, is experienced by the unconscious mind as a huge threat
Separation is a huge threat to the sense of survival of our unconscious mind. It’s a threat to its very existence. Unconsciously, it is similar to (and therefore equated with) a fear of death. To ward off this devastatingly uncomfortable feeling, humans have developed some very ingenious defenses like anger, blame, attack, withdrawal, flight and holding grievances. Here is a list of the fifteen common defense mechanisms humans use.
Remembering and reacting to what has hurt you in the past is a survival mechanism. You don’t want to be hurt again like you were long ago in very early childhood. And yet you seek the same sort of attachment that was “home” to you, familiar, in childhood.
Every grievance that you hold has its roots in old hurts when you were not fully loved, and old frustrations at your powerlessness to do anything about it. This hurt and frustration is similar to a dormant virus in your nervous system which erupts when someone responds to you in the wrong way. This is exactly what triggers all of the emotional explosions that torment you and everyone else in relationships. This is what’s behind the normal relationship conflicts we all have in relationships.
Remember that the unconscious mind responds to any stimulus that resembles past hurts as if they’re the same thing? This is why you have the disturbing experiences which arise in intimate relationships and romantic attractions. They happen much more frequently here than in your friendships or work relationships. One moment you can feel connected, loving and drawn to your partner. And the next moment, if they say or do the wrong thing, you can be in a fight.
Good parent, bad parent
What makes two people who swear eternal love for each other suddenly turn against each other with violent aggression or fright, behaving as if they’re each other’s worst enemies? It’s even more confusing that these flare-ups are usually triggered by minor incidents, such as a facial expressions, a movement or tone of voice. This is what makes relationships so difficult.
The answer lies in the fact that young children cannot understand how a parent can be “good”, a source of happiness and pleasure in one moment, and “bad”, a source of frustration and pain in the next. Object Relations Theory has much to say about this. Because you were so totally dependent on your parents when you were young, you needed to see them as good. If you were to see them as bad your sense of safety and security would have been totally undermined. So as children you repress the experiences of a hurtful and frustrating “bad” parent. These experiences get pushed out of your awareness and abide deep in your unconscious mind. Children need to do this to maintain their connection to the good parent and a sense of safety.
Whenever any facet of our experience becomes unconscious, it takes on a life of its own
Your repressed awareness of neglect or frustration slowly grows into a more generalized sense of the “bad other”. This is the person who cannot love you as you are, who may hurt or betray you, who you decide cannot be trusted. These eruptions of blame and rage happen when the bad other image, with all its painful associations, suddenly becomes conscious, and before you know it, you project it onto the one you love.
The unconscious, which is always on guard to protect you from danger, reacts to our partner as if it’s a matter of your survival. This was explained above when your brain goes into unconscious, primitive defensive modes of flight/flight/freeze & appease. Whenever your partner acts, speaks or treats you in any way that even slightly fits the blueprint of the bad parent, it triggers a deeply buried sense of danger and you switch into fighting to save your life. Suddenly the person you love (the good parent blueprint) becomes the personification of everyone who’s ever rejected or hurt you, the bad parent blueprint.
Your partner reacts to the same triggers
To make matters worse, your retaliation of blame and aggression triggers your partner’s alarms. They then react to you with defensiveness or aggression because their unconscious is responding with alarm to this threat. You then become the personification of their bad parent! So their reaction justifies your “bad other” story and your reaction justifies their “bad other” blueprint. This is how conflicts begin and then escalate.
There is a way out of this cycle! Your partner may actually be the perfect person to help heal these unconscious wounds. When romantic attraction fades, this can be a stimulus to break out of your unconscious reactive patterns. You can learn relationship skills based on decades of research.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 15 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.