Attraction is a tricky beast. You’re hot one minute, and the next, nothing but fumes. How many times have you met someone who ticked all the boxes, only to find the sizzle factor to be nowhere in sight? There are times your brain is saying “NO!” but your body screams (maybe literally), “YES YES YES!!!” WTF, right? Let’s break it down. There are four basic elements that feed into whether or not we say ooh la la or thank you, next around any prospective partner, and they are all interrelated.
Our mammalian heritage is predetermined to aim for survival, on a day-to-day basis and overall as a species. Even if you don’t want children, evolutionary strategies play a role in how you ferret out who could be a good match. People bring different resources (i.e., money, power, creativity, kindness, etc.) to the table, and what is considered necessary or attractive is completely subjective. Anything that may give our real or never-happening-except-in-the-mind-of-mama-nature offspring a leg up in the world could become a trait we knowingly or unknowingly seek out.
Hormones! Under the surface, we all have lots of hormonal scripts being played out at any given time. Hormones affect how we smell to others, how we experience pleasure, and our level of sexual giddy-up. Chemicals in the brain make us feel good (dopamine), happy (serotonin), and head-over-heels (norepinephrine). They can induce bonding (oxytocin) and set the stage for our receptiveness to a partner. Their levels also change dramatically when we get the feels or experience fear or intensity, and the feedback loop can be intoxicating.
Our psychology plays a HUGE role in what governs our arousal and attraction. Who has loved us in our formative years, and how they loved us, shapes the way we get turned on and who ignites our spark. We often gravitate toward people who are like us, or like the people closest to us—sometimes in appearance and other times in personality. If your mother was preoccupied with a sibling or sick relative, you may be inclined to be attracted to people who are less emotionally available. We seek out what is familiar or helps us resolve our unfinished psychological business. When opposites attract, it is likely an unconscious move toward a partner who can do some of your dirty work for you. For example, if you are someone more reserved, you may find it super sexy when a partner has no problem telling the waiter how the kitchen flubbed your dinner.
How we see ourselves is often a benchmark for who we are attracted to and who we attract. If your self-esteem is in the gutter, you may attach a lot of weight to who likes you, and you may develop fantasies about who you will be in relation to a partner. These kinds of fantasies are different from sexual fantasies, because they discount the reality of a partner in service of your own need to feel good enough. Some amount of love is blind is to be expected at the start of any new relationship, but living in fantasy for too long could leave you susceptible to psychodramas and toxic patterns.
Humans are social and relational creatures. We live our best lives when we are connected to others. In our various groups (family, friends, culture, profession, religion, etc.), there are generally ascribed values that the group maintains. In seeking a partner, we often prioritize the traits in a partner that align with our values and leave us in good standing within our different groups. That said, every group includes someone who bucks the norm, and they may get off on connecting with people who are different from the status quo.
There is no solitary explanation for why we are attracted to certain people, because there are so many constantly moving parts. If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: we are all desired by someone. Although standards of beauty and status often dictate the cultural conversation about what is hot, and comparison has become an Olympic sport, the diversity of what gets people excited (sexually and relationally) is actually infinite. People are drawn to all kinds of traits, so just be you, authentically, and you will attract and be attracted to people who complement you well.
Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, certified sex addiction therapist, PACT therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy, a group practice in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. Listen to her podcast, Modern Intimacy, and follow her on IG @drkatebalestrieri.