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Physical Attraction: Are You Denying How You Really Feel About Somebody?

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Physical Attraction: Are You Denying How You Really Feel About Somebody?

Unconsciously subverting your desire for a partner

I entitled my last blog: Physical Attraction: You’ve Either Got It Or Not! After reading the blog, one of my postgraduate students commented: “I believe a person can actually be physically attracted to someone and not know it.” This assertion sparked a controversy. Another student told the story of being friends with a young man. “I knew he liked me,” she said, “but I saw him as somewhat asexual—he was just a buddy. You know…he was the kind of guy you talk to about the problems you’re having with the guy you’re really into. But then one day we went to get a bite to eat and I noticed he was flirting with our waitress…and you could tell he was turning her on. Wow, it woke me up—like I was hit by a two-by-four. From that point on I saw him as a potential romantic partner and we soon began an affair which lasted quite a while. The attraction was under my nose the whole time, but for some reason I couldn’t feel it.”

I countered that the student’s story didn’t necessarily support the notion that you can develop a physical attraction for someone you’ve never had one for. All it might say is that physical attraction can be repressed—it still has to be there to be brought out. I then raised the question: Why might a partner repress physical attraction? The students and I discussed several possibilities—which might be conscious or unconscious to the repressor. The following are just a few of the reasons we came up with. I’m sure there’s plenty more where these came from:

1. Fear of intimacy — If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not attracted to your partner you may avoid getting too close.

2. Fear of commitment – If you feel little to no attraction for a mate you can end the relationship more easily.

3. To avoid a taboo — You might want to disown an attraction out of guilt or because you feel it’s wrong (e.g., your family disapproves of your partner; you took your partner away from a good friend; you can’t allow yourself to get involved with someone you work with).

4. Fear of success – You might have an unconscious desire to wreck your relationship.

5. For protective reasons – Your unconscious might be telling you not too get too attached to an inappropriate partner.

One of the students then raised a most important question: “If a client can repress attraction, how can we as therapists tell if a client isn’t attracted in reality, or if repression is operating? If we simply take a client’s word that an attraction never existed—and we therefore believe that as a consequence it never will develop—we could mistakenly support a divorce.” I answered that it’s a distinction that needs to be made. The key is to know your client as best you can so that you can help him/her to differentiate between the two possibilities. It’s important to take into account your client’s sexual/relationship history. And you’ll need to gauge his/her ability to be intimate and to commit. Simply put, you’ll need to carefully assess the potential gains—conscious and unconscious—good and bad—that the client may achieve for repressing such feelings.

I believe this particular aspect of attraction is an intriguing one that receives only scant attention when relationships are discussed. Perhaps it’s a little too frightening to take head on. I also suspect that those of a biological bent might not give it much weight. Because they believe that attraction is primarily determined by a physical chemistry—if it truly did exist—they might view it as next to impossible to repress successfully. “I’m attracted, therefore I am.

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Dr. Stephen J. Betchen is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, as well as a critically acclaimed author and regular contributor to the popular Ladies’ Home Journal column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” He currently serves as Clinical Assistant Professor at Thomas Jefferson University. For more than 25 years, Dr. Betchen has helped couples repair their relationships and reach new levels of happiness, whether they’re battling about in-laws, sex, parenting, infidelity, money, careers—or anything in between. (Case in point: He once treated folks who were at odds over the wife’s weight and the husband’s constant criticisms!) Dr. Betchen’s approach to couples therapy is refreshingly simple: He offers no gimmicks, slogans or quick fixes to nagging problems. Instead, Dr. Betchen believes that individuals change only when they discover what’s really driving their behavior—and that relationships change only when couples develop empathy for their partners and understand what really drew them together. (Turns out that physical attraction is just part of it.) Dr. Betchen provides in-depth analysis of couples’ attitudes and behavior, enabling them to see themselves and each other in a new light. And from there, he delivers real-world advice that teaches couples how to change themselves—and their relationship. Dr. Betchen is the author of numerous professional articles on relationships and makes frequent media appearances. His expert opinions often appear in national publications, including Family Circle and Men’s Health. In addition to Magnetic Partners, Dr. Betchen is the author of Intrusive Partners-Elusive Mates.

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