3 Reasons We Commit To Love That Won’t Last
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How do we decide what to look for in an ideal mate? When it comes to identifying potential relationship partners, most of us take our cues from the same sources and/or examples: our parents and family; religious institutions; popular culture (books, movies, music, etc.); and our peers. While these resources often contradict each other—for example, the characteristics of the ideal person as defined by your church’s singles ministry will likely differ from those celebrated in your typical rap music video or steamy romance novel—there is near universal agreement on what makes for an attractive potential relationship partner.
The problem is that what makes a person attractive, at least by commonly agreed upon standards, has almost zero correlation with that person’s capacity to establish and maintain healthy, loving, mutually respectful, sustainable relationships. The evidence, despite the fact that most of us use the same selection criteria:
1) More than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce
2) Less than 20 percent of married people describe themselves as happy
3) The majority of committed relationships outside of marriage fail within a few months. Even when they last longer, they are often unhealthy, with one or both partners dissatisfied and/or engaging in destructive behaviors including infidelity and physical/verbal/emotional abuse.
So what are we taught to look for in a suitable relationship partner? And why are these characteristics so unreliable as predictors of healthy, happy, sustainable relationships? There are seven key reasons we commit to relationships (and are encouraged to do so by others, ranging from our relatives and friends to popular culture): Basic decency (“niceness”), physical attractiveness, sexual chemistry, income status, education level, religious belief, and social status. In this post, we’ll focus on the first three reasons–in part because these are the ones that most commonly spark new relationships (awareness and/or appreciation of the other four tend to come later, usually as confirmation or justification of the initial attraction). Here’s why being nice, fine and sexy are almost universally attractive, but do not and cannot sustain relationships.
1. DECENCY: We commit because the person is nice.
“He’s a, sweet, decent guy,” your best friend might say. “You should give him a chance.” Or: “She’s a nice girl; the kind you can bring home to meet your mother.”
As relationships go, being nice is an okay starting point, but not nearly enough. Two nice people can be, and often are, no good for each other. Unfortunately, we too often commit based on the “what’s not to like” theory, only to find out that it takes more to sustain a relationship than merely not disliking a person.
Sadly, in these cases, people often stay together too long, because they are too nice to break up despite their unhappiness, and want to avoid the guilt of hurting the other person. Of course, delaying the inevitable increases the potential for pain, bitterness and resentment, especially if it results in choices with permanent consequences, such as marriage or children (nice people are often pushed into both by parents, family or their religious beliefs). One person will often feel emotionally betrayed or “led on” because the other allowed them to continue to invest in the relationship while delaying the breakup trying to “let them down easy.”
2. PHYSICAL ATTRACTIVENESS: We commit because the person is pretty or handsome.
When you are physically attractive, in a society that associates looks with other positive attributes, it is relatively easy to attract potential relationship partners. For example, exceptionally attractive women are likely to have received multiple marriage proposals by early adulthood. On the other hand, handsome men, assuming he has no glaring faults or deficits on display (and often even if he does), are accustomed to women being hopeful that he will choose them as his mate, and even willing to compete with other women for the “privilege.”
Based on that logic, we often assume that two physically attractive people will have no problem sustaining a healthy relationship. Then we remember Halle Berry and David Justice. And Halle Berry and Eric Benet. And so as not to pick on Ms. Berry, any number of star-crossed relationships between two beautiful people, whether between rock stars and supermodels or star high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens. Physical attractiveness is nice, but not nearly enough to sustain relationships.
3. SEXUAL CHEMISTRY: We commit because the person is sexy.
Sometimes, the attraction is not merely visual, but sexual. This is when we feel drawn to and turned-on by a person on sight, or in response to their scent, touch or the sound of their voice. We deem him or her to be sexy (appearing to promise an exceptional erotic experience), by appearance/style of dress and grooming or reputation (known or assumed) as virile (males) or as a “freak” (females). Perceived sexiness is what makes many women unconditionally declare that actor Idris Elba “could hit it.”
Overlooked is the fact that intense sexual attraction for a person you don’t really know is never about that person, but about the fulfillment of your own desires and fantasies. It’s about ego and selfishness, not healthy love. Unfortunately, flying sparks, electricity, rapid heartbeat and/or damp panties are justified by many influences—especially music and movies—as acceptable evidence that a love connection has been made, prompting people to become sexually intimate within days and even hours upon meeting. The intensity and excitement of that initial sexual encounter will often deliver a self-fulfilling prophecy—last night was amazing! We must be in love!—until the infatuation wears off, after a few weeks or months. The result: people staying together for the wrong reasons—guilt, obligation, vainly trying to recapture and maintain the initial high—if at all. Often, people make lifetime social and financial commitments, including marriage and parenthood, before facing the reality that sexual chemistry can result from a healthy relationship, but cannot serve as a lasting or reliable foundation for one.
There is nothing wrong with being attracted by these characteristics, or the others: education, social status, income and religious beliefs. (Don’t worry; we’ll be addressing the other attractors in future Grown Zone posts. Also check out our Grown Zone Radio Show, “Why Everything You Were Taught About Lasting Love Is Wrong.”) In fact, both of us chose to marry people with most, if not all of these characteristics; in turn, our would-be spouses were motivated to marry because they saw the same attractive characteristics in us. The result: Four failed marriages (two divorces each).
That’s because what makes a person attractive is far different than what characteristics must be present to sustain healthy relationships. The former—WHAT a person is—are either readily apparent, often at a glance, or easily faked, at least for a time. The latter—WHO a person is—can only be determined by observation, investigation, and time—and the more time you take, the harder it is for a person to fake or hide who they truly are. Unfortunately, because most of us are primed to commit quickly based on the whats, we don’t discover the whos until we are deep into relationships, often having complicated the situation with marriage and children.
Teaching people to focus on discovering who a person is, instead of stopping at what a person is, before making a permanent commitment (including marriage and/or procreation), is what the Grown Zone mission of Self Love, Better Decisions and Healthy Relationships is all about.
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Zara Green and Alfred Edmond Jr. are co-principals of A2Z Personal Growth Enterprises, producer of The Grown Zone. Zara is a speaker/trainer & author. Alfred is an award-winning journalist and expert on business and personal finance. The couple, both “Do-Better Fanatics”, lead sessions on personal growth, self-love and resiliency, healthy relationships and “grown” decision-making at live events across the country.
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