The type of human being we prefer reveals the contours of our heart.
-- ORTEGA Y GASSET
When couples come to me for marital therapy, I usually ask them how they met. Maggie and Victor, a couple in their mid-fifties who were contemplating divorce after twenty-nine years of marriage, told me this story:
"We met in graduate school," Maggie recalled. "We were renting rooms in a big house with a shared kitchen. I was cooking breakfast when I looked up and saw this man--Victor--walk into the room. I had the strangest reaction. My legs wanted to carry me to him, but my head was telling me to stay away. The feelings were so strong that I felt faint and had to sit down."
Once Maggie recovered from shock, she introduced herself to Victor, and the two of them spent half the morning talking. `That was it," said Victor. "We were together every possible moment for the next two months, and then we eloped."
"If those had been more sexually liberated times," added Maggie, "I'm sure we would have been lovers from that very first week. I've never felt so intensely about anyone in my entire life."
Not all first encounters produce seismic shock waves. Rayna and Mark, a couple ten years younger, had a more tepid and prolonged courtship. They met through a mutual friend. Rayna asked a friend if she knew any single men, and her friend said she knew an interesting man named Mark who had recently separated from his wife. She hesitated to introduce him to Rayna, however, because she didn't think that they would be a good match. "He's very tall and you're short," the friend explained; "he'sProtestant and you're Jewish; he's very quiet and you talk all the time." But Rayna said none of that mattered. "Besides," she said, "how bad could it be for one date?"
Against her better judgment, the friend invited Rayna and Mark to an election-night party in 1972. "I liked Mark right away," Rayna recalled. "He was interesting in a quiet sort of way. We spent the whole evening talking in the kitchen." Rayna laughed and then added, "I suspect that I did most of the talking."
Rayna was certain that Mark was equally attracted to her, and she expected to hear from him the next day. But three weeks went by, and she didn't hear a word. Eventually she prompted her friend to find out if Mark was interested in her. With the friend's urging, Mark invited Rayna to the movies. That was the beginning of their courtship, but it was never a torrid romance. "We dated for a while, then we stopped for a while," said Mark. "Then we started dating again. Finally, in 1975, we got married."
"By the way" added Rayna, "Mark and I are still married, and the friend who didn't want to introduce us is now divorced."
These contrasting stories raise some interesting questions. Why do some people fall in love with such intensity, seemingly at first glance? Why do some couples ease into marriage with a levelheaded friendship? And why, as in the case of Rayna and Mark, do so many couples seem to have opposite personality traits? When we have the answers to these questions, we will also have our first clues to the hidden psychological desires that underlie marriage.
Unraveling the Mystery of Romantic Attraction
In recent years, scientists from various disciplines have labored to deepen our understanding of romantic love, and valuable insights have come from each area of research. Some biologists contend that there is a certain "bio-logic" to courtship behavior. According to this broad, evolutionary view of love, we instinctively select mates who will enhance the survival of the species. 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.
Women select mates for slightly different biological reasons. Because youth and physical health aren't essential to the male reproductive role, 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. Thus a fifty-year-old chairman of the board--the human equivalent of the silver-backed male gorilla--is as attractive to women as a young, handsome, virile, but less successful male.
If we can put aside, for a moment, our indignity at having our attractiveness to the opposite sex reduced to our breeding and food/money-gathering potential, there is some validity to this theory. Whether we like it or not, a woman's youth and physical appearance and a man's power and social status do play a role in mate selection, as a quick scan of the personal messages in the classified ads will attest: "Successful forty-five-year-old S.W.M. with private jet desires attractive, slim, twenty-year-old S.W.E." and so on. But even though biological factors play a key role in our amorous advances, there's got to be more to love than this.
Let's move on to another field of study, social psychology, and explore what is known as the "exchange" theory of mate selection. l The basic idea of the exchange theory is that we select mates who are more or less our equals. When we are on a searchand-find mission for a partner, we 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. With computerlike speed, we tally up each other's scores, and if the numbers are roughly equivalent, the trading bell rings and the bidding begins. Getting the Love You Want. Copyright © by Harville Hendrix. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.