Is physical attraction a science or simply something we have to work at?
Ever wondered how and why you become attracted to someone or how to know if they're feeling the same way? And, for those of you with long-term lovers: How can you get back those first feelings of tingly chemistry? Beverly Palmer, Ph.D. and professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, whose area of expertise includes the science behind attraction, love, sexuality and flirting, answers these questions and more. Read on, as she reveals the number-one sign of passion and five ways to rekindle it once it fades.
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Greatest Sign of Passion
"The most important sign of attraction is mutual eye contact," says Palmer, who is also a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. "This is a brief glance, initially. It is not a stare, because staring is hostile." If a woman glances at a guy and he notices, he'll probably glance back. In turn, the woman will probably look again, and if he's interested, he'll look again. This repeated volleying of eye contact is an indication of mutual interest and can lead to more body signals.
Beyond Initial Attraction
From the first stage of relationships—passion—there is a progression towards what relationship experts consider the second and third levels of being a couple—emotional intimacy and commitment. "That passionate part really only lasts a maximum of two and a half years, if people are in continuous contact," says Palmer. This stage relies heavily on nonverbal attraction. Emotional intimacy can develop very early on, but that's "what can grow and keep partners attracted to each other."
After initial eye contact, if two people are attracted to each other, one or both people will engage in "preening" behaviors—they will touch a part of their body that accentuates what they think is particularly sexually attractive, says Palmer. A woman might throw back her shoulders, lick her lips or touch her legs. A man may straighten his tie, stand with his hips jutted forward or put his fingers through his belt loops. "These kinds of initial, nonverbal gestures occur at a less than conscious level, not in a manipulated or conscious way." Preening behaviors, however, are noticeable to the person on the observing end. Witnessing these behaviors could be an indication that this person is attracted to you. You may also become aware of the attractive physical features that they are "preening."
Mirrored Body Language
Around the same time that preening behaviors are occurring, mirrored actions may appear between a pair, reaffirming mutual attraction. "If one crosses his legs, the other will cross her legs. It is an additional body language that says 'I'm interested in you,'" according to Palmer. At this point, both players become aware of their behavior and ask, "Should we go to the next level?"
Should You Follow Your Nose?
With the number of colognes, perfumes (thank you Britney and P. Diddy), deodorants and body lotions available on the market, you would think fragrance was the number one determinant of sex appeal and relationship success. Maybe, but probably not, says science. Pheromones, chemicals that travel through the olfactory system to the brain, can trigger either a biological or behavioral response, and may account for changes in libido. But this does not necessarily provide an explanation as to why you find one person more appealing than another. "There is some research that says pheromones could play a part in attraction, but it's more complex than that. It's usually sight," that triggers attraction, says Palmer. And often, people are attracted to the stereotypical standards of beauty, she says.
Looks vs. Personality
Honest and homely, helpful with a radio face? If you think you're destined to a life of soul-searching singledom, results from a 2007 study on attractiveness and personality published in "Personal Relationships" may give you hope. Psychology researchers found that people who have positive personalities were rated as more attractive than average, and conversely those whose personality traits were judged to be negative—such as unfair or rude—were less appealing physically.
Do People Have "Types"?
What people are really looking for in a long-term partner—not consciously—is someone they feel will complete them or fulfill unmet needs, says Palmer. "If you feel that you're not good at making initial social contacts, you'll be attracted to someone who you feel is very socially skilled." Or, if you have unfinished business with a parent, ex or other person from your past—maybe you never felt like you earned their approval—you then become unconsciously attracted to a person that will set up that dynamic with you, so you can earn the approval that you never felt. "That's why people could appear to have 'types' if the person is similar to the person they dated before."
Does Passion Have to Fade?
Those feelings of initial attraction and chemistry can remain in long-term relationships and marriages, but they may not always be at the forefront. The reason, Palmer explains, is that because when emotional intimacy comes into play, people realize that commitment and understanding usually trump physical attraction. However, says Palmer, when there's any indication that one partner's level of attraction, emotional connection or commitment is waning or has disappeared, it sends a message to the other: "My partner is not as attracted to me as she or he used to be. Uh-oh the attraction is gone."
1. If You Hate His/Her Voice (Body Odor, Taste, Etc.):
He may have made you swoon and get weak at the knees at one point, but by now you’ve seen him at his best and his worst – and those not-so-appealing characteristics and habits you may have once overlooked may be grating on your last nerve. “Try to make those features that you are attracted to outweigh those that you’re not attracted to,” suggests Palmer. “When characteristics you overlooked initially come out more and more, there are such a wide range of sensual characteristics that you can focus on that you can be attracted to those.” Focus your attention on them instead.
2. Rekindle the Romance
Not to fear if you're past the two-and-a-half year mark when passion may begin to fade—there is a way to recall those initial moments of stolen glances and tingling hand-holding. You have to remember to tune in to those sensual elements of touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. "A lot of times we just tune out—because we're so focused on our anxieties, stresses, thoughts—that we don't tune in."
3. Set the Mood
The actual environment that you're in can affect your level of attraction, no matter what relationship stage you're in, says Palmer. "You can manipulate the situation to make the attraction stronger." For instance, when comparing dilated pupils to contracted pupils, people find the first—or wider pupils —to be a sign of interest and attraction. A candlelit setting or sitting by the fireplace—traditional romantic staples—can have this affect on eyes, says Palmer.
4. Be Afraid
"When people's fear is increased, they tend to have the same hormones activated as the ones that are activated in sexual attractions. And you can interpret that reaction as, 'Oh, I feel closer to this person I'm with in this fearful situation,'" Palmer explains. Whether you're on a rollercoaster ride or watching a scary movie, being frightened can give you that rush that can cause you to grab for the person you're with.
5. Get Closer
Even if you feel like you've passed the engagement stage, "being in a honeymoon setting will further the chances that you'll be sensually connected to each other," says Palmer. Participating in outdoor physical exercises together is another way to get closer and help you tune in to your senses, which in turn will help you tune in to your partner's senses and begin exploring sensuality together.