What causes sexual attraction

Three types of attraction: sympathy, love, and lust

Not all couples find each other in the same way. Some couples meet on a spiritual level. You find each other's views original, interesting, or stimulating. Others meet spontaneously at the heart level; tender and loving sensations come easily to them. And then of course there is the sexual attraction, that exciting tingling sensation that is pure lust. To make matters worse, your feelings do not necessarily coincide with those of your "object". For example, you can lustfully desire someone who you are merely sympathetic to, or feel love for someone who is only pleasurable, and so on. This is slippery terrain, especially if you're young and inexperienced (or old and stupid in that regard!). You should be aware of the different levels of attraction, especially at the beginning of the search for and choice of a partner. Teenagers in particular should be able to differentiate between these three levels of desire and not pretend to be black for white. Knowing yourself well enough to be able to distinguish love from lust and sympathy from love, that is the real job of sexual education and can help avoid many problems.

It's not easy to be young and some things can only be learned through experience. Do you remember what overcoming it took you to finally confess your love to the girl (or boy) of your dreams? His / her kindness had given you every hope, and so you finally hopped in the deep end and poured out your heart. To your horror she / he made a frightened face, and then the fateful words followed: "Um, yes ... no ... I think you are really nice, but ..." Fortunately, hope is an inexhaustible source, otherwise we would all live in monasteries .

Whatever kind of attraction is decisive in the beginning, a lively couple relationship will sooner or later involve all three. When sympathy and love and lust go hand in hand, the effect is unforgettable. In the first few years this happens more by chance, and therefore you will be thunderstruck at times and wonder what you have actually done right. As you get older, you will be able to play your own fairy tale more and more often. You will understand better and better how to establish and maintain in-depth communication. And so love will transform itself from a happy coincidence into an achievement for you, into a reservoir of common experiences and knowledge from which you can draw at any time.

Now let's explore how these three attractions work - and what to do when they wear off. Even if you have been married for fifty years, you will read this text with pleasure, remember and be aware of the distance you have already traveled. And if you are a bit younger, then the following pages may even help you to bring your love life up to scratch.

When two spirits meet: sympathy

Sympathy is the safest and easiest form of human attraction. You can find sympathetic people of all types, ages, and genders. You can even like people who basically judge you or who you wouldn't buy a used car at any cost! Often times you will like some parts of a person and not others. (If you like everything, then just wait and see: you will discover traits that you do not like, you can take poison on that.)

You may ask friends or loved ones, when you know them better, to change one or the other behavior. Relationships constantly require us to correct our behavior. Changing is not necessarily a big affair. If you give a hard grip on the back massage (because you like it that way), but your partner wants to be treated more gently, you will willingly comply with his request. Changes are also pending if you move in with your partner and, for example, want to tidy the kitchen immaculately after every meal, while your partner prefers to pile piles of dishes for the weekly cleaning. In their zeal, some make extreme demands on their partners, for example to quit smoking or drinking or to end a criminal career. Whether the partner changes or not, we all want to cut bigger slices of the sympathetic than the unsympathetic sides.

Sympathy has a pitfall that we should be particularly careful of when trying to get into a couple relationship: We tend to like people just because they like us. We do this especially when we are inexperienced or - let's be honest! - are a little desperate. In fact, the sympathy shown may be the only reason we are interested in someone. However, as soon as - and this is not unlikely - that someone wears off their admiration for our oh-so-great qualities, then we are just as likely to find that we basically don't like them.

During the getting-to-know phase, you usually can't talk enough to each other and spend hours on the phone, often late into the night. What may seem like mere banter has a wide variety of subtle meanings: "Does she like me?" , "Does he want to get to know me better?" , "Why did she yawn now?" It is a glorious time of uncertainty that will be remembered for a lifetime, and when the spoken word takes on unparalleled significance.

Jokes, quick-witted answers, questions and statements about our ideals of life, preferences and aversions are natural components of mutual probing. We conduct a “job interview” for the position of the lifelong lover. It is important to find out what is hidden under the fabulous surface: a terrible psychopath, a hopelessly eccentric eccentric - or exactly the right person!

What to look for

What people value in others is initially fairly general and generally applicable. Are you kind to me and to others? How do you treat your mother? Are you humorous? Whereby humorous does not mean that someone is constantly cracking jokes, but that life, including all its difficulties, can find cheerful sides. (Why is there such emphasis on “sense of humor” in personals other than “romantic walks,” “candlelight dinners,” etc.? Which rhyme should one make of it? Maybe: “Don't worry if I get drunk or lose the family carriage while gambling. ”What happened six months later, one can vividly imagine:“ Yes, I set the house on fire, so what? Where's your sense of humor? ”And since we've been with this one Topics are: Why do you never come across qualities like “good at washing the dishes” or “well versed in handling screaming babies” in personals? And what about the addition “Children is no problem”? Who do you want to believe? But now come we go astray ...) Is he / she a realistic, well-considered, practical person? These are positive, personable traits, and they are of great value in a partnership. Does he / she represent opinions and values ​​that you can admire, for example on matters of faith, uranium mining, minority rights ...? And does his / her commitment go beyond empty words?

There are of course other, albeit not necessarily that deep, things that appeal to us. Many people enter into relationships with or without a marriage license because they like their partners' hair, perky dimples, full breasts or their CD collection. Good luck with it!

Caution is required in any case. Our hormones can prove to be our greatest enemy in the early stages of love. From the middle of the teenage years onwards, the natural instinct to love and to reproduce goes to work. Therefore, the brakes should be used more often. The best choice is made when you are in no hurry. Therefore, at any age, you will do well if you satisfy your need to receive and share affection with a wide variety of friendships before you get caught up in the tangle of a couple. Loneliness affects your judgment, believe us.

The connection from the heart: love

Sympathy usually starts, but love can soon follow suit. Everyone who is older than ten years knows that love is a different and stronger feeling. Love is that “special” feeling that appears in a limited special edition and is reserved exclusively for one customer.

Love requires a certain amount of openness and trust, and consequently a willingness to be vulnerable. Study this dialogue between a woman and a man. The two are in their thirties and at the beginning of a relationship. They cautiously try to risk a little more openness.

You: I missed you. You haven't called all week.

He: I wanted to call you. But last time I felt like you don't want to see me.

You: I thought you knew how I feel about you.

He: Well ... you can be so critical and cold sometimes.

You: I just don't like being checked.

He: I don't want to control you!

You: Yeah, I know. It's probably because I'm scared of getting so close to a man again. I don't seem to have a good hand when choosing.

He: Thanks for the flowers!

You: Oh, you know how I mean that.

Notice how easily misunderstandings and injuries can occur. Only honesty - confessions like “I wanted to call you” and “I thought you knew how I felt about you” - gives love growth opportunities.

Love is multi-layered, as it has the ballast and hopes of previous experiences, including childhood, in tow. For men, this baggage can include feelings for the mother, for a mother who was or was not there for the son. With women, memories of loving, mean, empathetic, or absent fathers may come into play. You may be drawn to a villain because you were loved by villains as a child. (...)

How strong the feeling of love is does not necessarily say anything about its depth. One can fall passionately in love with the idea of ​​someone who is really a completely different person. It's a tricky business.

Love can be expressed in words, but it is not made of words. The heart aches, it sings, it bounces. But it doesn't talk. To love terrifies some people. Because it plucks a string with which they are not familiar: the realm of feeling. But don't worry, feelings are easy to understand!

If a couple is able to express their feelings increasingly honestly, they will be able to recognize the obstacles that stand in the way of closer proximity and to remove them step by step. Love grows in proportion to the degree to which you acknowledge your vulnerability and your feelings. In the course of this process, your true self comes to light more and more openly, which - you will hardly believe it - does not affect love. Gradually you get the feeling of being able to say everything, discuss everything and be yourself. It's a great feeling (even if something new, dark and nebulous keeps popping up from the depths and making you go through this process again).

The good news is that it can take decades for two people's love to peak. There is still a lot to look forward to!

The fire in the depths: lust

The attraction that makes a man and woman enter into a couple relationship grows from the head and from the heart. But there is a third, deeper level. So off to the basement ...

Sexual attraction is a force that keeps us going for a lifetime. Depending on how consciously and skillfully we can deal with it, it either gives a relationship stimulus and energy or constantly drives a wedge between the partners. Sex is often denigrated as the “animal” in humans, as a relic from the Stone Age that upsets our reasoning. In fact, humans are more devoted and more persistently sexually active than any animal species. (Perhaps with the exception of the dwarf chimpanzees, who, to put it mildly, make us seem totally uptight. But this is a guide for the entire family, so we'd rather not go into detail ...)

In humans, the sexual instinct has pushed its original purpose, reproduction, into the background. Instead, sex plays the no less important role as a social link. Although it often has a divisive effect on our social fabric, it is nonetheless the force that holds families and therefore larger communities together. In terms of evolutionary history, responsibility and obligation are relatively new ideas that also wear out quickly. Nature uses far more powerful means to keep us going. She designed us in such a way that we do not rely on abstract ideas of loyalty and love, but are capable of deep devotion, which in the long term brings us more joy and recognition than any other experience. Therefore, in humans, sexuality, love, communication and permanent ties form a complex network. The act of making love involves the brain, which is why sex plays such an important, special, and difficult role.

Sex and attachment

Let's take a closer look at the topic of sexual attachment. Our sexuality is by no means reduced to the animal reproductive instinct. Rather, it is directly related to our feelings and thoughts, and it knows in an inimitable way how to establish interpersonal relationships that can go far beyond mere sensual pleasure. In this way, between two people, she fills an ever-increasing reservoir of feelings of well-being and the ability to let go, of security and openness.

Lifelong relationships are not uncommon in the animal world (promiscuity as well, but few species combine the two). The unique quality of human sexuality - the intense female orgasm and the lack of the clearly marked rutting season common in most other suckling creatures - means that sex is a constant part of our social life. In the context of evolution, couple relationships served to make the structure of family and tribal group safer and more reliable. Fathers could leave the home to hunt and children could be raised in relative safety. The sexual bond between the parents ensured that both would prefer the company of their partner to that of any stranger.

And with that, sex comes with a risk. Put simply, that risk is that you are very likely to fall in love with the person you are having sex with. Therefore, it is only appropriate not to get involved with someone with whom the head and heart register strong reservations. It is for this reason that all cultures keep a careful eye on adolescent sexuality. And that is why modern youth, contrary to the widespread prejudice of the older generation, by no means lightly give up their innocence. In a recent study, a surprising 25 percent of those under the age of 21 said they were still unaffected. You can only admire the young people. Because despite the strong sexual stimuli, most manage to wait for a relationship in which a certain closeness and vulnerability are possible. Anyone who misses the mark usually quickly becomes wiser and more choosy the next time they try.

When the “fire in the deep”, the high-flying spark of the spirit and the emotional glow in the center, the heart, infect each other, then unimagined energies and a great shine are kindled on all three levels. Well worth waiting for.


  • Steve and Shaaron Biddulph: How Love Lasts. About the art of being a couple and man and woman. Munich: Beust, 2nd edition 2001, pp. 35-45 (ISBN 3-89530-025-X, EUR 16.90). With the kind permission of Beust Verlag.

Steve and Shaaron Biddulph write about their work: “The purpose of this book is basically simple: to help you stay together and enjoy your relationship. It also wants to support you in raising your children as a team (if you have any). Instead of ending up as a number in the divorce statistics, this gives you the chance to participate in a significant event - namely to belong to the first generation that is learning to live working relationships. Ultimately, our book is about a kind of self-liberation - about how you can carry more love into your own life and into your environment, which is so desperately in need of love ”.

Further contributions by the authors can be found here in our family handbook


Steve Biddulph was born in England in 1953 and now lives in Australia with his wife Shaaron and their two children. He is one of the best known family psychologists and therapists in Australia and was apprenticed to the important pioneers in child psychology and educational counseling in Australia and the USA. He has received numerous prizes and awards from universities and educational institutions for his work. He was the director of the Collinsvale Center for Teachers, Therapists and Educational Advisors in Hobort, Australia.

Created on June 27, 2002, last changed on February 19, 2010