The Ways In Which We Warp Attraction
And how we use one another in our perceptions of “want”
One of the men in one of my groups of friends stares at one of the women in the group. A lot.
When others are engrossed in conversation, he’s looking at her. When we’re all laughing, he’s glancing to make sure she is too. When we’ve all floated to different areas of a room, he’s watching her from across it. This ever-attentive, open but empty expression that isn’t interrupted even when others see it.
And I’ve noticed this partly because he does it in front of everyone… but mostly I’ve noticed because the woman is me.
We can’t speak with any real authority on others’ feelings — we can only ever really speak for our own (and sometimes we’re not even sufficiently equipped for that)— but we can observe other people’s behavior, so I can point out that he is staring, for sure. And because I am a social creature and adult person, I can also take a pretty good speculative stab, with pretty decent conviction, as to why.
And I have a few thoughts around this:
“I mean… sure…”
It’s “flattering,” sure, but being on the receiving end of admiration as a static object of desire is borrrrrrring. This guy isn’t on my radar because I’m “flattered” — that’s dumb and boring as hell.
He’s on my radar because of how he goes about it. He doesn’t just make a few casual comments like most human beings would with their friends, or sneak a lingering goodbye hug like most human beings would with their friends, or strike up a conversation like most human beings would with their friends, or shake it off like most human beings would with their friends. He doesn’t even have an expression that reads predatorial or anything particular — no, instead this guy comes at it like a 7th grader in band camp, with this face that is equal parts pain and intrigue. All the time. And I know what’s sitting there untouched.
I like flirtation and I especially like flirtation with elements of control and power (but only if I have it — see below) and, given what could be done with expressions like his, and the fact that he could be roughed up with as little as the right glance or two words… it’s titillating.
But this is just the “animal” me talking; not the logical, social creature or the authentic, intellectual human being who likes my partner so much more.
So mostly, I feel a little put out. Like,
“Grrrreat. Now I have to actively manage this.”
This is the irritating part. The part where boundaries get blurred and his problem becomes work for me. Because since he can’t get his fantasy under wraps, his thoughts and emotions and attractions have seeped over and become something I have to play defense against.
Before, we could interact like normal people, but now I have to carefully stamp out the embers where I find them, pouring cold water over the char and fanning energy in other directions.
And therein lies the responsibility we create for others, like walking up to someone and asking, “will you hold this real quick? I took on more than I can carry.”
And of course, I could just go on doing my thing as I see fit and let him deal. Except it’s not that simple. Especially between women.
“Your wife has definitely noticed.”
I know this mostly because I see the way she glances over at him throughout the night — I see her scrutinizing, checking in. I watch her watching him watch me.
And if she knows, then we all know. And yet we all go on pretending not to know, not saying it out loud (at least not between me and either of them.) These are the social dances we play.
“Dude. What are you doing?”
I’m not sure what his motivation is, or what it’s based on, or what he plans to do with this thing he’s clearly feeding by watching me while we’re together.
Not that it matters…
“You know your attraction isn’t real, right?”
I mean, it’s “real” in the sense that he feels it. It’s real in the sense that he’s a real person and I’m a real person. But also it’s largely fabricated fantasy — because things like this (crushes, superficial attraction, idealizations, etc.) always are.
And mostly I’m laughing. In the way we think it’s funny when someone else gets a flat tire or gets locked out of their apartment. I’m laughing in a way that’s actually thinking:
“Lol — glad it’s you and not me.”
Because of course I’ve been there before. And while I can’t speak on the specificities of whatever’s in his head, I can speak with great authority on my own experience of crushes.
I used to describe my crushes and infatuation as “exquisite agony.” I probably still would, if I indulged them. But they now belong better to earlier eras.
There were, of course, the sort of elementary school playground crushes that were mostly based on archetypes (the class clown, the quiet one, the sporty one, etc. — shit some grown-ass adults still haven’t grown out of), but my first real crush was in high school. I’d known him since middle school, we ran in the same friend group, and he was a musician and I went to his shows. We kissed in his car once — it was terrible and we both hated it — but he still asked me to Homecoming. It was “as a friend,” and he made it pretty clear afterwards that that wasn’t changing, and I didn’t disagree. And yet, for whatever reason, I was hung up on this kid I barely even liked, and one night I journaled,
“I just wish we felt the same feelings, and for the sake of simplicity I wish we both had his.”
That kid has long since faded from memory (and any semblance of emotion) and there have since been other crushes. But at the earliest sign of fantasy, I quickly bundle them up real tight and ship them off down the river with the same mentality I had in high school: no thank you; not this.
Which is to say: I avoid them.
In the same sense that I stamp out others’ embers, I stamp my own out too, shuffling things around to keep energy from building, distancing myself to air it out.
I don’t like the way I feel or act — I either become ineffective and off-putting, making awkward outbursts, or I act like a dick. And I don’t like either of those behaviors.
But mostly, I don’t like the loss of control. I don’t feed crushes for the same reason I don’t ride my motorcycle at 120 mph or take blind corners at 45 degrees. I don’t indulge in fantasies for the same reason that I don’t wear roller skates instead of shoes. I don’t like crushes in the same way I freak out if I can’t leave a social setting when I want to.
Ironically, the only time I indulge in infatuation is when I have a committed partner and we’re monogamous for a while. That’s my prime time; my power hour; the point when indulgence feels safe and secure. And even then, I pick partners who won’t run rampant with my feelings and bake elaborate 4-tier cakes out of them; who won’t make montages of our memories and freak me out. And even even then, I keep most of mine under wraps (i.e., on paper.)
I have felt the frenzy of fantasy but don’t get off on it like others seem to, like Melissa Broder, who writes in “So Sad Today,”
“I’m a romantic and an addict. I crave eros, fantasy, and intrigue. I’m wired for longing. But I keep getting sick. Longing-sick… this isn’t about love. This is about using people as drugs.”
She’s right of course. Because we’re all avoiding something when it comes to crushes. We’re all dodging our feelings — just in different ways.
And when we indulge crushes, we may be using people for the dopamine hit, but it’s:
“Never really about the person you think you’re obsessed with.”
It’s about you.
Melissa Broder loves limerence — the feeling behind a crush; “the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings.”
In her book “So Sad Today,” she writes,
“Is fake love better than real love? Real love is responsibility, compromise, selflessness, being present, and all that shit. Fake love is magic, excitement, false hope, infatuation, and getting high off the potential that another person is going to save you from yourself.
Of course, nobody can save you from yourself. But it’s easy to ignore that reality,. Simply project your own romantic ideation, childhood wounding, and overactive fantasy life onto onto another human being.”
Which is precisely what we do.
“You take a living, breathing human being and try to stuff them into the insatiable holes inside you. These holes are in no way shaped like that person (or any person.) But you believe that this fantasy person will fill you, because he or she possesses all the imaginary qualities you seek in a lover. And how do you know that he or she possesses all of these qualities? You put them there.”
You make them up.
Crushes are not “real;” they are fantasy. As Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D. wrote, in a crush, someone:
“Projects onto another person idealized attributes the admirer highly values and wants to be associated with. Then she or he attaches strong positive feelings to the perfectly wonderful image that has been created.”
And these sort of feelings,
“Have more to do with fantasy than with reality, and they tell much more about the admirer than the admired.”
Pickhardt calls crushes an “approximation of love” — which frankly seems like an insult — to both crushes and real love. These are two separate animals, tethered together at the tail by only one thing: we lodge them in other people.
While love involves deep and meaningful connection, a crush is instead,
“A potent mix of idealization and infatuation. It doesn’t require knowing another person well at all.”
Which means it’s about us, and not them — a big distinction between this and healthy love.
“Although the crush appears to be about attraction to another person, it is actually about projection of valued attributes onto another person — a statement about what they find attractive. In this, crushes are very revealing. Crushes are not only the stuff that dreams are made of; they signify a lot about the dreamer.”
There are so many types of attraction. I wish we had more words for love — even Spanish speakers differentiate between love for their family, love for their partner, “love” (which is not called “love”) for something like a spoon. But English speakers throw it all in together and bastardize the thing, everything from a new set of sneakers to our soulmate bestowed the same feeling and word.
I don’t just want more objective words for love, though — a better breakdown of steps and areas of our lives. I want subjective words. I want more words like “limerence” and “lust,” but many, many more of them — tools with which to differentiate between real and unreal; healthy and unhealthy love.
I want better tools for understanding what we we’re in before either of us gets hit over the head with the hard facts on the other side.
So often everything in love — start to finish — is actually about us and not others.
After I broke up with a boyfriend of five years, he spent a year saying he wanted to get back together and waiting for me to come around — but doing very little else by way of showing or convincing me things would change, or that he even perceived the problem as it pertained to him.
When I shared this with a friend over a beer, she looked at me and said,
“That because he’s not responding to your feelings — he’s responding to his own.”
She was right.
I wish I could claim that I understood this before she said it, or that perhaps this advice had been given the other way around — that I’d been armed with this token of genius at that point in my life, lightly offering it to others — but I was not. I have, however, since used this line over and over and over, sometimes with myself and sometimes with others, because:
People are always first motivated by themselves.
Exes don’t really miss each other— they just miss the familiarity and comfort; they miss putting in as little effort as possible and their partners sticking around regardless.
Crushes don’t want each other — they just want whatever they’ve projected.
We don’t actually want the thing; we want its abstraction — what it represents to us and the way it makes us feel.
Very little about our lives — and love and lust and limerence — is really about others. It’s almost always about us.
And there are a couple of things we can do with this:
- Deny it. Swear up and down that crushes are love and love is love and everything is real and healthy and honest.
- Gorge wildly on the fantasy. Indulge in the candy even after we learn that Red Dye 40 is bad; make ourselves ill on the fabrication of fondant. Lose ourselves to the magic and go so far that we prefer it to reality.
- Get jaded. Avoid any semblance of love or limerence because we’re not sure how to sort it; it’s not real and it scares us and makes us feel superficial or small.
- Something else, probably involving layers and compartments. For example, loving the human being in a way that’s real, which necessitates accepting our tendencies toward coping mechanisms, projection and fantasy.
Understanding the difference between love and not-love, but also understanding that we can love the complexities of the human spirit and the reasons for attraction; to feel compassion towards the human spirit and take care of that energy — without necessarily legitimizing (or loving) everything messy that we make.
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