How to manage attractions outside your relationship
A young couple are sitting in my office discussing each other’s behaviour towards the opposite sex. “John*, you flirt and you don’t even know it.”
“No I don’t. I’m just being friendly.”
“Oh, come on! That’s not how the women respond. They start batting their eyelashes at you,” continues Amanda, “and you love it.” “That’s ridiculous! And, anyway, what about you at that café the other day…”
The atmosphere in the room starts to heat up as John and Amanda begin the delicate process of negotiating the boundaries of their relationship. How will they deal with attractions and flirtations outside of the relationship? What will be allowed and what will be prohibited?
Myths about marriage
In the 1950s it was assumed that a person would find someone to settle down with, get married and have a happy ending. No complications, no flirting, no looking at members of the opposite sex again. Only your spouse was supposed to be attractive to you. That would be it for life. The rising divorce rate in later decades put an end to this fairytale.
Despite the bad press arising from divorce and affairs, many people still choose the option of monogamy or marriage. Nevertheless some of the assumptions that went with the fairytale still exist. One myth that remains is there is only one person on the planet you are meant to be with. This is your soulmate and your task is to find this one person. That sure puts the pressure on!
Another myth is that once you have found your mate you will never have eyes for anyone else again. Some people take this to mean that not only will you never fall in love with someone else, but you will never even find someone else attractive! When such people are in committed relationships they get quite anxious when they find they do indeed look at other people admiringly or even lustfully. It’s even more disturbing that their partner does so. Does it mean there’s something wrong with the relationship? Is it all over?
People are quite relieved when I reassure them that just because they have chosen to be with one person it doesn’t mean they will never be attracted to other people again. Despite the Hollywood fairytale, it’s not as if you find the one person on the planet who’s meant for you.
There are other people out there with whom you could have just as good a relationship. It would be a different relationship, but it could still be good. There will also be other people you find attractive in various ways — physically, sexually or energetically. There might be a chemistry or an ease with the other person. You might just click.
This takes us back to John and Amanda. As they explored these issues they were left with two questions: What keeps a couple together in the face of these attractions? And how should a couple deal with the attractions?
What keeps people together?
Some people assume that, once you commit to someone, some magical connection is created between you. Amanda thought it was like destiny or finding your one true love. But as we unpicked the romantic assumptions here, John and Amanda came to realise there isn’t some special bond that glues a couple together.
When you make a commitment to someone, there are other possible connections that could have been made; it’s just that you are choosing this person out of the range of possible people (even though you won’t have met all these possibilities yet). Then it’s simply your intention and commitment to following through that keep you together. No angel dust and no fairy tale.
So why would anyone choose the commitment option? Why choose one person if there is the possibility that someone just as attractive could come along? As a friend of mine says, “If an attraction is there, isn’t that saying something? Isn’t it there to be explored? What is life for if not to explore it all and make the most of things?”
The assumption here is that if you say no to something, then you will be missing out. Choosing one thing over another becomes a bad thing. And our culture encourages this consumer attitude of more must be better. We want it all. So what happens if I say no to something? Is it just being a wowser or is there something to be gained?
What happens when you choose one person and say no to others is that you construct a crucible. A crucible is where you deliberately define limits, not because of some outdated morality but because you want to create conditions where something out of the ordinary is able to be created.
When you choose one person above all others you set up limits that are guaranteed to cause the ego pain but may bring about the soul’s desire instead. And the soul’s desire is for transformation and love.
It doesn’t necessarily make intellectual sense but it might make soul sense to say no to the ego’s wandering gaze. My bias is towards this no because I suspect the ego’s tendency towards distraction and drama is a way of avoiding anything deeper. Because deeper gets scarier.
What many people don’t realise is intimacy is scary. It means opening up your inner self and letting someone else not only see it but also have a dramatic impact on it. Someone witnesses and influences your inner life process. They see you at your most vulnerable and at your worst. It’s scary to love someone and say, “I choose you.” Your destiny is tied to theirs in ways you cannot control. Both your life and their life will have different phases and some of these will be difficult and challenging.
Like many people, I have looked at my relationship during its difficult times and thought, “Should we stay together?” But I have gained in unexpected ways by staying. It has blown my ego to bits. It has brought humility and compassion in a really grounded way. I have had practice at seeing past someone’s difficult behaviour to the struggling soul behind. And to the beauty behind this. And I receive the same in return. This is the transformation. It is a roller coaster ride but worth the entrance fee.
Once Amanda and John tackled the question of what keeps a couple together they then had to deal with the issue of managing attractions to other people. There are no rules for this process. Each couple has to negotiate how firm or how loose they want the boundary line around their relationship to be.
The idea with the creation of a boundary around your relationship is to construct it so it’s flexible enough to create the conditions for growth to blossom but firm enough so you can continue to grow without extreme stress. It is a balancing act. Too much openness and you crack, too little and you stagnate. And to make matters more complex, it’s not as if once you have constructed the boundary it will always remain the same. It is an organic process that will need constant revision and fine tuning as the relationship evolves.
Types of attractions
Amanda and John discovered there are different types and levels of attraction that you may have with other people. They described three main types. They acknowledged that these were arbitrary categories but they were useful for ease of understanding between themselves. The three were chemistry, clicks and sexual attraction.
A chemistry connection is where there is an energy between two people. It isn’t rational; you don’t have to do anything to make it happen — it’s just there. It’s like the energy patterns of the two people just match. They don’t have to have that much in common and yet the connection is there.
Chemistry connections can lead to infatuations. Infatuation is different from love. It’s more like an obsession whereby you want to be with the person even though there may not actually be any real basis on which to build a relationship.
Infatuations mimic love and can be difficult to extricate yourself from. And they can be deceptive because they feel so strong. A person can waste years of their life getting involved with infatuations when what they are really looking for is a relationship.
Of course, the question remains what is this chemistry and what it is for? Maybe it’s just about some random energy match between you. Perhaps there is karma between two people that has to be resolved. The chemistry might also mean there is some way the two of you could work creatively together. If the boundary of your relationship allowed, you could explore what this creative energy might look like. This has to be done with care, though, because, as I said, these connections are seductive and they can mimic love.
A sexual connection is lusting after someone. You just want to have sex with them and the sex would probably be great. You can have this attraction to someone you actively dislike, even hate, and who you know is not a decent person. Most women have had the experience of sleeping with some “bastard” who treated them appallingly, even as they knew this was what was going on. Similarly, men describe being “used” by a woman in this sort of connection. But if sex is all you want, these connections are fun. It’s just that they can be the sorts of attractions you look back on years later and ask yourself, “What did I see in that person?”
Clicks are where you just feel instantly at ease with someone. You both “get” each other without having to explain things. You can talk easily and probably have experiences and ideas in common. Friendships usually form from this basis. You just like being with the person and enjoy sharing and supporting each other. The risk is this can also be the basis for a love relationship. Many relationships start with two people meeting and then just talking for hours. A love relationship usually has a combination of a click and chemistry and/or sexual attraction, so tread carefully in this territory because you could fall in love if the person is the right gender for you.
Another area of difficulty can be with ex-partners. You will have some sort of attraction to this person because that was the reason you got together in the first place. How many people have slept with an ex when they knew it wasn’t the wisest thing to do? You may also have incomplete business with them if you haven’t finished sorting things out between you. Your current partner will sense this and it will require care to navigate this territory.
The first step in managing attractions is to become aware of the truth of them for yourself. Denial is dangerous. It means you step into the world blindly, letting your unconscious lead you. And your unconscious can be full of lust, selfishness, insecurity and ego, to name a few vices. None of these things will lead you to the best place in life. So if you still find your ex attractive, own up to it. And if you find someone hot, engaging or magnetic, wake up to it. Better to know what is going on even if it’s uncomfortable or complicated.
The next step is to reveal these attractions to your partner. This can be confronting for both people, especially if you have been in the habit of keeping them secret. This process creates a whole cocktail of reactions such as guilt, jealousy, insecurity and anger. Nevertheless, this honesty is the foundation for real trust in the relationship. You know you will be told the truth about what is going on. There is nothing more crazy-making than sensing an attraction is there and being told, “Don’t be silly — it’s nothing” by your partner. This honesty also creates the ground on which you can clearly negotiate how you jointly manage these attractions.
Name your own reactions
The next step is to let your partner know your feelings about what is going on — but not by criticising or venting. You just own up to your feelings by naming whatever reaction you are having. So, for example, John owned up to finding some women sexually attractive then “named” that he felt guilty and defensive about it because he feared it wasn’t allowed. In response, Amanda named that she felt insecure. (Previously, she felt anger when John didn’t own up to the attractions.) Similarly, when Amanda acknowledged chemistry between herself and others she said it made her feel anxious and overwhelmed. In response, John said he felt jealousy but also relief because he suspected the chemistry had been there.
A common mistake in relationships is when partners assume that if they are feeling bad in some way about something, their partner should make it better for them, especially if their partner is perceived as the “cause” of the difficult feeling. This expectation sets up a co-dependency whereby you are not the master of your own soul but instead have your wellbeing tied to your partner’s emotional state.
It’s much healthier to learn to soothe your own difficult emotional states. So when Amanda felt insecure about John’s other attractions she was responsible for dealing with this feeling. She had her own pre-existing self-doubt that therefore made her prone to feeling insecure about John’s behaviour. He wasn’t the cause; he was just the trigger. Her task was to learn to soothe her wobbly self and begin to build a firmer sense of self. John in his turn had to work with control issues that were triggered by Amanda’s behaviour. He had to learn to let go and to manage his anxiety.
Jointly develop boundary agreements
The next step in the process is to decide to what extent you both want to act on the attractions that arise. Here are some examples of questions you might ponder as you both work out the boundary of your relationship: Is it OK to look admiringly at another person? Is a lustful gaze OK? Will flirting be allowed and to what degree? For example, flirting might only be OK if your partner is also present, or alternatively when they are not around. Is it all right to explore a connection where there is chemistry or a click? To what degree?
A good way to start exploring these issues is to sit together at a café and just playfully point out the people you find attractive. Get to know each other’s type. Notice any reactions this evokes. When you get used to this, you might like to see if you can accurately point out the people you think your partner will be drawn to. Do this in a spirit of fun and play. This might be as far as you ever go. A further step might be to allow flirting. Again, approach it lightly, just by playing in another’s energy.
It’s important that at each step you keep naming what you feel and keep each other up to date with what is happening. Be mindful, too, that if you have other difficult issues within the relationship it might be wise to back off for a while until you have attended to these issues. You don’t want to put unnecessary strain on your capacity to cope with things.
As you work on the boundary agreements, you are balancing your capacities for self-soothing along with the desire for growth and freedom in the relationship. If you extend a boundary too far or too fast you will outstrip a partner’s capacity to cope with difficult emotions that may arise. So it’s better to bring it into a more manageable level. At the same time, you don’t want the boundary so tight that a partner is tempted to become secretive about connections that might be around.
If you come across a connection that is very strong, you have to tread carefully. It might be best to let this go, otherwise you can end up falling in love and life then gets very complicated. Even if you extend your boundaries far enough to allow each other to have other love relationships, it remains extremely complicated terrain to tread.
Review and re-negotiate the agreement
The last step in managing attractions is to maintain dialogue about the issue over the course of your relationship. Individuals and couples go through phases, and the agreements you make have to evolve to match the changes occurring. The boundary is not meant to be like a brick wall, but more like a rubber band that can expand and contract to suit your changing circumstances.
It’s demanding to confront our attractions to other people, but paradoxically it can also be a relief. As Amanda said, “This is so scary and challenging, but in a weird way I actually feel safer. This stuff was there all the time, anyway. Now it’s out in the open and we can start to deal with it.”
Encouraging such honesty in a relationship generates self-awareness and acceptance of your partner. Amanda and John found the process helped build intimacy and trust between them. It didn’t magically guarantee longevity but it did create a foundation of openness and integrity in their relationship.
*Names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. T: 0417 103 018, W: www.cynthiahickman.net
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