Social psychologists have been looking into what elements humans use to find and attract friends and mates for decades. Since then, they have been in disagreement over the reasons why and how people find and latch onto one another. Which is true some ask, “birds of a feather flock together” or “ opposites attract” (Santrock, 2008, p. 498)? This essay will explore concepts integral to our habits of relationship seeking and building. Similarity, attraction, effective communication, and discovering love to mate selection will be briefly surveyed based on generalizations of culturally normative behavior.
The Ingredients of Love
Perhaps the most serious of issues in our collective lifetimes stem from our relationships with others (Aronson, 1999). Still, the spawning of these concerns seems to be of little concern to some people. When he found out that the National Science Foundation was supporting research on love, Senator Proxmire of Wisconsin stated, “Two hundred million Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery and right at the top of these things we don’t want to know about is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa” (Isbell & Tyler, 2005). Nonetheless, social psychologists have been looking into it. Ever since they have, there has been disagreement over the reasons why and how people find and latch onto one another - often for life. Is there validity to the common saying, “birds of a feather flock together” or “ opposites attract” (Santrock, 2008, p. 498)? This essay will explore concepts integral to our habits of relationship seeking and building. The similarity or complimentary nature with others and how it inspires attraction and liking will be discussed. The effective communication that nurtures the new relationship and the potential love that can be fostered will be discussed, leading to closing with the eventuality of mate selection.
Getting to Attraction
There is no end to the number of approaches social scientists have hypothesized concerning how and why humans latch onto one another; they agree that it starts with attraction, but not about what initiates the attraction. Prevailingly, the attitude is that humans are either attracted to one another because they are the same, or because they are opposites (Aronson, 1999; Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006; Burleson, Kunkel, & Birch, 1994; Isbell & Tyler, 2005; Santrock, 2008; Wagner, 1973). But what appears so in the lab has not always proved true in real life. Buunk and Bosman (1985) maintain that “laboratory experiments have generally shown a strong effect of similarity in attitudes on subsequent interpersonal attraction [in married couples], …[but it is] less clear to what extent such similarity influences attraction in real life” (p. 133). As long ago as 1955, with his Theory of Complimentary Needs (Winch, 1955; as cited in Wagner, 1973), it was suggested that successful relationships are based on the partners’ abilities to satisfy one another’s inter-personal needs, and that this is best done by opposite, or complimentary, attributes. For Winch and his followers, “people tend to choose people who have needs and characteristics that compliment rather than coincide with their own” (Aronson, 1999, p. 399). This author insists that the final solution must not be merely binary, but rather a complex combination of the viewpoints.
For example, at different stages of any relationship’s development these opposite and similarity factors play different roles and vary in significance. Initially, attraction may be a function of social status, physical appearance personal or religious dogma, or simply a matter of convenience. Baron, et al. (2006) claim that people who rate themselves high in physical and social desirability will seek out others with an equally perceived high physical and social desirability. Richard Wagner (1973) calls this first stage of attraction the “general stimulus value” (p. 177). Later partners or friends will become judged by their “value compatibility as elucidated through verbal interaction, and finally, their role compatibility, [that is,] how well each fulfills the role he or she is expected to play in the relationship and how mutually gratifying their role ‘fit’ is” (p. 117). Clearly, a person’s personal characteristics and schema about their past, present, and future life (and desired life-mate) plays a base-lining role in whom they are attracted to from the onset. It must be understood that, generally, people are attracted to other individuals who are like themselves, or at least like the ideal self they seek to be. This broad generalization is not meant to challenge discussions of drug abuse or other delinquencies and their significant role in self-esteem and actualization; here it is only to put forward to summarize the culturally normative behavior of the average person.
The average person wants to fit in. There are dozens of tightly controlled experiments by Donn Byrne (1969, as cited in Aronson, 1999) which have demonstrated that the more the opinions of a person are similar to one’s own, the more likely he or she is to like and be attracted to that person. Santrock (2008) calls this consensual validation, wherein people are attracted to others who have similar attitudes, values, and lifestyle choices. By finding others with the same ideals as one’s own, a person is not only filling the need for fitting in and belonging, which will be sustained by the strengthening of the relationship, but also the need to be validated as having culturally suitable (right) thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Finding similarity with one’s own perspective in a relationship is also comfortable; people “often prefer to be around people whose attitudes and values [they] can predict” (p. 499). Similarity provides internal validation in that others also enjoy the attitudes, thoughts, and activities that one enjoys and that one is correct in feeling these ways. The repeating of comfortable and validating activities increases comfort level and therefore increases the need for exposure to the other person or persons. This will lead to deeper attraction, more liking, more activity, and so on (Aronson, 1999; Santrock, 2008).
Duck (1982, as cited in Burleson, et al., 1994) maintains that people “screen or filter potential relationships partners” (p. 260) for either similar or opposite attributes at different times of not only their relationships’ growth stages, but also during their lifetime’s developmental stages. Most teenagers, and men of all ages, for example, may place particular importance on social status and physical appearance, whereas a more mature adult, or most women, will place more emphasis on internal attributes when making a decision about relationships. According to Santrock (2008), women tend to consider “considerateness, honesty, dependability, kindness, and understanding; men prefer good looks, cooking skills, and frugality” (p. 499).
No matter the reason for attraction, it is critical to moving from the primary stages of effectively communicating and then into liking and on to potentially loving and latching to another person.
Sans the posters of models papering teenage walls across America proclaiming whom they like, true liking and being liked relies upon the trafficking of ideas among people. We must effectively communicate, by some standard, in order to discern our attraction to another person. “Because communication is the central medium through which couples initiate romantic relationships, build those relationships, address problems, and generally live out their relationships, similarities in beliefs about the significance of various communicative activities may be important predictors of attraction to partners and satisfaction with the relationship” (Burleson, et al., 1994, p. 261). That is, humans must agree upon the communication method, and then employ it effectively, in order to build and sustain quality relationships. How effectively two people communicate is a generally fair predictor of how effectively they maintain a healthy relationship.
Gender differences in communication can be at the core of many relationships’ success or failure. It is therefore important in any discussion about the derivation of love to realize that “communication problems between men and women may come in part from differences in their preferred ways of communicating” (Santrock, 2008, p. 519). Santrock (2008) reports that men may prefer to communicate as a means to establish a point of view and pass information and women prefer more rapport talking. Women prefer to communicate as means to establish connections and negotiate positions verses just passing known information around like men do. People have a hard time listening to others whose messages are not formatted in a way that they are comfortable receiving, processing, and storing. Once these slight differences are understood, the challenge for the prospective friend or suitor is simply to ensure the other person’s communication methodologies are recognized and appreciated as valid. This increased trade of substantiation for the other’s validation will increase the likelihood that he or she will decide to continue the, now more pleasurable, experience of mutual communicating. It is not always that easy, but can be.
Increased effective communication must, by definition, lead to more intimate and honest effective communication. This will lead to stronger ties and a better relationship, and perhaps eventually love (Burleson, et al., 1994; Santrock, 2008). One cannot go on pretending to be a double-PhD and Astronaut, for example. Eventually he or she must reveal their reality and perhaps that they live in their parents’ basement and work at the Piggly Wiggly stocking Dairy products at night. Honest communication may not be the start of every successful relationship, but its absence is most often the tipping-point for failing relationships (Aronson, 1999). Although honest communication has proven to have long-term beneficial effects, the process of self-disclosure is not always an easy one. “Honest communication entails sharing negative feelings and unappetizing things about [oneself]; these things increase vulnerability” (Santrock, 2008, p. 411), and Americans, as in many cultures, will do almost anything to avoid appearing vulnerable.
However difficult, exposing vulnerabilities is an effective means to open the lines of communication. Baron et al. (2006) espouses open lines of communication through effective communication skills as being the essential building block of every successful relationship. Showing certain kinds of vulnerability can make a person appear more accessible to others just as displaying humor can attract and encourage communication. This is demonstrated by the fact that “one of the ways in which people can feel most comfortable when dealing with one another is to laugh together” (p. 263). Continued exposure, as encouraged by comfortable and pleasing communication (such as with non-threatening/vulnerable persons or by humorous ones) also leads to a higher likelihood of liking and being liked. “For similarities in beliefs about the importance of different forms of communication to promote attraction, the only thing that people need to notice is how much (or how little) they enjoy interacting with another” (Burleson, et al., 1994, p. 260). This will quantify the value of the potential each party feels for a lasting relationship. Simply stated, we must communicate well to like and be liked.
Liking Yourself and Others
After the initial hurdle of finding someone with whom one can be attracted to and with whom one can comfortable communicate, the next stage is to like and be liked. Americans seem to be deeply involved and concerned with being liked and making a good impression with others. American culture is strife with media and social pressures to be liked and validated through cultural icons, fashions, trends, and the eventual creation of success through an exclusive bond as a member of the typical 2.5 children nuclear family (Aronson, 1999). People are taught from an early age to not only compete with others for friendships, but also to seek relationships in ways that validate their cultural identity and foster normative behaviors, citizenship, and peaceful co-existence within a society of like-minded relationship holders. That being said, “friends [and other deeper relationships] can foster [the] self-esteem and a sense of well-being” (Santrock, 2008, p. 375) necessary for this desired end state.
There are as many reasons for liking oneself and someone else as there are people to like. People like others for whom they have suffered (Aronson, 1999). People are inclined to like people who have faults and display human weaknesses (Baron, et al., 2006; Santrock, 2008). People are attracted to others who like them first, and to people who claim to not like them at all. “When other people like us, we tend to like them too” (Aronson, 1999, p. 389). People are attracted to people who are as happy as they are and “misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves miserable company” (Schachter, 1959, as cited in Baron, et al., 2006). Any discussion of the causes and results of loving and liking is extremely subjective. Like snowflakes, all liking and loving relationships are different.
Regardless of its source, the concept of liking and being liked is important to humans. People have a strong desire to not only be liked, but also to be affiliated with others and validated by those social relationships. Liking may be boosted by repeated exposure, which, as reported by Baron, et al. (2006), leads to an increased positive evaluation of the person or situation with each new exposure. Liking is enhanced by proximity, similarity, complimentary attributes, and socially relevant benefits of affiliation (Aronson, 1999; Baron, et al., 2006; Santrock, 2008). If a person validates a person’s fashion choices, tattoos and piercings, musical or media interest, social status, family situation, or political views, for example, that person is more likely to be liked. Liking leads to more liking, more affiliation, more exposure and therefore repeated validation and more liking, and so on.
Love and Mate Selection
In reality however, it appears that no one really knows why he or she loves someone, only why he or she likes other people. Even this simple concept seems foggy. People are able to definitely list reasons why they liked someone and then not be able to list reasons why they loved someone. Again, it is as though humans cannot drill down to exact reasons why they love one another, but can identify, in short order, why they like someone. This repetition bares importance and it is therefore accurate to charge that like is governed by individually chosen, finite variables, and that the variables for love are a set of individually identified reasons not to love someone. That is, a person likes another person, or dog, or school because-of-something, and he or she loves something or someone although-of-something. One can list a number of reasons he or she likes their neighbor, but not list all of the reasons he or she loves his or her spouse – only the very few reasons it might be difficult at times.
It gets even more complicated than that however. “Values, religious beliefs, and traditions often dictate the age at which dating begins” (Santrock, 2008, p. 437) and therefore true love becomes possible at different times based on external factors as well. A person’s ethic heritage can thwart or encourage love’s development too. Some Latino and Asian cultures have far more conservative standards regarding adolescent dating than the Anglo-American cultural norms do. Society at large also challenges the development of love by creating a dogma system that encourages certain roles be held by certain parties before they can continue a relationship. Recall in the Getting to Attraction section where role compatibility was discussed in terms of the expectations of perspective attracted individuals. For falling in love and selecting a mate the rules are even more complex. “Society expects husbands to be relatively dominant and wives to be relatively submissive. If the complimentarity of needs for a couple coincides with the role norms set forth by society, the chances of marital happiness are [reportedly] increased” (Aronson, 1999, p. 400). In the future, hopefully, a more androgynous expectation will be the norm for functioning couples, but for now this is the norm in our culture and is the predictive successful model for a marriage.
Matching or conflicting role expectations for the individuals in a potentially long-term relationship are a predictive factor in that relationship’s success (Aronson, 1999; Santrock, 2008). That is not to say that a relationship will not last if culturally acceptable norms are not followed, only that it will not meet the normative criteria for a successful relationship. Here then it should be noted that people will stay in a relationship, and call it love, even when it does not match their own schema of role norms. A woman may stay with a non-supportive and abusive husband even if this betrays the value system she grew up with. “Persons may remain involved in less-than-satisfying relationship because a more satisfying alternative does not currently exist” (Burleson, et al, 1994, p. 259) or that they fear the change from the comfort of their present commitment and what he or she has defined as love.
Selecting a mate is far more complicated a task than falling in love, which is already problematic enough for some. “Adolescents spend considerable time either dating or thinking about dating. Dating can be a form of recreation, a source of status, a setting for learning about close-relationships, as well as a way of finding a mate” (Santrock, 2008, p. 436). But for adults dating is generally more long-term goal-oriented. “When specifying the criteria for a suitable sexual partner, women [as opposed to men] seek partners with a higher level of intelligence” (Isbell & Tyler, 2005, p. 170). What is important is that each person is able to find another that he or she is happy with, can communicate well with, and is able to adjust his or her own life-goals to meet, or combine their own in a way that is most ideal for the situation.
Mate selection does not necessarily mean what it did in the 1950s. Today we have blurred the lines between life-partners and mates and marriages. Mating does not need to mean a heterosexual marriage anymore, and appropriately so, this author asserts, since each person has a right to the happiness a long-term relationship affords through the validation it can provide to self-esteem and actualization.
So while there has not been a final solution to the question of how or why people are initially and sustainably attracted to one another, attraction necessarily feeds into the dialogue about the development of like into love via the opportunity attraction brings to a relationship. If there is not some flavor of initial attraction, or motivation to pursue proximity and therefore a chance of a relationship, there would be no opening for the effective communication and subsequent mind-syncing to take place wherein two people grow toward more attraction and therewith like or love can become a possibility (Aronson, 1999; Santrock, 2008). Once the initial attraction is accepted, the desire to continue communicating and building a relationship is endorsed. This increased communication leads to a unique level of intimacy not shared with others. This uniqueness is attractive in itself and so leads to more intimacy and deeper feelings. Perhaps these feelings grow into love or something resembling it. True love and compatibility may lead to mate selection, and eventual commitment, in accordance with or against cultural demands. Ideally the two people to marry, or otherwise commit to join, and continue a long-term healthy relationship on terms they have set and agreed upon.
So while “controversy surrounds how much cognitive similarities enhance attraction between romantic partners and promote satisfaction with the relationship” (Burleson, et al., 1994, p. 259), there is no argument about how important this relationship cycle is to the human life cycle of growth, learning, and self-actualization. Just as when you pick up a snowflake to examine it, this author’s mother used to say, “the quickest way to end a relationship is to take its temperature.” (personal communication, 1972-present), but that does not make the examination any less tantalizing. Senator Proxmire may be correct in that people everywhere would rather that love and attraction remain a mystery, but can there be any other mystery more wonderful to ponder than the one created by ourselves?
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