You Need Help: How Do I Know if I’m Really Attracted to My Partner?

Q:

In the past, I have started relationships by reaching out to someone I was really attracted to. We would start from our strong mutual attraction to each other and go from there. My current relationship started sort of by chance. I met them at a queer meet-up event and wasn’t wildly attracted to them, but I wanted to be physical with someone and ended up sleeping with them after the event. We started seeing each other from there, but with sex as the main focus, and eventually I caught feelings for them. We are now dating, and it is one of the healthiest relationships I have ever been in. However, I feel like my attraction is based on the fact that I have known them for so long. I didn’t see them as especially beautiful until a few weeks ago, when they became so familiar to me that I started to see them that way. How do I tell if I am actually attracted to them, or if this is only a feeling I get from being close to them for so long? Does it matter? How would I bring this up to them? And my biggest question, don’t they deserve someone who would find them beautiful from the first time they meet?

A:

This is my favorite kind of advice question to answer, because in my opinion (and maybe some people will disagree!) you’re seeing a problem where there might not really be one — or at least, the problem might not be as big as it seems.

In the same way “love at first sight” can sometimes be a damaging thing to internalize, I actually believe that “attraction at first sight” can sometimes oversimplify and mislead when it comes to our understanding of desire and attraction. Yes, attraction can be explained by science. It’s a chemical reaction centralized to the brain. But the science of attraction also supports exactly what you say you’re experiencing: The longer we know someone, the more attracted to them we can become. Our attractions can change over time, affected by things like hormones. The specific ways we interact with others can also impact attractiveness; for example, lots of studies have indicated that when someone makes direct eye contact, it increases their attractiveness to others.

Now, I’m not particularly a science-y person, especially when it comes to matters of love and attraction. But I do think it can help to understand the psychology of what you’re experiencing! But let’s shift into a more personal and subjective discussion about your situation. I think it’s extremely possible that there were several factors at play that didn’t lead to an instant spark between you and this person. Was the queer meet-up loud and dark? Did you get very much time to talk to them at all? Were you distracted by anything? Because you went with the explicit intention of hooking up with someone, is it possible you were flattening your preferences into very distilled and rigid categories in an attempt to reach that goal efficiently? What I mean by that is say you know you have a tendency to be attracted to people taller than you, so when you entered the room it’s almost like you mentally eliminated people shorter than you, cutting off that part of your brain that might trigger attraction.

The potentially concerning part to me is this: “I didn’t see them as especially beautiful until a few weeks ago.” But because the idea of INSTANT ATTRACTION is so normalized, I again wonder if you’re overanalyzing. Did you really not find them beautiful? I’m not hearing anywhere in your letter that you found this person unattractive but rather that you just didn’t get that chemical experience of attraction at first, and I think there can be a difference there! I am not attracted to my friends, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re smoking hot! If you do believe not finding this person beautiful is rooted in something deeper (like perhaps beauty standards, socialized biases, etc.) then it might be good to do some self-work on that, identifying why you did not find them beautiful. But if you sit with yourself and think about it and realize that actually this person was just different from other people you’ve been attracted to in the past — a deviation from your perceived “type” — then there’s no real need to get too far into the weeds of self-analysis. Humans can sometimes be unreliable narrators of our own damn lives, our own damn desires. We tell ourselves we like or want something specific, and it causes us not to see something that might be right there in front of us all along. If becoming more intimate with this person has increased your overall attraction to them, I believe that attraction was there initially and just needed to be nurtured and/or was inhibited by other factors, which could include assumptions about yourself!

I believe you can grow into loving someone, and I also believe attraction can shift, increase, and not always feel like an immediate punch to the gut the first time you set eyes on someone. Maybe that’s a tough pill for some people to swallow, but I think continuing to prioritize the weight of instant attraction can hold us back in relationships and even lead us to get into relationships that aren’t solid — and yours sounds very solid! Think about this: The opposite of what you’re saying also happens! Sometimes, we might look at someone and find them instantly attractive but then once we get to know them become less attracted. Does that make that initial attraction any less “real” of a feeling? No! It’s just temporary. So just because you didn’t experience attraction before doesn’t make your attraction now any less real.

To end, I’ll directly address each of the questions you have at the end of your letter:

How do I tell if I am actually attracted to them, or if this is only a feeling I get from being close to them for so long? Attraction is not an easily decipherable thing. For myself, I actually barely believe in having “types” because I feel like it can be super limiting and also is often entrenched with beauty standards. Becoming closer to someone is a perfectly valid reason for attraction to increase. I’ve seen the friends-to-lovers trope play out in real life with a lot of friends, and I think that’s just one example of how you see someone can shift. You said you weren’t wildly attracted to them at the initial meet up, but attraction doesn’t have to feel like a real, wild thing to be real.

Does it matter? I think the point when it would start to matter is if it’s starts affecting the way you’re intimate with this person. If it starts affecting your sex life or other parts of your relationship, that’s when it’s time to step back and figure out what’s going on.

How would I bring this up to them? You should not bring this up to them at all. Honesty and vulnerability are important in any relationship, but this is an instance where I think it would do more harm than good. As close as we may feel to the people we date, they cannot read our minds. I think explaining your brain’s attraction chemistry would be confusing and ultimately not very fruitful. I think you yourself are struggling to understand some of your brain’s attraction chemistry, and that’s alright! Again, there’s this belief that we should know what we’re attracted to, what our “type” is, but in reality, attraction is more complicated than that — even the parts that can be explained by science.

And my biggest question, don’t they deserve someone who would find them beautiful from the first time they meet? This person deserves to be in a happy and healthy relationship with someone who is attracted to them, and from what you’ve written, it sounds like they are!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 471 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. You find your partner attractive, even beautiful because you know and love them so well. That’s probably going to take you farther than instant attraction will. I do understand the guilt/worry though because I felt the same way about my partner. They aren’t the type I would instantly feel physically attracted to and I worried that it made me shallow or more concerned with standards of who I “should” find attractive. Also most of my life I haven’t been physically attracted to many people (because what even is attraction/what is a body/why are we here/etc). But I felt really attracted to them as a person early on and now I feel more physical attraction to them than I’ve felt for anyone else. And there are so many ways to become attracted to a person. More than just the (often helpful) identity labels we use for that stuff. But it sounds like you’re in a good place with someone you love and feel attraction to now, so maybe you can release those bad feelings over time. Your letter actually helped me feel better about it myself.

  2. This is interesting. I was actually dating someone when I met my now wife. The woman I was dating was a knockout, a model for Tommy Hilfiger. It was an instant connection with her and I, but there was something missing. I kept an open mind and someone responded to my ad in Yahoo personals, of all things. We started talking. We liked the same things. We laughed. We would 8-9 hour phone conversations. Then we met. She was so familiar. We did sleep together that first night but because we knew each other so well from months of talking. I broke it off with the model and me and my now wife have been together since.

    Do other women catch my eye? Yes, I’m not dead but I’d never stray. I just appreciate beautiful women and they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, etc. My wife and I have a wonderful relationship. She’s my best friend and soulmate and while she too is not what I thought was my type maybe I don’t really know what my type is and it’s been her all along.

  3. Kayla, this is such a good response. This kind of inner deliberation can be such a mindfuck, because it *is* so hard to pin down sometimes and we don’t really have nuanced cultural models for the range of what attraction can look like. I feel for the LW in their questioning but they, like a lot of us, could probably benefit from worrying less.

    Also, standing ovation for the advice to not talk to their partner about this ruminating and can we keep spreading this gospel PLEASE. Have a therapist! Have a journal! Understand that certain bells cannot be unrung! We all know about the pitfalls of undercommunication but as society’s Processing Experts we’d do well to really internalize the idea that overcommunication is also a form of poor communication.

  4. if you’re having enjoyable sex and you like being around them, I don’t know how else you can parse attraction. If you’re feeling conflicted cause you usually pursue people you get big buzzy brain crushes on – and that didn’t happen in this case – that’s understandable, but it is nothing to worry about. I have those big buzzy brain crushes on people but have never once in my life actually ended up dating someone that I felt that way about. I’ve always ended up dating people in circumstances similar to the OP and yes, I was utterly attracted to those people, I just didn’t have the dysregulating brain buzz prior to that attraction. It’s not the same thing. That brain buzz contains attraction but it isn’t what attraction is.

    If you are wanting some kind of fireworks that aren’t happening it’s worth considering if your needs will be met by the relationship long term – particularly if you’re monogamous – and consider defining the relationship accordingly. Like, it’s okay if you don’t think this person is “the one” and you’re someone looking for “the one” – but if that’s the case I do think it’s important to be up front with the person about that (for example – making it clear it’s just casual, Friends with Benefits or whatever). As a polyam person I think it’s pretty important to be clear about that kind of thing regardless of how I feel about someone I am with – because it helps people set appropriate boundaries and manage their expectations from the get go.

  5. Everyone is different, but as someone who almost always feels attraction grow after I get to know/become very close to someone I can absolutely attest that it can be just as true and genuine as a “love at first sight“ situation. Out of all of my major relationships/crushes, I think there’s maybe only been 2 people that I instantly had physical attraction for? And I’ve had many more cases where I definitely did NOT felt any attraction to someone beforehand but later found myself super infatuated or into them as a friendship or flirtation grew or deepened.

    Now, I do think that’s different from
    hooking up with someone you’re only somewhat into and having wishful thinking that maybe attraction will grow (which I don’t think is the current situation the LW is describing). Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

    But attraction is funny and if you feel it now I don’t think it’s any worse or less “real” at all if it developed over time rather than being instantaneous.

  6. I very much agree with Kayla’s advice here. I don’t see why this kind of attraction is somehow less “real” than an immediate physical attraction (which, while idolized in our cultural imaginary, you could also argue is purely superficial, falls into stereotypes of who is one’s ‘type,’ etc). From everything LW has said, this seems like a case of overthinking a situation that actually isn’t problematic at all. Maybe this is the first time this has been the sequence in which interest, connection, spark, and attraction has unfolded for you. Welcome! This is how many of us experience attraction predominantly. It’s not ‘less’ real. Also, please heed Kayla! and do not say anything to your partner. It would only hurt or devastate them. And it’s really you grappling with your own feelings/processing, and has nothing to do with them anyway, as I see it.

  7. This is so interesting because it highlights that we may not all be defining some words the same way.

    Because if I like having sex with someone, think they’re beautiful, and enjoy physical and emotional closeness and intimacy with them I’d certainly say I’m attracted to them even if I didn’t feel that way the moment I saw them across a crowded room. In fact I am much more likely to call that immediate attraction when you first meet someone “lust” and I consider it to be a much more fleeting feeling than attraction.

    Clearly LW defines attraction somewhat differently than I do.

    The LW should not worry, though, the healthiest relationship they’ve been plus all that attraction (by my definition) bodes well for the relationship.

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