Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Is Strong Physical Attraction Necessary?

This is a long one, but it's good. My feelings are, in order to really get to know someone, which will lead to the physical attraction if it's the right relationship, you have to spend a lot of time together in person... chastely, of course. God will fill in the rest of the story in His time.

By Anthony Buono

Recently a young man asked me if having a strong physical attraction to the person you’re dating is necessary for knowing if it is the right person for marriage. I told him that it’s possible to be attracted to a person of great qualities but whom you are not physically attracted to.

Everyone wants to marry a person who has it all: great personality, good character, wonderful qualities, and (of course) great-looking! It is the “great-looking” part that has so many Catholics in trouble.

On one hand, they want to believe that they are not so shallow as to need a great-looking person when it should be what is inside a person that matters most. On the other hand, there is something unexplainable but very real that is inside them that will resist moving toward intimacy if they just don’t feel a strong attraction to them physically.

Ultimately, you do have to be physically attracted to the person you marry. But physical attraction does not always happen immediately. Attraction toward marriage is when you find a person so unique and special that you cannot see living your life without that person. This includes, but is not exclusively, the physical. If it is only physical, then it is shallow movement toward marriage. But desire to be sexually intimate with the person you are dating is a good indicator that things are on the right track. It is not the sole motivator, obviously, but it is an indicator. If a man and woman become very close friends during dating, but one or both do not have movements of desire to be sexually intimate with the other, then that is a problem.

However, it should not be judged too hastily that because that desire is not there initially or soon after dating that it means this is not a suitable partner for marriage. I would not disagree that most couples who marry have a strong sexual desire for each other, but of those, it is not always the case that the strong physical desire was there immediately or early on. Then there are those couples who marry and do NOT have a “strong” physical desire. But their love for each other is so strong at the friendship level and longing to spend a life together that they allow the physical attraction level they do have to be enough. And let us never forget that feelings can be an act of the will. Anyone who has been married for some time can vouch for that.

There are those who want to believe that Catholics should be concerned only about what is inside, not the physical. That would be to go in the opposite direction on this issue. Our sexuality is very much connected to our whole person, not just the inside. In fact, it is a very “sacramental principle” to be attracted to another person sexually. Just because a person is a strong practicing Catholic does not mean you could marry them. There is more to it than religious conviction. Just as the sacraments and sacramentals use externals to draw us toward an inner and hidden mystery, so it is with how two people come together toward the intimacy of close friendship, and ultimately in marriage.

The person you marry will be one person who has come along in your life that becomes someone you desire to know better and have a deeper relationship with. It is a person about whom you one day say, “I cannot imagine living my life without that person in it.” Physical attraction plays a major role in that mystery of how two people come together in marriage, because there is a desire to want to be physically close to that person (i.e., sexual desire). That movement is what should make two people contact the local pastor of their church and make wedding plans.

Attraction comes down to time. Time reveals all things. Attraction can very often come in time. Physical desire for another can come as the time to develop other aspects of the relationship are permitted. Spending time with a person is how deeper attraction grows, and that deeper attraction of the person’s qualities that are within and displayed in personality and character can spark (because of the mystery of love that comes from God) a physical attraction that was not there before.

Call it an “unveiling”. Everyone in a relationship (especially the woman) wants to feel like they are unique, special, one-of-a-kind. And when intimacy takes place (close friendship), this is in fact what happens. And for a man and a woman, becoming close friends naturally leads to a desire for more. But again, that desire for more oftentimes is an awakening; a realization of something you did not know before; recognition of something you did not see before. The heart moves and speaks, and the eyes open to mystery that goes beyond mere material physical attributes. The physical attraction is now there. And it is unique to the two individuals. Or perhaps, for those who did have physical attraction early on, this is now a time of confirmation that their attraction is not just about the physical.

That is what is so hard about objective physical beauty. How do they know when someone is “really and truly” interested in who they are, not just what they look like? It can be a real curse to be objectively beautiful. I have had solid Catholic women who are very gorgeous tell me heartbreaking stories of their difficulties finding true love. And it makes sense. A gorgeous woman is attractive to “every” guy. So what? What does that tell her? What does that tell the guys? Only that nature is working. But it tells nothing of the mystery of love, and its uniqueness for two people.

Attraction toward marriage is about a unique experience of two people for each other that does not desire an ending, but rather longs for what is next. Time tests this, and a mind open to people who come into our life that God sends is imperative. In addition, the prayerful work of dismantling any distorted approach we have to physical attraction is needed for many. Too many single people, especially men, have too dangerous of a tendency to make physical objective beauty the benchmark of their determination of another. This is a mistake!

So many have been surprised by love in their life with a person they came to discover they long to be with, and that the mystery of love’s movements stirring in the heart over time caused them to have physical attraction that perhaps was not there, or was not as strong as they would have liked.

Time is the answer. Give people “time” before you make a final conclusion about attraction. You might be surprised at whom you discover is really in your midst. Your vocation to marriage may very well depend on this cautious approach to love.