Ever wonder what causes lust, attraction and attachment? What exactly changes between a new relationship and a long term one? Last month I received a question from our anonymous Have A Question page that I think saw a lot of confusion between these, and so I figured I’d take the opportunity to explain the differences in case others are similarly confused.
I’m an incredibly driven and passionate person who runs a successful business with a large team. I’m 35 and keep myself very fit. My wife also tries to look after herself but isn’t as driven as I am. I’m a very visual person and physical attraction has always been a non negotiable in a partner. We have been married for 15 years but I have struggled for most of our marriage to be attracted to my wife at times. She is what many guys would find attractive but I’m ONLY attracted to very skinny body types. She was perfect when I met her but has gained a small amount of weight. She isn’t fat by any means but I just don’t have that “I want to rip your clothes off” feeling and sometimes seeing her naked is a turn off. She is obviously very hurt by this but I can’t see a way for us to move forward. I love her but that isn’t enough to want to be sexually attracted to her. How can we move forward in a godly way when the physical attraction which is crucial for me, just isn’t there sometimes and she is unwilling to change.
I did a survey a while back wherein 96% of husbands found they were equally, or more, attracted to their wife now than when they got married. Regardless of age, weight-gain, physical health, fitness level, etc.. This matches with psychology studies which show that we tend to adjust our preferences to fit what the current reality of our life is. Coupled people tend to rate their partner as subjectively more attractive than others would objectively.
There are a few reasons for this. One is that our brains like to adapt to make us feel like we’re winning. The second is that we tend to prefer things we focus on positively.
But, it turns out you are one of the 4%. Now, in my experience, people in that 4% usually have something going on that’s interfering with the natural increase in attraction that happens in a marriage. Because almost everyone thinks their spouse is “perfect” when they first get romantically involved. They think they’re hot, sexy, and they just want to rip their clothes off.
That’s a pretty normal infatuation/new relationship energy response. Here’s why:
When a new romantic relationship is formed, what we call “love” researchers have broken down into three separate, yet often overlapping and interrelated, parts:
In this question, we’re dealing with lust and attraction, but I think the attachment likely also plays a role.
Lust is driven by testosterone and estrogen. They grow the simple desire to be sexually gratified. Testosterone increases libido, aka your desire for sex, and estrogen enhances that feeling. This is why many women find they have a higher drive when they are ovulating – estrogen is at its highest then, increasing the effect of the testosterone in their body. For men, testosterone and estrogen are fairly static, and so you don’t see the same sort of cycles. They both also tend to drop off with age, so as you grow older, you’re far less likely to have that “I really want sex” feeling.
Attraction on the other hand is driven by dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
Dopamine is often called the reward hormone. It gets released when we do something that makes us feel good, or when we’ve “won” something. When you are in a new relationship, a lot of dopamine is released as well as norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, gets released when we’re under stress. It’s related to the flight or fight response. It affects a lot of systems, including increasing blood flow, and causing you to focus on the thing that’s stressing you. In the case of a new relationship, it’s a good stress, but still has the same response. Blood flow is increased everywhere, which leads to arousal, and hyperfocusing on the object of your attraction causes everything else in the world to not matter as much.
Serotonin on the other hand, isn’t released, it’s reduced.
Dopamine and norepinephrine together make us feel really good. Giddy, energized, euphoric. The reduced serotonin causes part of your brain to shut down – particularly the rational parts. This is why you may not notice any of the flaws in your new found love interest. This lower serotonin also makes you more aggressive, daring and more impulsive. In high doses, we call this infatuation. You have trouble focusing on anything else, you feel amazing, and all you see is good things about your love interest. In short, they appear perfect to you.
Now, when you’re trying to start a relationship, this is very helpful. It’s a lot easier to jump right in when you think the other person is perfect. I mean, there’s apparently no downside. Easy win.
While attraction and lust are strong in new relationships, attachment tends to be the predominant facet in long term relationships, though it still plays a role in new ones. Two main chemicals are responsive here, oxytocin and vasopressin.
Oxytocin – often called the love hormone, this chemical is what makes you feel bonded, emotionally safe, connected, etc.. In new relationships, this hormone is produced in large quantities. My guess is that it’s to overcome the uncomfortableness of being vulnerable with someone new that you haven’t had a chance to grow trust with yet.
In a long term relationship, like marriage, we don’t quite get the same levels as easily. So, you have to work a bit harder to get the same effect. Having trust for each other, spending time together, positive communication, physical touch, processing bonding cues, staying faithful, having positive memories of your relationship, showing empathy for each other, and orgasms are all linked to higher levels of oxytocin. Those all take effort, time and a solid relationship, whereas in a new relationship, oxytocin abounds quite easily.
So, if you aren’t investing in your marriage, then you aren’t going to get those same feelings. Even if you are, it likely won’t be at the same level.
Vasopressin on the other hand makes you feel like you want to protect your spouse, to keep them safe, both physically and emotionally. It’s what drives people to say “I would die for my spouse” and be willing to make sacrifices for them.
How this applies to the question
So, now you’re 15 years into a long term relationship. The New Relationship Energy/Infatuation has long since worn off and if you haven’t been working on the attachment part of your marriage, then, well, you’re going to have a very hard time finding your spouse attractive. It’s not her fault for not being perfect. It’s your responsibility to cultivate an adult relationship rather than one based on infatuation.
It sounds like you never did that.
Most likely, you married her, not because you loved her, but because you loved how she made you feel. That’s not an attack, I think many of us marry for that reason, but, at some point it has to shift because your brain won’t keep those chemicals up for long.
So, I think it’s time to start investing in your marriage.
Now, there are two other things that might cause this sort of lack of attraction:
The most likely is that you’re looking at porn, having an affair, or otherwise focusing on other women. Since you’re focusing on them positively, that’s what your brain is rewiring your preferences to. It could be that you’re envisioning your “perfect” wife from 15 years ago, and your brain is focusing on that as the ideal, doing a comparison with your real wife and you’re programming your brain to see you’re not attracted to her. This is still along the same lines because you’re focusing on a fantasy version of your spouse, not your spouse.
As well, if you’re comparing them to your spouse and then thinking negatively about your spouse for long enough, you’ll find you don’t like them as much anymore.
That leads me to the second, though less likely situation – there is a serious relationship issue, to the point that you look at your wife negatively as a person, and that’s spilling over into how you perceive her physically. Since you don’t mention any other relationship issues, that may not be it. But it does happen to some people.
So, I’m going to say – stop looking at other women, be it porn, nudes, webcams, the neighbour, women walking down the street, whatever. Instead, focus on your wife and finding something you find attractive about her. Pay attention to those qualities or attributes, not on anything you find “less than attractive”.
And work on loving your wife. Your response makes it seem like you’re solely focused on her looks. “Not perfect” shouldn’t be a detractor, and no one is perfect anyways. It’s no wonder she’s hurt by this. Frankly, you’ve taken a personal issue with yourself and pushed it onto her. That’s fairly cruel really – to tell someone they’re not attractive because they aren’t perfect. That’s an unattainable goal. If I was in her shoes, I’d also be seriously concerned about the fact that I’m married to someone so shallow.
So, I think that’s how you move forward in a godly way – by not requiring your spouse to reach a level of perfection before you deem them worthy of your attraction. Frankly, the question just screamed narcissistic tendencies, which makes me also wonder if perhaps you should pursue some therapy to see if there is anything in your past that might have caused this sort of stance. My understanding is that typically, narcissism stems from a deep inferiority complex, and you might be projecting that onto your wife.
In summary, I think your “she is unwilling to change” is misdirected. Seems like you have some big adjustments to make yourself.
37 Questions for spouses to ask each other about sex
Subscribe to get the 2 page PDF full of questions to help you and your spouse start to talk about your sex life.