Elizabeth Bernstein, writing at the Wall Street Journal online, 7/28/14:
What do you do when something about your partner that you used to adore suddenly starts to drive you crazy? Researchers call this phenomenon a “fatal attraction.” It is exceedingly common, they say, and it can be deadly to a relationship.
Typically, one partner’s fatal-attraction traits are those the other partner lacks. Think of how an outgoing person is often drawn to someone quiet, or how a serious person can gravitate toward someone who is easygoing.
“Opposites attract,” says Paul Schrodt, a professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, who teaches about fatal attractions in a class on the dark side of relationships. “They just don’t always stay together.”
It’s not opposite personality traits that divide people so much as one’s attitudes, views and beliefs about those opposite traits.
If you’re outgoing and your partner is quiet, there are different ways to view this fact. One way is, “I’m glad he’s quiet, because the two of us together would be too much.” Or, alternatively, “I wish he were outgoing like I am. Why can’t he be more like me!”
One attitude will indeed lead to a sense of chronic frustration, anger and resentment; the other attitude will lead to a sense that one is fortunate to have found what one needs and wants.
You cannot lie to yourself. You have to believe and be rationally convinced of what you tell yourself. But how you view a situation is very determinative of how you will feel about it.
Dr. [Diane] Felmlee [professor of sociology at Penn State University] says fatal-attraction traits fall into categories—traits that initially are fun but then seem foolish (someone who is funny can’t be serious); traits that are strong but then seem domineering (decisive becomes controlling) and traits that are spontaneous but then seem unpredictable (impulsive becomes erratic).
How long does it take for the fatal attraction trait to appear? It can happen surprisingly fast—in as little as six months to a year. But it also can take years to make itself known, often after a couple has children or experiences other life changes, Dr. Felmlee says.
The “fatal attraction” premise implies that every virtue has a down side. I don’t agree. If someone is thoroughly and consistently honest, and approaches reality (including other people) with full authenticity and integrity – how can too much of this good quality be a bad thing? Don’t you want people in your life who say what they mean, and mean what they say? The same applies to other objective virtues including productivity; rationality; sensitivity; creativity; and personal pride and self-esteem.
However, Dr. Felmlee’s observations do point out something very often overlooked in romantic relationships, I find—and not just in the very young: It takes longer to really get to know people than most people realize. Six months is not nearly enough, whether it’s finding out about a “fatal attraction” or something else. How long is enough? That will vary, but probably closer to several years, or even longer. It takes time to really get to know people.
Romantic love always starts out as an, “I wish” or an “I want.” Not just on the physical level, but regarding the whole array of qualities you really wish or want to have in a life partner. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this fact. Just don’t mistake the intensity of the feeling — “She seems to be what I want, therefore she is!” — with the actual, objective truth.
Some people can report “knowing” the love of their life—someone they still consider that love after many decades—from the early moments, hours or days of meeting them. What they’re really saying is, “By all appearances and subconscious evaluation (i.e. emotions), this was the man (or woman) for me, and I felt it almost immediately—and it ultimately proved true.” It happens. It also happens the other way. I have heard some happily coupled people say, “I didn’t like him (or her) at all, at first. On paper, this would never be the love of my life.” Yet over time the facts, along with emotional responses, proved otherwise.
What to do when differences once considered unimportant—even cute—come to “haunt” you in a relationship?
Karen Ruskin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sharon, Mass., advises:
Remind yourself of qualities that you were initially drawn to and still appreciate in your spouse. Spend a few minutes reflecting on these every day. Offer your spouse at least one daily acknowledgment of a positive quality of his or hers that has made your day.
The key here is to consider the whole “package” of the person you love. If this or that quality annoys or bothers you, ask yourself: “How important is this negative quality when compared to the positive ones?”
Make rational distinctions. An annoying little habit is not the same as dishonesty. How a person is, on the whole, matters; not just how you feel about your romantic mate in limited, temporary or isolated situations.
And we all like positive feedback. It’s a myth that confident people don’t desire positive feedback. People with low self-esteem value it for obvious reasons; but people with high self-esteem—who already know what’s good about them—like to know it’s recognized and appreciated, most of all by their spouses. So when someone deserves your compliments—most of all, your loved one—then provide them with the kudos they deserve!
Lastly, consider how your partner provides balance, says Julie Hanks, a clinical social worker in Salt Lake City.
The word “balance” annoys me, because it’s vague and usually insinuates that “too much” of a good thing (productivity, intelligence, honesty) is just as bad as its absence, a fallacy I mentioned earlier.
However, if we translate “balance” here to mean: “Sometimes there’s a cost, and the cost is worth it,” then you’re on to something.
If you love someone who’s outgoing but you sometimes feel like they hog the social floor, then ask yourself, “But what about these outgoing qualities benefit me?” You might come up with all kinds of things like, “I meet more interesting people than I otherwise would; I have more color and interest in my life than if I were with someone quiet like me,” and so forth.
Ditto with any other quality about a spouse that annoys you.
The point is, qualities you sometimes don’t prefer come at a cost, but the cost is actually worth it. Sometimes the cost isn’t worth it, in which case you might have to revisit the whole premise of being in this relationship or marriage. But if you don’t first consider the factors this article discusses, you’ll end up being crankier and less of a romantic spouse than you might otherwise have been—and you’ll get less in return, for that reason.
For the complete article referenced here, see “How to Cope When You and Your Partner Are Falling Out of Love”, online.wsj.com, 7/28/14
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