Q: I am a 32-year-old woman who has never been in a relationship with a man I’m actually attracted to. The men I’ve ended up with really pursued me, and they were all smart, funny and kind, so I thought it was shallow not to date them because I wasn’t that into their looks. Depressingly, each time, I eventually found myself repulsed by the guy and eyeing other men. Of course, that brought things to an end. How important is physical attraction in a relationship?—Lukewarmed
A: When you’ve got a position to fill—in your life or the workplace—it’s important to bring in somebody who meets the essential requirements. So when the overheating thingy on the nuclear reactor needs fixing, you put out a call for a certified nuclear mechanic; you don’t just go, “OK, whatever” when the nicest mariachi band roadie comes in looking for work.
Of course, sexual attraction isn’t everything. But without it, you and another person are best suited for a relationship like “friends,” “neighbors” or “people who give each other a friendly wave in the carport.” Experimental psychologist Gurit Birnbaum finds evidence from across social psychology and evolutionary psychology that the “sexual system” (sexual desire) and the “attachment system” (emotional bonding) work together. In fact, she explains, it seems sexual desire “has been ‘exploited’ by evolutionary processes” to promote enduring emotional bonds between partners.
It’s important to find somebody you have serious hots for from the start, because maintaining a sex crush on your partner is actually vital throughout the relationship stages. Birnbaum explains that sexual desire motivates partners to keep “investing resources” in each other and the relationship—beyond sexytime. Additionally, after the initial hottity-hots die down, still wanting to get it on with your partner seems to provide a “buffer” for poor communication skills and less-than-desirable personality traits, such as emotional instability.
So, no, you wouldn’t be “shallow” to date only men you’re attracted to. You’d be doing the wise (and kind) thing: Keeping yourself from yet another doomed relationship with some nice but meh guy where the sweet nothings you whisper are along the lines of, “Please don’t touch me unless it’s medically necessary.”
Q: My boyfriend broke up with me five months ago. When I’m going to sleep at night, I find myself mentally writing him hate letters, detailing what’s wrong with him. (He’s a coward, selfish, petty, etc.) I’m relieved that I’m not crying over him anymore, but I wonder whether I’m making things worse with this nightly litany of his shortcomings.—Still Mad
A: There are relaxation tapes that repeat a word or statement to help you go to sleep, but “I hate you … I hate you … I hope you fall in a manhole and drown in the sewer” isn’t one I’ve seen in the catalog.
Psychologists call what you’ve been doing “ruminating”—a form of over-think that involves obsessively replaying events, problems or feelings. The term comes from a yicky place—a cow’s rumen, a stomach area where it partially digests food, only to throw it up so it can re-chew the food again. Yum, huh?
The late psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that rumination can lead to depression—probably because it’s like being on a hamster wheel of hopelessness. However, the hopelessness comes not from reflecting on your feelings or problems but from doing it pointlessly—that is, rerunning those events and feelings and generating only frown lines, not insight.
Healthy reflection on the past involves making it mean something for the future—turning the unfortunate events of, say, an ill-advised relationship into a guide for a wiser course in your next one. So, for example, when you find yourself venting about this guy, stop and turn the lens on yourself. Take responsibility for how you might have seen or done things differently.
To get off the beddy-bye rage train, just keep redirecting your thoughts to the positive—people and things in your life you’re grateful for and ideas for moving forward. Sure, guys you date will probably ask why you and your ex broke up, but a few words should suffice. Nobody wants to see you cast a glance at the clock and pull a huge parchment scroll from your purse.