How to Discern Which Attractions Lead to Pain & Which Can Lead to Real Love
If I could only share one insight with my single readers, it would be this: Learn to distinguish between your “attractions of deprivation” and your “attractions of inspiration.” Then, only follow your attractions of inspiration. I believe that’s the wisest path to love. But, as I explain in my book Deeper Dating(link is external), wisely doesn’t mean easy. Attractions of deprivation can be wildly compelling, while inspiring relationships hold challenges that few of us are trained to meet. Let’s explore both types of attractions, and discover how we can chart a path toward love that lasts.
Ken Page, L.C.S.W., is a New York-based psychotherapist, lecturer, and author of the upcoming book Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy (Shambhala, 2014). A dynamic and inspiring speaker, he has led hundreds of workshops on intimacy and spirituality for thousands of participants of all ages, backgrounds, and sexual orientations. He and his work have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Life Magazine, The New York Times, WPIX-TV Morning News, The Advocate, Time Out New York, The Discovery Channel, and in many other places.
Editor: Jafar Ali
Attractions of Deprivation
Attractions of deprivation draw us in like an undertow and almost always get us hurt. We keep feeling we have to do something to win our partner’s love, approval, or care. We spend way too much time worrying about what we’ve done wrong, or what we can do differently to make things right. These relationships can trigger a sense of need and longing that robs us of our sense of balance. In some essential way, they leave us feeling inadequate.
If they cause so much pain, then why are they so hard to break free from? Because they activate one of the most primordial human emotions: Fear of abandonment. There are other reasons why these relationships keep trapping us, and we’ll explore them in future posts. For now, it’s worthwhile to note that many attractions of deprivation are what behavioral theorists call “intermittent reward systems.” In these systems, you get rewarded only sporadically and you can’t control when the reward will come. They are the most compelling system of reinforcement and the hardest to break free from. Gambling is a perfect example of intermittent reward-and the parallels are obvious!
• Have you ever been crazy about someone who wasn’t available, or wasn’t good for you?
• Have you ever invested way too much time trying to teach someone to treat you right?
• Have you ever felt desperate for the affection of someone who sometimes treated you wonderfully, and other times badly?
If you haven’t, come introduce yourself; I don’t think we’ve met yet. Because these are the most sneaky, seductive attractions of all.
Attractions of Inspiration
A great secret to finding lovelies in choosing and cultivating only attractions of inspiration. It’s such a simple insight, yet it takes decades for most of us to arrive at this truth if we ever do at all.
Attractions of inspiration have warmth and an easiness. In these relationships, our challenge is to accept our partner’s caring, not win it. Our partners might challenge us to be better, but at the bottom, they love us for who we are. Attractions of inspiration are fueled by the real sense of well-being that the relationship creates in us, not by the unrelenting itch for something that’s denied us. These attractions often unfold slowly. They get richer as time goes on. They may take lots of work-but such relationships allow the work of intimacy. They make us feel love, not desperation. These are the only relationships to build a life around; the only ones that deserve the gift of our most intimate self.
We can measure the quality of our lives by the relationships of mutual inspiration we’ve cultivated. Without such inspiration, and love will wither. And without these relationships, we too will wither, reverting to smaller, more defensive, and wounded versions of ourselves. Humans are a lot like rubber bands: We shrink to a small, comfortable size unless we’re held to greater expansion by forces outside ourselves. Relationships of inspiration expand us to a size we could never achieve alone.
Here are some rules for identifying your attractions of inspiration:
• Are you inspired by your partner’s (mostly) consistent caring and acceptance?
• Are you inspired by your partner’s goodness and decency?
• Is your love-fueled by respect for the kind of person your partner is?
• Are you and your partner willing to do the hard work of healing the relationship’s areas of weakness?
If so, celebrate. You have found an attraction of inspiration, and you should treasure it. It’s the type that can sustain a future of love.
Many of us believe that attractions of deprivation are real love because they draw us in so powerfully. When these attractions let us down, we believe it’s because of a lack in us, not because of a fatal flaw embedded in the attractions themselves.
A person I know who suffered from a string of deprivation relationships, had an epiphany one day in therapy. True, her most intense attractions were toward unavailable men. But she was also able to fall in love with qualities of kindness, decency–and availability. The problem was that she was looking for turn-on first, and inspiration later.
Simply put, her order was off. The quick turn-on is simple; it takes care of itself. Noticing inspiration requires time and a conscious decision to look for it. Of course, she had to be physically attracted to someone, but she was sure that there were men out there who both attracted and inspired her! She realized, with a new sense of hope, that she had two totally different systems of wiring and that she could choose which to follow. She could follow the compelling, scratch-the-itch attractions of deprivation, or she could follow attractions that fed the best parts of her. And that’s when her dating life really began to change.
Most of us are wired to want the hard-to-get. People who devalue us make us want to convince them of our worth. These are our circuitries of deprivation. And, as compelling as they are, they rarely lead to happiness or lasting love.
But–and here’s the all-important part–most of us also have the hardwiring to desire people who inspire us, value us, and are available. Even if we have a hair-trigger attraction to negative relationships, that doesn’t mean we can’t be deeply attracted to inspiring ones! We’ve just never been taught how to distinguish between these attractions. Or that we can choose the healthier love, and then consciously cultivate its passion and sexual heat. Attractions of inspiration come with their own unique challenges. Whereas attractions of deprivation trigger fear of abandonment, attractions of inspiration trigger our fear of intimacy. We’ll explore the work of love in attractions of inspiration in future posts.
As empowering as this tool of discrimination seems, readers might worry that it leads to grandiosity, judgementalness, and an inability to remain in relationships in times of conflict. All of these are real concerns, and we’ll look at them with care in future posts. In my experience, however, the reverse is much more likely to apply. In relationships of deprivation, we are prone to both self-judgment and disdain of our partner. In relationships of inspiration, we discover a capacity for patience; for humility that allows us to lean on and value our partners’ deepest gifts.
Try this approach for a few months, and watch what happens. My guess is that you’ll develop a sharper “eye for inspiration,” which will help you choose real love, and not new repetitions of old heartache. Be sure to write in and let us know your thoughts and experiences.