by Dorothea S McArthur PhD ABPP


Carol looked bright and cheerful. This was a pleasure to see because she has been dealing with a separation from her husband. She began our psychotherapy hour right away.

“I went out to a party with a friend last week. I met a man. His name is Alex I don’t really know how it happened, but, I guess you could say, we were both attracted to each other. He noticed me, I watched him, he followed me around, I knew where he was all the time. We talked together really easily.”

“Sounds like fun for you after a long time of sadness.”

“I think so too, but I was also puzzled. As you know, I have been dating two other guys who are really nice to me. However, I found myself thinking about Alex much more even though I do not know him as well. I’m not sure why, or whether my thinking is right. I’m not sure what attraction is or means.”

“I have heard clients talk with me about three different kinds of attraction. Perhaps you are asking which kind of attraction you were feeling?”

“What are the three kinds?”

“The first kind of attraction, I call a physical one. Your body, and his body say, ‘It would be so nice and feel so good if we could get together physically.”


“The second kind of attraction is an attraction of mutual strengths. You are both interested in the same kinds of things, have similar talents, and are at the same level of psychological maturity.

“That feels more like what we felt.”

“The third kind of attraction occurs between your unconscious and his unconscious. You are attracted to each other because he reminds you of someone significant in your life story who disappointed or hurt you in some way. In a like manner, you remind him or someone in his life that represents his unresolved issue with someone in his past. In other words, two unresolved issues hook up in a mysterious magnetic way. They are replayed and intertwine in a way that usually disappoints both of you a second time. The magnetic attraction can feel instantaneous and really strong.”

“Well . . . that sounds like a possibility too.”

“Most relationships are a combination of all three. If the second kind of attraction is strongest, the relationship thrives, and often deals with smaller unresolved issues over time. If the third kind of attraction is the strongest, the relationship generally ends up with a separation.”

“So, you must be saying that it is important to figure out which ones are driving the coming together.”

“Good for you to see that. . . Tell me, what did you find out about Alex?”

“I kept thinking about him because I wanted him to call me. I found out that he is very busy. He is working in a job full time, going to graduate school to get a PhD in conducting, and he plays organ for church jobs. So he really doesn’t have much time for a relationship.”

“Does that remind you of anyone important in your own unique life story?”

“Dah! My Dad and my first husband. Both were pilots and had hardly any time for me..”

“Sooo . . which kind of attraction do you feel you have with Alex?”

“I guess I have mostly the third kind of attraction. I was feeling like a middle aged divorcee and wanted him to call and then I would feel okay about myself again.”

“You are figuring all of this out really well . . .You can take some time to see what is going to happen from here. Validate yourself by realizing that what you have done right, and that three men are clearly interested in who you are. Go enjoy and see what your unconscious and feelings tell you to do from here. The right answers will emerge.”


Don’t you want somebody to love
Would you love to love somebody to love
 You’d better go find somebody to love. Beatles


Many clients ask this question at some point within the psychotherapy relationship. Artists, poets, psychotherapist, philosophers, writers, teenagers, and parents have sought the ultimate answer to this puzzling question. Many clients feel that they have not experienced romantic love, or seen it modeled by their parents.

I have an answer that comes from my own marriage of 40 years and my experience with clients’ life stories. It is only my answer, I cannot claim it as a universal truth. First, it is important to say that I believe we humans are inherently social beings. We want an intimate relationship with each other.

How do we find such a relationship? Dating is very hard. The entertainment industry likes to portray creating a loving relationship as easy and effortless, leaving all of us feeling a little bit inadequate. However, in the movies, actors and actresses get to use as many ‘takes’ and ‘cuts’ as it takes. In real life, we have to make instant decisions about what to say, how much to tell, when to touch, when to have sex, or when to “make love” after the relationship is developed enough to talk about STDs and other personal private matters. Healthy relationships that last forty to fifty years are made slowly, deliberately and carefully with thought and verbal sharing, resulting in a common consensus. Forging the beginning of a romantic relationship can feel as difficult as taking SAT or GRE, going for job interviews, and enduring physical examination.

Two people come together, “attracted to each other.” This attraction is an arrangement of sorts, impossible to describe because it is different for each couple. There is a magic to it; perhaps the intelligence of the universe is the only one to truly understand. There is already obvious chemistry. However, I believe two people have to build and then tend an underlying foundation that turns a meeting of attraction into a long-term monogamous love relationship that will last for 40 years?

  1. Both have enough respect and love for themselves to dare to be intimate verbally and physically with another person.
  2. Both take responsible care of themselves physically and mentally so they can be fully present for each other.
  3. Both are able to share and support the individual growth steps they themselves need to take to continue to make life successful.
  4. Both are able to understand and support the growth steps their partner needs to take to have a successful and meaningful life.
  5. Both are increasingly able to articulate each other’s life story, and the resulting strengths and vulnerabilities. Their strengths and vulnerabilities are complimentary. They are able to utilize the strengths and minimize the vulnerabilities through verbal exploration and help from within the relationship. The goal is a sense of wholeness for both individuals and the relationship. .
  6. Both persons are able to compromise because the survival of the relationship is more important than the individual wishes of each partner.
  7. A deep friendship is an essential large component of a romantic love relationship.


Engagement to the right person is a lovely and joyful experience. It is both a commitment to the long term future, and simultaneously an enormous relief that the complex dating game has concluded. As we recognize just how difficult dating is, we can then “cut ourselves some slack” as the normal mistakes occur when we only have one “take.” The long-term relationship takes many years to mature, starting with the honeymoon period putting only our best foot forward. As the love and respect is earned, we dare to admit more about the questions, vulnerabilities and the growth that is still needed to mitigate problem areas. Two people grow together, with tolerance for each other’s mistakes, and pride in the progress made. No one can or has to be perfect.

From: Defining Moments: Breaking Through Tough Times, © Dorothea S McArthur PhD ABPP