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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


This week, yet another article in a scientific journal reports on the reasons we are attracted to some people and not others. I’ll spare you the theory and the pseudo-science employed in the study, it really doesn’t matter because like so many others before it this thesis is based on the faulty assumption that some biological or chemical process exclusively governs our affinities. Now I do not discount that we give off any number of hidden clues about ourselves in the form of body language, respiration, and other tics and behaviors. It is also true that animals are particularly attuned to our signals and can sense disease, and are sensitive to our moods in general. I heard a story about a dog that had developed the ability to sense when her owner was about to have a seizure and would take steps to ensure her safety while unconscious. Clearly there is a great deal to be discovered about human biology and chemistry, far more than what we already know. But I must confess that I am a skeptic when it comes to believing that our pheromones—dictate who we will be drawn to as colleagues, friends or lovers.

Finding valence with another human being is complicated to say the least. Whether forming a relationship with a colleague, making a new friend or sussing out Mrs or Mr. Right, we rely on a host of signals and signs to help us discern how we feel about someone, and how they feel about us. If we take hormones out of the picture, as we should always do when we are thinking about a possible romantic attraction, we are left with an intellectual and emotional mystery that we must solve through a process of testing and comparison with our store of experience. And that is where so much goes wrong.

Establishing trust is arguably the most important thing we can hope to do in any new relationship. Without trust nothing can progress. Generally our self-protective instincts will intercede, as well they should. But trust takes time to build and during that interval it is fragile, easily violated by intention or error. Most humans are not naturally trusting—at least most of us tend to be cautious about anyone or anything new. No one wants to be hurt—and perhaps we have had the experience of trusting too much or too soon. Even in long term relationships trust issues never go away completely—they lurk around the corner wary of a violation.

Part of the reason we can and are fooled—by ourselves or others is that we want connection, we want to find valence but if we have lived even a little bit chances are we’ve been let down, or perhaps worse and we are on the lookout even if we are unaware of doing so. Which is why we should be good at reading people but are generally so poor that we look to friends, family or complete strangers for advice, interpretation or reassurance. It seems we don't even trust ourselves sometimes when it comes to relationships, but take my word for it, the wisdom of crowds does not extend to reading tea leaves on who we should count as friend or lover.

More often than not, we may already know on some level how we feel, but feelings alone are not a reliable filter. Looking to our BFF or a family member gives us cover—reinforcement or an excuse in the event we get things wrong. The amazing thing is that mature adults, people who can deal with complex issues and make critical decisions in other areas of life frequently founder when it comes to self-appraisal much less their perception about others. The simple and straightforward eludes us. Instead, we grope for meanings, sift past experiences for clues, read into actions or the lack therof—do any and everything possible to convince ourselves that we are chronically misled or unquestionably on the right path. We may even know that our instincts are unreliable, but we are capable of serial errors.

That our critical faculties so often desert us when it comes to our feelings about other people—those with whom we are or seek to be in relationship should not surprise us. Too much is at stake—our need for validation, our desire for community, even our reason for being and of course our need for affection. Only the emotionally repressed, the highly self-disciplined, or narcissistic sociopaths seem beyond these needs. And while it is commendable to have a healthy self-regard and lack of dependence we are social creatures. How then do we find valence; how do we know when we have connected?

I cannot speak for anyone else but I have a simple way of testing my own feelings. It starts with a question—do I trust this person? Now that is a relative thing—It means something quite different and far more critical with my significant other than it does with a friend but in both cases what I am really asking is whether this person has my best interests at heart? If the answer in any way is suspect that is enough to say stop right there. But let’s assume that there is sufficient conviction go on. The second question is also one that has different implications depending on the nature of the relationship. Do I believe this person to be possessed of good judgement? Answering that question takes a good deal more information, even an intimate knowledge of someone’s past because the answer depends on how they have dealt with life’s challenges, for better or worse. It is most decidedly a question of character. Finally, I ask myself, does being with this person at work, at home, in public or private elevate or diminish me? Do I look forward to our interactions or dread them? Do I feel depleted or energized by my time with them?

Now you may think this approach too simple or too calculated but I would tell you that I know many relationships, marriages even that would have benefitted had both parties asked themselves these fundamental questions rather than just going with their feelings. That isn't to say that feelings do not matter, especially in friendships and romantic relationships, but too often that is the only thing we listen too and life should have taught us that feelings are sometimes nothing more than chemistry. As we go through life together we cannot predict what we will have to face—but we can grow to know someone to the degree that we can predict how they will deal with the challenges and opportunities we will encounter along the way. The people I want by my side are those that will be with me in every instance, good and bad as I will be with them. That is more than valence, it is a bond that is unbreakable.

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