On love: Be careful what you wish for

August 16, 1993|By Kathryn Dore Perkins | Kathryn Dore Perkins,McClatchy News Service

In those early, starry-eyed days of a romance, who could imagine that the very traits attracting you to your love could end up driving you crazy and cooling your ardor?

But that is often the case, according to a scientific study by a University of California, Davis, sociology professor, Diane H. Felmlee.

She asked 301 dating college students to list the characteristics that attracted them to the object of their most recent -- and failed -- romance. Then she asked them to list traits that, in retrospect, turned them off.

Although the respondents didn't realize it, they often described the flip sides of the same characteristics, Ms. Felmlee says.

One-third of the relationships were doomed by these "fatal attractions," she reported in a research paper she presented this summer at a conference of the International Network on Personal Relationships.

"Virtues have a dark side," says Ms. Felmlee, who has expanded her interest in the subject to discussions with married couples.

For example, she says: "A lot of women said they were attracted to fun, entertaining men. Later, they were disappointed when those men seemed immature or incapable of taking the relationship seriously."

"Extremely nice, kind men" were irritating when they didn't prove assertive.

Men deemed attractive because they were "laid back" and "easygoing" later were rejected for being "constantly late" or unfocused. "Persistence" became "domineering and macho."

Women drawn to men who seemed successful and ambitious eventually grew dissatisfied when their partners were workaholics.

Men reported similar contradictions. Attracted to women because of their intelligence and confidence, later they were repelled because the women "had too big an ego" or were "domineering," Ms. Felmlee says.

Men drawn to women who were "caring" later fled from "smothering." "Innocent" was reinterpreted as "naive."

Several men in the study said they had been attracted to women because of their free-spirited sexuality. Later, they saw that as "sluttishness," says Ms. Felmlee. One man said he liked his former sweetheart because she was "sexually free." But he ended the relationship when she was sexually free with his friend.

"That is a classic example of fatal attraction: What they liked at first, later caused problems," she says.

Physical attributes -- smile, good looks -- were the most frequently mentioned attractions, particularly by men. But they seldom were cited as the cause of breakups since physical characteristics aren't as subject to reinterpretation, says Ms. Felmlee.

The "opposites attract" syndrome was most likely to be fatal. Different and intriguing often becomes a source of conflict, Ms. Felmlee says. Conversely, people attracted by common interests were less likely to grow dissatisfied.

Based on the study, she advises: Don't get married while in the dizzying state of infatuation. "Take your time."

And don't expect to find in one person every trait you would like to have in a partner.

"Awareness that our partners can't be all things to us, can bring insight and tolerance. Happiness is related to acceptance," she says. "That doesn't mean you will like it when that person is always late, but when you realize that trait is an aspect of what you do like, you can understand it and be less critical."

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