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The Fascination Equation

The Special Sauce of love may simply be staying fascinated with your partner

I used to have a few rules about the men I ‘liked’ on dating sites: no sunglasses in their lead photo (why are you hiding?), no photos of kids or babies (just because you’ve reproduced doesn’t mean you’re a nice guy), and no hoisted pints of beer (I don’t want a drinking buddy). I also never liked a man who wasn’t able to put together an engaging personal statement, using well constructed sentences and proper grammar. I want to read who he is, not what he doesn’t want from me. (It’s a big turn-off, guys, to use your word count to lecture us about what we shouldn’t be. To ask a middle-aged woman that she come without baggage is like asking the Pope to come without religion.)

But one day I threw out all that good advice when I swiped right on a man whose face made me tingle and wrote only ‘I know a little about a lot.’ Despite my ‘no one-liners’ rule, I let the lizard hypothalamus of attraction override my reasoning cerebral cortex. But it was an important relationship (and why, despite the time suck and frequent disappointments, I will never stop appreciating the world of online dating).

Despite an early itinerant life and marginal education, this man’s talents were impressive. He could grow, forage and fish; cook your dinner, build your house and fix your car; he had a wide friend network and struck up conversations with strangers everywhere we went. He could also make love to me for hours. I was fascinated. And everything I did seemed to endear me to him whether it was my laugh, the intensity of my questions or the fact I bought my coffee from Deals Only for $3.99 a pound (he liked a practical girl). He told me every day he loved being in love with me. It felt as though I’d stumbled upon the Special Sauce of relationships. He dug me and I dug him. Duh.

In contrast, I dated a man whose enchantment and desire for me were off the charts. I was initially smitten because he was both attentive and inventive in the kitchen and in bed. The big trouble was this guy was an inveterate alcoholic. And unemployed. So despite his repeated attempts to please me, I eventually lost interest because he was doing nothing compelling with his own life. Worse, he was killing himself slowly with vodka.

Then I read this head-slapping piece on Medium, by MaryBeth Groneck who articulated much better than I the two things that keep people interested in each other and exactly what was present in one relationship and absent in the other: being both fascinating and fascinated.

We all want to feel desired and valued by our partners. But women, just a bit more, might want to hear and feel this more often. When a man is taken with us, he will almost always do the things that make us feel, loud and clear, that we are fascinating to him: he will pursue us, he will be curious about who we are by asking us questions, he wants to please us, he desires us, and – perhaps most importantly – he tells us so.

In return, we are fascinated by him. The qualities required for being a fascinating man, as Groneck notes are: he is curious about the world and is a life-long learner; has values and lives by them; has deep, meaningful relationships with family and friends; respects his body & takes care of it; takes real risks, and consequently, has interesting life experiences; has hobbies/pastimes that bring him enjoyment; and is living out his purpose.

She writes: “Both pieces — fascinated and fascinating — are needed to maintain attraction. I would often look at couples who had been together for decades and were still taken with each other, and compare them to those cheerless couples that make observers want to run from commitment, and wonder how the same situation — years in a relationship — could produce totally different outcomes. I don’t wonder anymore. It’s the science of interest. Smitten couples are doing the work of fascination. That is it. They are still interested and show it, they are still interesting and live it.”

Let me add that fascination is easy during the blush of love, when even your morning breath and his farts are endearing. The true fascination happens after the dopamine has lifted (read here about the chemicals of infatuation) and you’re able to recognize what’s genuinely admirable and what’s simply tolerable.

We all maintain our fascination quotient by staying engaged in our world of work and passions. Groneck spells out what makes a man fascinating, but I would say the same goes for women. Good looks and great sex can keep a man fascinated for only so long. I see too many young women – and I was one myself – who spend less time engaged with their work and hobbies than in making themselves outwardly attractive to men. This now feels like a colossal waste of time in an era where women are showcasing their talents and are taking responsibility for their own economic stability. Caring for of our bodies and looks is important, but it can border on obsessive. Personally, I can easily ignore an odd face or a dad bod if the man in question is interesting and fun to be with. The best men are the ones who feel the same way about me because I’ve put effort into cultivating my interests not just my hair style. At least that’s what I keep telling myself now that my bum is really starting to sag.

Part of this ‘work of fascination’ is also something called Relationship Capitalization, a term I came across a few years ago. Capitalization is the concerted effort, and resultant joy, of having a partner who responds to you with interest and enthusiasm, especially when sharing positive events. Capitalization is at risk in long-term love and familiarity. We nitpick, find faults, and lose the ability to admire our partners. And though I’ve stood by the belief that good love is primarily the result of successfully navigating our shitty experiences as a couple, capitalization, according to this study, is more strongly associated with relationship well-being and stability.

“This finding suggests that how couple members support each other during the good times may be even more important than how they behave during the bad times. Capitalization may boost relationship quality as a function of causing partners to feel understood and cared about — after all, responding positively to a partner’s good news sends the message that his or her feelings and accomplishments are valued.”

A beautiful example of a woman who transformed what she thought was a doomed marriage into a thriving one was also published in Medium by Lydia Sohn. She stopped focusing on her frustrations with her husband to recognizing his gifts. She began to notice the ways he supported her daily and appreciate his good qualities, instead of being critical of the not-so-good.

Between fascination and capitalization, I’m becoming more aware of the things I desire in my next relationship. I’m not holding out for another man who will grow my food and cook it, too. (Though bonus points if you do!) It will be with a man whose story I want to become engaged with; who will surprise me, even if there are a few tears along the way. And my plot line will be equally riveting to him. I am the tale he won’t want to stop reading (and the tail he won’t want to stop fondling). But with or without this relationship currently, every day I’ll add a few new lines to my own ordinary and uniquely fascinating narrative.

Love, Karin

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