There are more than 7 billion people in the world, and then you insanely fall in love with one single person. It seems like a miracle.
Several theories exist why that happens, and knowing them might give you a good idea of what are all the factors that have an influence on the attraction spark.
In general, we divide “why people fall in love” theories into (1) psychodynamic theories, and (2) selection process or filtering theories.
- Psychodynamic theories focus on the influence of childhood on mate selection.
- Process theories are, on the other hand, focused on filtering out potential mates who are not suitable since they don’t fit certain selection criteria, and then in the second step choosing the one that is the best fit.
If we divide these two approaches even further, there are many different biological, sociological, psychological, and cultural factors that influence mate selection. Based on that, several different theories have evolved.
Let’s dive now into the most popular theories to get the big picture of what are all the potential factors that have an influence on whether a person will fall in love with you or not. Knowing all these factors hopefully means that you can improve your odds by being more attractive.
Sociobiological theory (or evolutionary psychology)
Sociobiological theory is focused exclusively on offspring. In this regard, men seek young, healthy and attractive women, who will produce healthy children and take care of them (all that implies fertility). They also look for sexually conservative women, to mitigate the risk of raising another man’s offspring.
Women, on the other hand, look for healthy strong men who will protect her and the child, and ambitious men with high social and economic status (all that implies a good provider). The social and economic status represent the capacity of a man to invest resources in a child.
In summary, sociobiology says that men are attracted to younger beautiful women (symetrical face, broad hips, youthful features etc.) and women are attracted to men with money, status and masculine looks (broad shoulders, strong jaw, deep voice).
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Theory of identification, parental image and ideal mate
Identification was first discussed by Sigmund Freud in his early writings. Identification is a psychological process where you unconsciously assimilate an aspect of another person. In simpler words, you want to become more like someone you like and admire.
In youth during the process of identification a child unconsciously adopts the characteristics of their parents. The important fact here is that identification is a form of emotional attachment.
Emotional attachment in the process of identification means that your parents are not only your role models for personality development, they also have a great influence who you will fall in love with later in life.
Namely, with emotional attachment, your parents present your first love object. The relationship you have with your first love object (usually mother), lays the foundations for your capacity for love and affection with other people in the adult age. The first love object also reflects to you how worthy of love you are.
Now we know two important categories – identification as a form of emotional attachment and first love object as a blueprint for our later intimate relationships. In the theory of identification, all that presents the basis of the kind of people you fall in love with, and there are two options:
- Narcissistic identification: You fall in love with someone who is like you or how you were in the past. It can also be someone who has a characteristic you always longed for but never had.
- Attachment identification: You fall in love with someone who reminds you of a person you loved and admired, usually your caretakers (mother or father).
The Ideal Mate and Cold Reality
The Ideal Mate Theory is very similar to Parental Image Theory. It states that you have an unconscious image of an ideal mate based on the childhood experience.
The ideal mate image leads you to fall in love with someone because they respond quickly and totally to your set of needs. All these unconscious images (first love object, narcissistic, the ideal mate) also support love at first sight.
And now comes the painful love trick. You don’t fall in love with the actual person, but the image you have about that person and the image of how the person can make you feel good about yourself.
But when you encounter the real other and your illusions burst like a bubble, you can become pretty disappointed and hurt. The grater the gap, the stronger the pain.
Maybe you can’t choose with whom you fall in love, but you can definitely choose with whom you ought to stay.
Theory of complimentary needs – opposites attract
The theory of complimentary needs was developed by Robert Winch, and it suggests that people choose types of relationships in which their needs can be mutually satisfied.
In practical terms, that means you choose a partner whose needs are opposite and thus complimentary to yours. You assume that will lead to your maximum need gratification, because the other person can fill the need gap you have.
In practice, that means you fall in love with a person who has the opposite values from you. Examples are when a dominant person finds a submissive person and a nurturing person finds somebody who likes to be nurtured.
Homogamy and common social values – similarity attracts
The homogamy theory states that you tend to be attracted to people who have similar life circumstances as you have – age, race, religion, social class, education, values and other factors (including simliar looks). The more you have in common, the more attracted you are to a person.
Research also shows that couples who have more in common report higher satisfaction and the relationship lasts longer. There are lower divorce rates between couples who are together for several years before getting married and who share many similarities. Maybe opposites attract, but similarities keep people together.
Theory of Filters
The Theory of Filters says that you choose a partner based on several different types of filters that help you eliminate partners with low potential of a successful partnership. Filters that are used in the elimination process are:
- Biological filters: Gender, relatives (you exclude them automatically), age, physical features (usually you look for features similar to yours).
- Sociological filters: Social class, income level, race, religion etc. You thrive to find somebody with similar education, intelligence and status. Interestingly, religion is one of the most important filters.
- Psychological filters: A set of conscious and unconscious needs that you have, especially based on your childhood experience. You tend to fall in love with somebody who is similar to your opposite sex parent (Freud’s theory, as we discussed).
Other common types of filters are:
- Proximity: Geographical factors, social context and lifestyle that enables two people to spend time together and get to know each other.
- Marital status: Single people tend to get together with other single people, divorced with divorced, widowed with widowed, and so on.
- Mental health: People who have personality disorders tend to get together with people who have the same disorders.
Social Exchange Theory
In the Social Exchange Theory, you maintain and search for those kind of relationships in life where rewards exceed the costs, and intimate relationships are no exception to that. This theory suggests that social behavior is opportunistic, purposive and goal-oriented.
We could say that choosing a mate is a trade. You look for a mate who offers the greatest reward at the lowest cost. Only money and goods are replaced (or extended) by different benefits like financial stability, social status, positive personality traits, looks and other signs of power.
- Rewards: Behaviors and resources that drive you to staying in a relationship (money, wealth, sweet words, warm feelings, positive personality traits etc.)
- Costs: Unpleasant aspects of a relationship.
- Rewards > Costs: The relationship can last, if there is no significantly better option (minding the transaction costs of breaking up a relationship and entering a new one).
- Costs > Reward: You start looking for someone with better profit margin.
- Control: The person who has the least interest in continuing the relationship controls the relationship.
The Role Theory in social psychology states that every person acts based on socially defined categories. These categories are a set of expectations, norms, behaviors, rights and duties a person must meet and fulfill. That means a person’s behavior is always contextual depending on the role and can thus be quite predictable.
Examples of roles are boyfriend, husband, teacher, mother, father etc. In life, you have to face many different roles and you have a set of expectations about what kind of a role other people should play in your life.
When it comes to intimate relationships, every person has expectations about what kind of a role their partner should play (as a boyfriend, husband, wife etc.). If the role expectations are met, then a relationship is formed.
When expectations aren’t met, it leads to interpersonal conflicts (and potentially to breakups). And if two of the roles are in internal conflict (mother, manager), it comes to an intrapersonal role conflict.
The Wheel Theory of Love
The Reiss's Wheel Theory of Love says that two potential mates must go through four stages of a relationship for an intimate bond to develop. That means in this theory, a love relationship develops over time and only when one stage is met can the couple move to the next stage.
The four stages are:
- Rapport: The two individuals must relate to each other and feel relaxed in each other’s company. In this stage, cultural and social variables are important.
- Self-revelation: Revelation of personal feelings, where background of values and beliefs is extremely important and there must be a match.
- Mutual Dependence: They become more dependent on each other, share the intimate aspects of life, and consequently develop reliance in a relationship. There must be mutual benefits.
- Intimacy: There must be a fulfillment of each other’s personal needs to a great extent.
Sequential Theory and SVR filtering
Sequential theory, as the last one mentioned, combines other theories in different stages of spouse selection from all the different aspects we’ve talked about. An example of sequential theory is SVR filtering, where SVR stands for stimulus-value-role. These are the three stages of spouse selection with three different sets of selection criteria.
The stimulus stage is about a person possessing the qualities that you find attractive, like physical attributes, social status, tone of voice etc. The second stage is the value comparison stage.
You compare your values with the other person with verbal interaction, and the relationship only develops further if there is value consensus. The last phase is seeking role consensus in a relationship for both individuals.
Types of love and the attachment theory
Now that we know all the different theories of choosing a partner and why people fall in love, let’s look at three more important elements of love – types of love, types of attachment, and undesirable characteristics when it comes to love.
Color Wheel Theory of Love
The essence of every intimate relationship is love. There are six styles of love according to John Lee, presented on the Color Wheel Theory of Love (not to be confused with The wheel theory of love mentioned before):
- Eros – love of physical beauty, that is erotic and sensual love, based on touch
- Mania – intense obsessive romantic love involving anxiety and sleepless nights
- Ludus – playful love, where love is a game and not a serious thing
- Agape – altruistic love with the desire to help others
- Storge – love between two companions that slowly develops
- Pragma – practical love, purely based on logic and benefits
The Triangular Theory of Love
The next important concept to know is The Triangular Theory of Love, which states that there are three important components of intimate love.
The first one is (1) passion, which deals with romance and sexual attraction, then we have (2) intimacy, which represents the bonding of two people, and the last one is (3) commitment, which is a firm decision from both sides that they want to stay in a relationship.
- Liking = Intimacy
- Companionate = Intimacy + Commitment
- Empty love = Commitment
- Fatuous love = Passion + Commitment
- Infatuation = Passion
- Romantic love = Passion + Intimacy
- Consummate love = Passion + Intimacy + Commitment
The attachment theory
The last important concept to know regarding love is the so-called attachment theory. In the attachment theory, all important relationships in your life are forms of attachments. The styles of attachment are formed in childhood and then carried into adulthood.
There are four types of attachment:
- Secured attachment: In secured attachment, a child is confident about a caretaker’s (usually mother’s) love and protection. In adulthood, the person has no problem forming relationships; they feel that people like them and they aren’t afraid of being abandoned. Their love lives are balanced and they have realistic expectations in relationships with the center on themselves.
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment: In the anxious attachment, a child doesn’t feel confident and secure about a caretaker’s love when they are not present. In adulthood, the person wants to merge with the other person, is extremely jealous, insecure and suffers from obsessive love. These people become preoccupied in relationships.
- Anxious-avoidant attachment: In the avoidant attachment style, a child senses their caretaker’s rejection or some form of emotional detachment, and consequently avoids the caretaker and creates distance in a relationship. In adulthood, these people get scared when other people get too close to them. They assume that romantic love never lasts and have problems forming deep intimate relationships. They become fearful, avoidant personalities.
- Disorganized attachment: When a caretaker is abusive to a child and acts emotionally or physically cruel, disorganized attachment forms. The person becomes confused. These children usually dissociate from themselves. In the adult years, they see the world as an unsafe place and have poor social and emotional regulation skills.
Now that we know all different types of love and attachment, let’s look at love and relationship forming through one more dimension –undesirable personality characteristics and all the characteristics that decrease the probability of somebody falling in love with you.
Undesirable Personality Characteristics
There are many personality factors (inherited, acquired, or even developed) that increase your attraction (or sexual market value) as we have seen and thus your probability to be chosen as a mate,…
…and then there are several personality characteristics (you can influence many of them) that indicate lower attractiveness and even a higher probability of divorce later in relationships.
Undesirable personality characteristics in relationships are:
- Low agreeableness: A partner who always finds something to argue about.
- Poor impulse control: People who have anger issues and are prone to aggression and violence.
- Hypersensitivity: Hypersensitivity happens when you are easily hurt or when emotional reactions are out of proportion in everyday situations. Hypersensitivity usually also leads to a lack of communication and to isolation from the partner. In other words, a person gets easily offended about small things and magnifies them.
- Inflated ego: Loss of respect in a relationship for the other person. Consequently, one person dictates the rules and outcomes. Everything must be the way one person says.
- Neuroticism and anxiety: Neuroticism and anxiety are based on an unrealistic desire for perfection in relationships and constant worry that something could go wrong.
- Insecurities and desire to control other people: Insecure spouses tend to be jealous and overcontrolling; similarly, people who are controlled by others (family members, exes) are more prone to divorce and bad relationship habits.
- Narcissism: Partners who are only focused on what they will get out of a relationship and don’t invest anything themselves. Narcissists are people who only take and blame all other people for their problems.
- Substance abuse: Any kind of substance abuse (alcohol, drugs) usually leads to severe problems in relationships.
Below is a really nice table that clearly represents problematic personality traits and characteristics when it comes to choosing an intimate partner:
|Type||Characteristics||Impact on you|
|Paranoid||Suspicious, distrustful, defensive, thin‑skinned||You are accused of everything|
|Schizoid||Cold, aloof, solitary, reclusive||Not capable of returning love|
|Borderline||Moody, unstable, volatile, unreliable, suicidal, impulsive||You never know when the dark personality comes out|
|Antisocial||Deceptive, untrustworthy, no conscience, remorseless||Cheating, lying, stealing without feeling any guilt|
|Narcissistic||Egoistical, demanding, greedy, selfish||They only take|
|Dependent||Helpless, weak, clingy, insecure||Jealousy, demand for full‑time attention|
|Obsessive-compulsive||Rigid, inflexible||Rigid ideas of how you should think and behave|
Source: Choices in Relationships, David Knox
The main takeaways – why people fall in love and what you can do about it?
All the theories can definitely help you a lot in forming better and deeper relationships and to better understand yourself and your feelings. To summarize, there are a few main takeaways to remember and implement in everyday life:
- The big seven power signs are – beauty, being fit, money, fame, rare titles, status and intriguing personality. Develop these characteristics as much as possible to increase your sexual market value. These selection criteria are written in our genes and consequently attraction isn't a choice but an unconscious response. Fitness and fashion are the two fastest ways to increase your attractiveness.
- Analyze the relationship with your parent of the opposite sex. What you liked and hated about them, how they influenced your image of the ideal mate (how your current spouse is and exes were different or alike). Make a persona of your ideal mate to become aware of as many factors of the image as possible.
- Analyze what kind of similarities and opposites attract you in a potential spouse. In which regards are you looking for an opposite polarity (dominant-submissive, rich-poor, nurturant-nurtured, ambitious-non ambitious etc.) and which similarities are important to you (age, religion, status …).
- Think of your filters and how they work – what are the deal breakers for you in a relationship. List them! They can be psychological, biological or social criteria.
- Analyze what kind of benefits you are looking for in a relationship and what kind of things present costs to you. Don’t be naïve and think that love is not also a form of trade. Also think of what you have to offer in a relationship and where you are causing costs with destructive behavior. What is the best way for you to increase your profit margin?
- Analyze what are your expectations about roles of the opposite sex when you interact in personal relationships. For a male/female partner, think about how he should be or behave as a lover, friend, partner, father/mother and in all other roles that are present in your life.
- Define what kind of attachment is your primary one and whether you have any undesirable personality characteristics that you can improve with personal development to become more attractive.