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Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad

What do we see in some people and not in others? More importantly, why can’t everyone see how great we are and fall for us right this minute?

The following is an excerpt from Crazy Little Thing:Why Love and Sex Drive Us Madby Liz Langley (Viva Editions, 2011).

My friend Sam and I are going for a walk. A former Broadway dancer, Sam at 51 still has a body that a 20-year-old would envy: lean, tan and blond, with eyes the color of newly minted dollar bills. While we walk, I pitch him the idea of making a little road trip.

“Where are we going?” he asks.

“We’re going to Gibsonton,” I say. Gibsonton, sometimes called Gibtown, is a little place outside Tampa where the people who work the carnival circuit come to stay for the winter. They used to call it “Freaktown,” because people like the World’s Tallest Man and the Lobster Boy and the Human Blockhead used to live there. “We’re going to hear the story of what happened when the Alligator-Skinned Man wanted to marry the Monkey Girl,” I tell him.

“That makes me feel like something’s wrong with me,” Sam says with a tinge of sadness. “The Alligator-Skinned Man can find somebody, but I can’t get somebody to text me back? Is there something the matter with us?”

We’re both having confounding times with our respective romances this week, so it probably feels that way. It often feels like something’s the matter with you when your love life is a bitch and you hear about someone else who's having a peachy time. It’s the feeling of indignant disbelief in the Joe Jackson song: “Is she really going out with him?/Cuz if my eyes don’t deceive me there’s something going wrong around here.”

Confess: how often have you heard someone gushing about their fabulous love life, when yours wasn’t going so well? How can the Alligator-Skinned Man and the Monkey Girl find romantic bliss while many others don’t? What do we see in some people and not in others? More importantly, why can’t everyone see how great we are and fall for us passionately right this minute?

To get some advice about what draws one person to another, I’ve enlisted the help of Sheri Winston, who isn’t just a genius, she’s a vagenius. A sex educator and author of Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure, Winston is a former nurse-practitioner, and she is good at knowing what makes people happy, body and soul. We’ve talked about attraction before and it’s a subject she clearly enjoys, so I asked her to name a few of the reasons for attraction that go beyond perfectly aligned eyes.

“I don’t think it’s random,” she says. “Our attractions tend to be very specific, and while everyone might have an ideal physical type, it’s not just about ‘I like tall men with dark hair.’ There’s way more to it. I guess it’s a holistic perspective, but there are multiple lenses through which we can look at it.”

One way, Winston says, is the Dr. Harville Hendrix way. Hendrix’s 1988 book Getting the Love You Want is a classic of the relationship advice genre. His theory is that people have an unconscious template he calls the Imago. Winston says we’re attracted to people who fulfill the Imago, which is formed of many things, one of them being the qualities of our primary caregivers -- “more commonly the negative ones, depending on how much work we’ve done on ourselves.”

Sheri Winston refers to the Hendrix model as “the flavor of love" model. She says, “This is my take on it. When we’re an infant, whatever flavor love comes to us as, that’s the flavor we think love is. If love feels cold and critical to us as an infant, we feel loved when someone is cold and critical to us as an adult, even though we hate it and we’re miserable and we’re so mad because they’re cold and critical!” She laughs. On a very deep level, she says, our environment in the first two years of life “is what the milieu of love feels like to us, so we get attracted to that.”

There’s two sides to the Imago coin: we initially don’t see that unconscious attraction. “We see how great the person is and what a fine, incisive mind they have—we see all the good stuff—but then, when the glamor and the in-loveness wears off, we go, wow, this person is really critical and judgmental! I might be attracted to somebody who is really easygoing and then realize, gosh, they have no ambition, right? And then realize, wow, that’s kind of just like my father!”

Another Hendrixism Winston notes is that “any part of ourselves we’ve lost or disowned or are really ashamed of, that we really keep in the shadow” can also be something that attracts us. “There’s the part we’ve completely disowned and we’ve vowed, I am never going to be like that. So, take the critical mother, for example. We hated being criticized and we vowed, I will never be like that, but we really are—not only are we critical of other people but we’re critical and judgmental of ourselves. And so we’re often attracted to someone who holds those qualities.” The more work we do on ourselves, she says, “the more we are attracted to people who hold the positive of the love that we got, the positive qualities of our caregivers and our families.”

By "work on ourselves" Winston means becoming aware of the traits that are causing difficulty in our relationships and doing something to address them. In other words, not masking the problem with another girls night out or expensive purchase. 

Another possible root of attraction has to do with yin/yang energy. We all have polarities within us; one way to consider them is through the Taoist framework of yin and yang, light and dark, feminine and masculine.

“Everyone’s got both polarities,” Winston says, but in most people one predominates. “For most women, in our erotic relationships we tend to be attracted to people who hold the opposite polarity; most women are core yin—except the ones who are not.”

In same-sex relationships, one partner is likely to have more yin and the other more yang energy, thus their ability to complement each other. If you look at the yin/yang symbol, Winston says, you also see that within each type of energy is the seed of the other; everything contains its opposite. This can be seen in the Hendrix model, where a relaxed attitude can betoken laziness, and a sharp mind can quickly turn critical. Every trait is a sword that cuts both ways.

“Let’s say I’m a woman and I’m core yin -- and I am,” Winston says. “In order to function in the world, especially the world of work, I have to manifest a lot of yang energy: yang initiates and focuses, it has a goal, it gets things done. I have to do a lot of that if I’m going to be successful.”

This develops the yang energy but ignores the core yin, which is the greater part of her, so when she’s done with the competitive grind of the workplace, she says, “I don’t know how to take off the yang hat. I don’t know how to receive very well. I want to be in control, active, doing. So, who am I going to be attracted to?—I’m going to be attracted to someone who’s core yang but who hasn’t strengthened their yang energy. It’s like a compensation. So if I’m a really ball-busting woman I might be attracted to a really wimpy guy. Rather than engaging in a healthy relationship, I’m attracted to someone whose weakness fits my weakness.”

This way, she can be the dominant one at home and at work and she never has to develop a balance. “This is where we get terms like ball-buster and pussy-whipped,” she says.

“These sensitive New Age guys have developed their complementary yin energy. They’re really good listeners and nurturers, but they don’t have that yang fire and they never get laid and they don’t know why. Everybody wants to be their friend but nobody wants to fuck ’em! What do we say to them? We say, ‘You’re too nice!’ And they say, ‘But you...you...you wanted nice! Don’t you want nice?’ Yes, we want nice but we still want strength, we want fire.

"So there’s a lot of unhappy people out there because they don’t understand their own wiring: where they’re strong, where they’re weak, what they need to work on. So we get attracted to someone whose dysfunction works with our dysfunction. If I have a really weak, wimpy partner, I don’t need to work on my yin—I don’t need to learn how to put my yang down, I can just keep being a ball-busting bitch at work and at home. And then I get pissed off at my husband because he’s a wimp and he won’t stand up to me. This is what I mean by compensation—we get attracted to people who can compensate for those areas where we’re not healthy and developed. The more developed and balanced we are, the more we are going to be attracted to other healthy, well-balanced, well-developed people.”

So is this the truth behind the old saw “opposites attract”?

“It’s superficially true,” Winston says, but it doesn’t go very deep, which is why the yin/yang model is so good. “By having this more complex understanding it helps us see where we want to go, where we need to go, and where we can go.”

What happens if we don’t look at it and work on it? “We’re going to keep being attracted to the same dynamic and we won’t even think it’s the same,” she says. “We’ll think, oh, this one is so much better than the last one! And then six months or a year later, we’ll realize that fundamentally, underneath, the dynamic is the same.” When you keep ending up in the same dysfunctional pattern, “you know you’ve got some work to do.”

I tell Winston about my own ricochet pattern: I go from sweet, stable guys who make me feel claustrophobic to less-sweet-and-stable guys with whom I feel free but eventually empty.

“And that’s a common thing,” she says, “where we ricochet between two extremes: somebody who feels really safe, who feels like a sibling, and somebody we have a lot more polarity with but later realize there’s too much and it’s not good.

“We struggle with autonomy versus intimacy—this is part of the game, too. Right? I want to but I don’t want to. I want to be free but I want to be loved. I want fire and spark—but not too much.”

She laughs that Sheri Winston laugh. See how good it is to talk to a therapist?

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.