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The Place of Personality in the Growth of Sexual Love

( Originally Published 1957 )

It is very commonly supposed that mental qualities as well as physical appeals may arouse the amorous emotion. That "personality" may have an important role in sexual attraction appears to be generally agreed. "Personal appearance," wrote Westermarck, the historian of human marriage, "may stimulate the sexual instinct not only on account of its physical beauty but as an expression of mental qualities." Binet believed that mental as well as physical traits were factors in attraction and that both might be "fetishes." Finck regarded personal beauty as in large part an expression of intelligence, and queried whether anyone could fall in love with an imbecile, whatever other appeals it might have. McDougall held that "aesthetic appreciation" of admirable character and conduct may contribute importantly to the sentiment of love. (35) The attraction of "character" probably enters universally into the standards of human sexual selection. "Everywhere we see the power of beauty of form, colour, voice, expression and grace of movement; everywhere also the charms and merits of character dominate in our judgments." Thomas Reid, long ago, wrote that "all the ingredients of human beauty . . . either express some perfection of the body . . . or some amiable quality or attribute of the mind itself."

More recently Stekel has stated: "I emphasize specifically the psychic, or spiritual, because I want to make clear that fascinations may be based either on physical or psychic determinants." (52) Spranger thinks that when love comes from personal beauty, it is in beauty as an expression of the "form of the spirit" rather than as sheer physical charm that its power lies. (51) The point has been stressed by writers on marriage, and has been acknowledged in more than one investigation of current standards into what young people seek in a mate. Several hundred college students, for example, rated "disposition and personality" as of much greater importance than aesthetic appeal in the choice of marriage partners. These traits were, in fact, ranked at the top of the scale of desirable characteristics. Such standards will play an important role, Professor Baber thinks, "though not always a determining one," in the choice of mates. (2) Elsewhere he has stated: "Beauty is such an elusive, indefinable attribute that it need not wholly depend upon regularity of features and conformity to an accepted type but is determined partly by the reflection of personality through face and body, revealing such factors as animation, kindness, courage, and grace of movement." (3) Many similar views have been expressed.

No one is likely to question that such qualities as these, and many others which in our society are generally approved and valued in either sex, will add much to the appeal of sexually and aesthetically attractive persons. It is also easy to see why the extremely close blending of the outward expression of desirable character traits with aesthetically stimulating features should lead to the belief that such traits may themselves be a stimulus to sexual love. It has been assumed, for example, that merits of character, being a kind of "moral beauty" may, equally with aesthetic appeals, contribute directly to the arousal of amorous feeling.

Despite all this there have been those who have seriously doubted that these traits are an essential of sexual love. Schopenhauer, for example, who certainly gave much thought to the matter, denied with vigor that qualities of character are crucial to attraction. The influence of such factors, he believed, ". . . is easily outweighted by that of physical beauty, which acts directly . . . Observe that here we are speaking throughout only of that entirely immediate instinctive attraction from which alone love properly so called grows. That a woman of culture and understanding prizes understanding and intellect in a man, that a man from rational reflection should test and have regard to the character of his bride, has nothing to do with the matter with which we are dealing here. Such things lie at the bottom of a rational choice in marriage, but not of the passionate love, which is our theme."

That there is a kind of love, or "affection," whose growth is inspired by admired or desirable behavior traits need not be debated. Such statements as "What won me, in her, was her even disposition, and her cheerfulness," or "My love for him began when I perceived his high sense of honor," may be accurate comments on an important feature of the growth of attachments. Yet an attraction whose source is a trait that is fairly certainly not restricted to either sex is clearly not of the kind with which our study is concerned. We like amiable, generous, sincere, and honorable people whether male or female. There are many traits that make men and women attractive to each other simply as human beings. We can regard an attraction as sexual, or "amorous," only when it is aroused by features of physique and personality in which they differ from each other as sexes.

Finck's remark about the impossibility of amorous attraction to a person of markedly low mentality ("Who has ever heard of a beautiful idiot . . . ?") reflects an important truth. He might, however, have enlarged the comment to include other defects, such as vulgarity, or selfishness, or emotional coldness. Yet it seems as safe to say that men do lose their hearts from time to time to women of dull mentality as to say that they lose them to women who are selfish, or vulgar, or emotionally cold a fact of important bearing, surely, on the felicity of human matings. How are we to explain such apparent contradictions, or explain those painful conflicts in which even repellent qualities may fail to overcome the power of a fixation?

Between the first attraction and the matured strength of the sexual emotion lies the process of amorous growth. During this process the "socially approved" traits, while not essential to the growth process, do provide a setting favorable to it. The effect of unfavorable traits will depend crucially upon the phase of the relationship in which they appear. During the beginnings of an attraction, when amorous feeling is weak, we should expect it to be overcome by sufficiently unfavorable traits. This is illustrated by the familiar experience of a fairly immediate loss of interest in an initially attractive person with the discovery of unpleasant qualities. If all the traits that finally destroy a love affair were in evidence at its outset, it is likely that many would never begin. Yet the same traits, emerging after emotional fixation has become strong, may fail for a long while to do more than create conflict.

If Finck's beautiful but dull lady's dullness is apparent on brief acquaintance, we may agree that little amorous feeling is likely to develop. If, on the other hand, it somehow remains in the background until the effects of attractive features have matured, we should expect its influence to be much less marked. Obviously the "visibility" of unattractive behavior will be a factor. Mental dullness, for example, should be fairly readily apparent, unlike other comparable defects which, more or less hidden by the careful self-editing common to the courtship period, come to light more gradually.

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