Skip to main content

I’ll never forget that feeling I got when I met my husband, Joe. I couldn’t—and still can’t—really explain it, except that after spending an hour talking with him at a crowded party, it just felt right. In an instant I knew I was attracted to him, and minutes after that I was sure I wanted to have a relationship with him (or at least a date).

Scientists have examined this kind of innate sense of attraction for years, pointing to similarities in mate selection across species—like symmetrical features, large appendages, and female pheromones. But new research has uncovered a clue to the mystery of attraction that is uniquely human: empathy.

According to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, Silke Anders of the University of Lübeck and his colleagues in Germany hooked forty-three men up to a brain scanner while looking at pictures of the faces of six different women. First, the scientists asked their subjects, “How much would you like to meet this woman in real life?” and then they told them to enlarge the image of each women to the size he could imagine conversing with her. More enlargement, according to the research, suggested stronger attraction.

Second, the researchers showed the men videos of each woman expressing sadness or fear. Here's where it gets really interesting. The researchers asked the men to describe the women’s emotional state and say how confident they were in their assessment. After that, the researchers asked them how attractive they found each woman. The men who felt they had accurately assessed a woman’s emotions experienced big jumps in their level of attraction. Not only that, those men who experienced the biggest jump in attraction to a particular woman after this exercise also reported experiencing the strongest rise in their feeling that she would understand them and that they could discuss personal problems with her. This was based purely on their feeling of confidence in interpreting the woman’s facial expressions.

What the scientists are observing here in this first stage of attraction is the feeling of empathy or the capacity to identify and share someone else’s emotions and experiences; something that marriage expert Dr. John Gottman has known to be essential to the success of a relationship for a long time. Dr. Gottman cites empathy as the key to emotional intimacy with your partner and describes it as “mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know that their feelings are understood and shared.”

It seems the same thing that attracts us to our partners in the first place is the same thing that keeps us in love.

Staying attracted to your partner is as simple as continuing to learn about him, so that you understand him. Dr. Gottman calls this process “Building a Love Map” of your partner. Building a Love Map requires you to continuously ask questions about your partner’s desires, dreams, likes, dislikes, memories, and goals. Understanding your partner, not just in a certain moment but as a whole person, is essential to lasting intimacy and attraction.

This new discovery not only supports Dr. Gottman’s finding about what makes a happy marriage, but also underlines the importance of empathetic listening when meeting new people. Sure, if you're hoping to attract the guy across the room, maybe your “ahem” appendages and winning smile is what gets him to zoom in on you, so to speak. But the thing that creates the most powerful attraction? A feeling of being understood.

With that in mind, when you are on a date or talking with a cute guy at a party, be sure to listen to him using these rules of empathetic listening:

  • Listen carefully. This means putting your own thoughts on hold and giving the person speaking your undivided attention.
  • Avoid making judgments. This can come later, but for now you want to do your best to experience what the person talking is experiencing. If you are someone who has a lot of opinions, the best strategy here is to acknowledge it mentally and then put it to the side to be addressed later.
  • Don’t share your perspective. Don’t say anything from your point of view while you are in the role of empathizer. This means using declarative sentences instead of questions. For example, “That must have made you feel really disappointed.”
  • Remember that you don’t have to agree. Empathy is a tool for connection, but it does not mean you have to agree. So don’t heap on the added pressure of feeling like you have to agree with everything the other person is saying.

The goal here is to make the guy you're talking to feel understood and accepted and foster a sense of intimacy. This skill will not only get you a date but also help you build intimacy in a long-term relationship.

Photo Credit: Vine and Light Photography