You don’t have to be a relationship expert to know that intimacy is one of the cornerstones of a successful long-term partnership. Couple members who make a sincere attempt to understand and validate each other typically stay together longer than those who are less responsive and supportive. However, what role does intimacy play in initial attraction? According to psychologist Dr. Gurit Birnbaum, “people often say that they are looking for a lover who is ‘responsive to their needs.’” But is it really the case that we find highly responsive and caring people to be more sexually desirable? A new set of studies led by Birnbaum and collaborator Dr. Harry Reis suggests that emotional intimacy and responsiveness are not always desirable in a prospective partner and, in some cases, can actually be a turn off.
In two experiments, heterosexual male and female participants were asked to disclose a personal concern to an individual of the other sex they had never met before. After disclosing this information, the participant was provided with feedback from the other person that was either responsive (i.e., empathetic and understanding) or unresponsive (i.e., failing to express concern or validation). After engaging in this discussion, participants completed a questionnaire in which they rated the sexual desirability of the person who provided the feedback.
Both experiments found that there was an overall trend for responsive partners to be perceived as more sexually desirable than unresponsive partners. However, this effect was qualified by two factors: avoidant attachment and gender. Participants who scored high on attachment avoidance found responsive partners to be less sexually desirable than did participants who were low in avoidance. This makes sense because people who are avoidantly attached approach relationships with the goal of maintaining distance and minimizing closeness with others. As a result, such persons often try to keep sex separate from intimacy (e.g., by engaging in more one-night stands). For an avoidantly attached person, responsiveness is therefore not a valued characteristic in a partner and, in fact, might actually be seen as threatening to them.
How did gender factor into the equation? The researchers found that responsive partners were perceived as more sexually desirable by men than they were by women. It is not exactly clear why, but the authors believe it has something to do with how men and women interpret responsiveness in someone they have just met. The argument for men is that they view female responsiveness as suggestive of sexual interest (i.e., when a man meets a woman who is very caring and supportive, he may perceive this as a sign that she wants to sleep together, even when there isn’t any sexual intent behind it on her part). The argument for women is quite different. As explained by Dr. Birnbaum in a recent e-mail conversation, when meeting a responsive stranger, “[women] may perceive this person as inappropriately nice and manipulative or as eager to please, and perhaps even as desperate, and therefore as less sexually appealing. Alternatively, women may perceive a responsive man as vulnerable and less dominant.” Thus, although nice guys tend to finish first in the long run, they may not do quite as well during initial encounters for a variety of reasons.
Although we cannot say with certainty what was driving these effects or how these perceptions might change over the course of a longer interaction, these studies provide important evidence that while intimacy is valued in an ongoing relationship, it is not always valued during a first meeting. To summarize these findings in the words of Dr. Birnbaum, “whether a responsive potential partner will be sexually desirable or not depends on the interpretation of responsiveness in the context of initial encounters and on the nature of a person’s interpersonal goals.”
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To read more about this research, see: Birnbaum, G. E., & Reis, H. T. (in press). When does responsiveness pique sexual interest? Attachment and sexual desire in initial acquaintanceships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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