When attraction is irrelevant (and other dating truths)

Recently, I received a call from my good friend Americo, who I’ve known since I was 11. First he was my brother’s youth minister. Then mine. And by the way he is brilliant.

That day, I had emailed Americo a dating question: How do we know that our standards are solid and not a sign that were hesitant to make the act of faith that marriage requires? It’s the “how far is too far” question, standards edition. An effort to reconcile having standards and faith, without using one to negate the other.

He replied. Then he called. When Americo calls (regardless of his claim not to be an expert) you take notes.

What I read in them after actually gave me heart palpitations. This is gold. This is vital information we must know if we’re single. It’s what we have to tell our single friends if we’re not. Stuff I have to share with you:

We discussed the most important standard in dating.
“To what extent does one have standards and even prerequisites for their future spouse or potential candidate? That is a little tricky,” Americo said. “But all things in order.”

As in—there is an order. A hierarchy of standards, if you will. So what is the paramount standard?

I think I used to believe that the paramount standard was attraction. I thought that’s where you start—you pick from the pool of people to whom you’re attracted, and see which of them meets your standards. Americo proposed a different standard:

“I think the person has to bring out the best in you,” he said. “And you’ve got to be committed to bringing out the best in them.”

The paramount standard in a potential spouse is his or her commitment to your becoming a saint. That is where you start. You pick from the pool of people whose association with you makes you a better person, and see to which of them you are attracted. If somebody doesn’t bring out the best in you and doesn’t desire the best for you, then an attraction to him or her is irrelevant.

We discussed other standards in dating.
“Sometimes, if our list of check boxes is too extensive, we might jump to an assumption and make a decision prematurely,” Americo said.

If you rule out people who bring out the best in you because they physically aren’t your type, he said, “you might miss out on somebody beautiful because you don’t see them that way, at first.”

Then he said that Holy Spirit goggles are a thing, as opposed to beer goggles. He went on to propose that if we’re open to looking at people like God looks at people, then people who once were too tall, or too short, or too whatever else, suddenly can become beautiful.

He also concluded that whether somebody brings out the best in you makes a difference because how a person makes you feel about yourself can affect how you see him or her.

We also discussed why it’s important to focus on Jesus.
Our needs have to be fulfilled by Jesus (which implies that we have to be focusing on Him, seeking Him first). If we aren’t focusing on him, we are going to hunt elsewhere for other people to meet the needs that Christ is supposed to meet.

“And those people are going to let you down,” Americo said.

We have to find wholeness in Christ so we can give ourselves wholly to our spouses. We aren’t supposed to search for spouses because we are empty, but because we are filled by Jesus, and therefore have love to give.

After we ended the call, I read my notes. I texted excerpts to friends. One of them — seminarian Mark LaBelle—profoundly summed up what I discussed with Americo this way: “Attraction as path to pleasure vs. attraction as path to virtue.”

Imagine a world in which what propels us to act on attraction is the pursuit of virtue instead of the pursuit of pleasure. A world in which pleasure is the bonus, not the goal.

That gives me heart palpitations, too.

profile pic march 2015Arleen Spenceley is author of the book Chastity is For Lovers: Single, Happy, and (Still) a Virgin. She works as a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in counseling, both from the University of South Florida. She blogs at arleenspenceley.com. Connect with her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.


  1. I appreciate the part about focusing on Jesus 1st. I tend to cling to others for my emotional needs. That’s not fair or healthy on my part. I need to stay close to Jesus and Mary.

    By Renee | 6 years ago Reply
  2. Finding this article was totally an answer to my prayers. I’m convinced that we all need to have different standards. I just want to thank you for sharing your talks, they’re going to change a lot of hearts for the better. God Bless!

    By Matt Rabine | 6 years ago Reply
  3. Perfect.

    By Emily | 6 years ago Reply
  4. Its so easy to turn to others, particularly for intimacy when we are lonely or hurting. Turn to Jesus and friends for support, not a relationship. I was in a toxic relationship a couple of years ago, where I felt bad about me (because I was ill), and he felt bad about him because his previous girlfriend left without telling him she was leaving and he came home to an empty house one day. We were propping each other up because we were both hurting in our own ways and weren’t able to love ourselves. It’s only now, two years later, that I am learning to be more compassionate towards that entire situation.

    By Clare | 6 years ago Reply
  5. For those faith traditions which stress the sacramental nature of marriage, in which the ministers of the sacrament are the 2 spouses, you can boil it all down to this: my job is to do everything I can to get my spouse to heaven, and their job is to the same to me. The when kids enter the picture, my job is to do everything I can to get them to heaven as well. If we recognize these relationships are about saving souls, we’ll get focused right.

    By Chris | 6 years ago Reply
    • Thank you, I needed this 🙂

      By Helen | 6 years ago Reply
  6. Since when are yoga pants chaste?

    By Chris | 6 years ago Reply
  7. While I agree that attraction shouldn’t be the primary reason to date someone, I would still maintain that it’s still important. Ultimately, if I meet someone who has great virtue, but is not attractive to me in the slightest, they won’t be on my dating radar.

    Attraction is still important, although I will say that I have met people whom were not attractive to me initially, but after having had some really deep spiritual conversations with them, became much more attractive as a result.

    As I’ve heard it, you may not marry the person who you thought was “your type”, but they will ultimately become the only person you could ever imagine being with. 🙂

    By Dom | 6 years ago Reply
    • Why? What’s so important about Attraction? It’s fleeting. We all Grey, We all wrinkle, we all get sick, lose our strength and end up looking just like everyone else our age. So Why would I base the decision of my spirituality and potential ability to attain heaven on something so vain and short sighted?

      By Brokenhearted | 6 years ago Reply
      • I don’t think Dom was saying the decision to marry someone was based entirely on attraction, I think Dom was simply saying it was important. And I agree, I think it’s important. You can also become attracted to someone as you get to know them.

        By Liz | 6 years ago Reply
      • No, what you’re thinking of is the demand for hot. Personally if I’m going to spend 9 hours a week in the gym to stay fit, i think its reasonable for me to expect that someone else stay fit too.

        By dude | 6 years ago Reply
      • Arlene is saying – ask yourself these questions.
        1. Does he/she bring out the best in me?
        2. Am I attracted to him/her?
        God created us and he also created us to be attracted to someone for a reason. It isn’t a random, purposeless factor in our biology. Attractions are purposeful and it’s actually very important to be attracted to someone who you hope to marry. Because among other things attraction means that your DNA and the DNA of the person are compatible and you will make healthy babies who have a lesser chance of impaired immune systems and other health issues. Did you know that partners with similar DNA (like close cousins) have babies with tons of health issues? Throughout history this has been proven. There have been cases of royal families who wanted to keep their money and inheritance to themselves and caused their kids to marry their siblings and have babies. The generations became more and more disabled. Now I am not saying disabled people are not created with the same dignity as non disabled. I am saying that it seems God has purposefully created us to be attractes to certain people for the reason of having babies with optimal health. If you aren’t attracted to a person, your DNA may not be compatible. I believe whoever God has created and called to the vocation of marriage, He has CREATED a spouse specifically for them who will be to them at every level. Attraction is a good thing!

        By Michelle | 6 years ago Reply
    • I don’t think they were saying that attraction isn’t important, just that it shouldn’t be the primary focus, ya know?

      By Stella | 6 years ago Reply
  8. In all honesty, Physical attraction is not just overrated, it is really irrelevant and a non factor in marriage.

    *waits for the yelling to stop*

    Attraction is a chemical reaction to a given stimulus. It is the senses gathering stimuli from a person, food, place, whatever it may be and that is translated into electrcal impulses that are sent to our brains, which theb translate that into an opinion or thought of the stimulus in question. For example, if we see an ice cream shop on a hot day, our brains tell us to get ice cream. Hot Day + Cool Sugar = satisfy desire for taste and temperature. Or, if we open our fridge and are assaulted by a hideous smell, we can logically conclude that something has Gone by and we can search for it. In both examples, we are faced with a stimuli, our brains work out a response and we execute it.

    Marriage, and pretty much all matters of faith, doesn’t work that way. You can’t treat sexual union in marriage like an ice cream cone on a hot day. You can’t treat bad qualities in a soul mate like Removing rotting food from a fridge. Marriage is the pursuit of heaven, by way of laying down one’s life for our beloved. It’s Doing what is necessary for our Spouse and Children. How does superficial, sensory reaction have to do with this?

    You dont (or shouldn’t) have sex in marriage cause it feels good. You do it to Produce Children and Renew the vows from your wedding, ANY OTHER RESULT is purely incidental. You dont have to be “attractive” to produce Children and Renew your wedding vows. Nor do you have to be attracted to said spouse. If you are attractive, wonderful. Fantastic. Throw a parade. But it’s not a pre requisite. Ask any married Couple whose been married long enough, and they will tell you, on many occasions, they had sex purely out of duty and not out of desire or because they were attracted to do so at the given moment.

    Choosing a spouse is choosing that who can get you to heaven, who can raise your children to heaven and can put you first in this life in all matters.

    So even if you marry someone you’re not attracted to, if they love you with an agape love, if they give you children, if they sacrifice and give of themselves, even at the detriment of their pleasure or life, for love of you, is that not attractive by itself? Is that not, (forgive me for using this dirty word), sexy?

    By Brokenhearted | 6 years ago Reply
    • Hi, brokenhearted (I am sorry if you’re broken hearted. I will pray for you!) I just want to let you know about this passage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.”145 Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:

      The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation.

      By Michelle | 6 years ago Reply
      • That was CCC 2362

        By Michelle | 6 years ago Reply
    • Based on your comments (on here, and on Facebook, and on my blog) regarding this post and the clarifications to it that I wrote, I get the sense that you’re picking some things up that I haven’t put down. So here are a handful of additional clarifications:

      — I do not equate one person’s attraction to another as synonymous with or dependent on whether the person to whom he or she is attracted is “conventionally attractive” according to the standards of the culture that surrounds us.

      — I do not believe that attraction is always necessarily explicable, and I do not believe that it is ever simple. What draws one person to another is complex.

      — I do not believe that attraction is necessarily everlasting, which is why, as I wrote in my original attraction post, it cannot be the paramount standard for picking a spouse. I think attraction is necessary for starting a relationship but insufficient for maintaining it. There must be more to what keeps a couple committed.

      By Arleen Spenceley | 6 years ago Reply
  9. Regarding several above comments……you don’t get it to heaven through your spouse’s work or your own, but through Jesus alone. “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Titus 3:5-7

    By M&M | 6 years ago Reply
    • “You dont (or shouldn’t) have sex in marriage cause it feels good. You do it to Produce Children and Renew the vows from your wedding, ANY OTHER RESULT is purely incidental”

      I’m sorry but you are mistaken. Absolutely nothing is wrong with having sex without having the intention to only procreate. God made sex to bring a man and a woman together. The way you discuss the unimportance of attraction is as if marriage is just a contract between two friends.
      Sex is completely acceptable to have as long as you are open to life, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be only having it for the sole purpose of procreating and that’s it. I mean you could, but you can also agree God made is pleasurable for a reason.

      By TrueLady2 | 6 years ago Reply
      • Thank you for taking the very words out of my mouth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having sex for pleasure within marriage, as long as it isn’t to the exclusion of the possibility for life.

        By Kelsey | 6 years ago Reply
        • Yes, there is something egregiously wrong with having sex for pleasure. Because, whose pleasure is driving your intention to have coitus? Your spouse’s or your own? If it’s your spouse’s and if you place Christ and your Spouse first in the act, God Bless you. But, let’s face it, does any honest person every say to themselves, “I cant wait to make my spouse feel so amazing and thrilled!” It’s YOUR pleasure that drives you to do said act, which thus, makes the act selfish and prideful and, in a word, sinful.

          “The way you discuss the unimportance of attraction is as if marriage is just a contract between two friends.”

          No, never said it’s just a contract between friends. However, it’s also not a free for all or some sort of beauty pageant. It’s the engine that generates society, provides new human life and mirrors the love of God in the Trinity. Sex’ physical realities, as pleasant as they are, are merely incidental and their place is only as the least of importance in the grand scope of the union. It’s focusing so intensely on the pleasure of the act and not the responsibility or Divine aspects of the act that we are in such an abyss as far as Contraception and Immorality that we are.

          In fact, one should seek to limit or suppress one’s personal self pleasure in the act for the sake of Christ and your spouse. Call it “marital fasting”.

          By Brokenhearted | 6 years ago Reply
  10. So interesting and so certain!

    By Gabriel | 6 years ago Reply
  11. This came (as usual) at a great time for me! I’ve been having purity issues with my boyfriend, and I wanted to explain to him what I really wanted from a boyfriend without sounding too preachy. Thank you for giving me the right words!

    By Jasmine | 6 years ago Reply
  12. Yes I totally agree! Americo is spot on. Virtue, their openness to agape (real love) and becoming more Christ-like is of utmost importance. “Agape attraction” is what I have called it in some of my notes. 🙂

    By John Estrellas | 6 years ago Reply
  13. Arleen, I have words yet to put together to describe of what an amazing dialogue you had with your friend. Thank you so much for writing this!

    By Mark | 6 years ago Reply
  14. I can attest that PHYSICAL attraction is not a reason to exclude someone from consideration. Before my husband and I started dating we spent lots of time together hanging out, playing games, and enjoying each other’s company. But I was not attracted to him physically at all. When he suggested we date, I had to consider the fact that I wasn’t physically attracted to him, but had so much fun with him it seemed like a dumb reason to refuse to date him.

    It took me about 3 months of dating to even find him mildly attractive. I didn’t even have a desire to kiss him. Fast forward a year and I would still admit I didn’t find him particularly handsome, but due to our deeper knowledge and love for each other I had started to become physically attracted to him.

    Now, after 12 years of marriage, he’s not any more handsome than he was, but he’s all mine and just a thought of him can get me going. 🙂

    By Stephanie | 6 years ago Reply
    • Your comments give me hope, Stephanie!

      A few nights ago my wife told me that she didn’t love me with a romantic love and still doesn’t. That and her low estrogen causes her to never want to have sex with me again, she said. I was crushed, because I really love her! She said she married me because she was pressured to do so by me, her pastor, her daughter, and didn’t want to dissapoint others in her church who were awaiting our wedding. She said she did not want to hurt my feelings when we were engaged by telling me that she didn’t love me.

      However, your comments show that romantic love is not absolutely necessary in order to get married nor a prerequisite to have a happy marriage either. But, agape love is! Agape love is an action and not a feeling! Please pray for us!

      By Missionary to Mexico | 6 years ago Reply
  15. I just wanted to mention that having standards is important. I’m not talking about physical standards or attraction standards. I mean standards like “Is he/she a generous person?” Or “is he/she a faithful individual?” These standards are good and beautiful. Someone who brings out the best in you should meet such standards. Is it good and normal to feel attracted to someone? Yes! When we see someone doing something good for another or living a virtuos life, it is normal to feel attracted to him or her! We have a natural attraction toward what is good because it is a reflection of our Lord! Is feeling attraction toward someone’s looks ok? Yes! It is ok to appreciate and respect someone’s physical beauty. However, this should not be a major or deciding factor because looks do fade. What is more important is feeling attraction toward someone’s inner beauty that never has to fade. It is this inner beauty that will lead you closer to Christ because it reflects Him!

    By Olivia | 6 years ago Reply
  16. I love triangulating Jesus into my relationships, so I can’t focus on the fact that my partner is ugly.

    By A. Cohle | 6 years ago Reply
  17. Another blogger recently criticized this piece. Here’s the response I wrote to her, in a post on my personal blog and in a comment on the blogger’s post, which some of you who’ve commented might like to see:

    It was brought to my attention that blogger Kirsten Andersen responded to my post called “When attraction is irrelevant,” which appeared on my blog in May, and on chastity.com last week.

    I guess you could say she didn’t like it.

    I responded to her criticisms in a comment on her post, which was published by Aleteia.

    I’d like to share Kirsten’s qualms, which center on what my friend Americo and I said in the post Kirsten criticized, and my clarifications, which are important clarifications to make:

    “I’m honestly happy for Spenceley that she feels like she has spiritual justification to date men who don’t look like the stars of the next Marvel film, or whatever aesthetic she prefers.” -Kirsten


    “I disagree that physical attraction isn’t a valid consideration when searching out a spouse.” -Kirsten

    I neither wrote nor believe that I ought to date men who don’t look like [insert my aesthetic preference]. I also neither wrote nor believe that physical attraction isn’t a valid consideration when searching out a spouse (Americo never said that, either).

    The post I wrote does not dispose of attraction as a factor in choosing who we date but is intended to challenge the reader to reconsider where attraction belongs in a hierarchy of standards. I do not encourage people to date others to whom they are not attracted.

    The post I wrote also does not call all attraction irrelevant. It calls attraction irrelevant specifically when a person to whom you are attracted does not also bring out the best in you, when a person to whom you are attracted has no commitment to your sainthood.

    “The fact that she was blown away by the very idea that dating a non-conventionally attractive person could be okay…” -Kirsten

    I neither wrote that I was blown away by the idea that dating a non-conventionally attractive person could be okay, nor has that idea ever blown me away.

    The post isn’t about what the world around a person says is attractive versus what a person him or herself finds attractive, anyway. The post was inspired by how blown away I was by the brilliance with which Americo articulated a very important truth: your attraction to a person does not obligate you to date him or her, and it is not enough of a reason to decide to do so.

    “It sounds to me like what Americo meant to say was that Holy Spirit goggles are the spiritual equivalent of beer goggles, not their opposite, that just as beer goggles make physically unattractive people look better after a few rounds at the bar, Holy Spirit goggles do the same thing after a few rounds of Adoration or Scripture study.” -Kirsten

    I don’t believe (and nor does Americo) that the “Holy Spirit goggles” to which we referred are designed to alter our visual perceptions of other people.

    The point the post was intended to make was that when we seek first Christ, and are open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in us, He will refine our desires. Holy Spirit goggles turn us from people who stubbornly rule potential spouses out for stupid reasons (such as that they are not conventionally attractive) into people whose discernment in dating goes far deeper.

    When we wear our “Holy Spirit goggles”, we don’t decide that a person isn’t fit for us because he or she doesn’t fit a specific, superficial mold — we toss the mold altogether. And we don’t confuse preferences (which are insignificant, such as “has a beard”) with standards (which are critical, such as “defines sex the same way I do.”).

    “The bottom line is, it’s okay to pursue people you find attractive.” -Kirsten

    I second this. And I’m sure Americo would third it.

    By Arleen Spenceley | 6 years ago Reply
  18. Really nice article

    By John | 6 years ago Reply
  19. Could be the best text i read about why your soulmate have to get out the best of you! I bealive in love for fue end.. and this is like a glue for search! 🙂

    By Analu | 6 years ago Reply
  20. Hey Arleen…love the article, but have one question: does the attraction you talk about include personality? The guy I am seeing is so wonderful, and I want to stay with him. But his somewhat reserved personality is hard often for me to deal with.

    By Emily | 6 years ago Reply

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