There are few things as exciting as the spark of sexual chemistry; That rush of heat, the butterflies, the tingling in your loins... The raw magnetism is a heady rush- you feel vital, desirable, like you've truly been SEEN. That feeling is empowering. The fallout can be devastating...
So what do you do when you're in a relationship and find yourself sexually attracted to someone else?
PART 1: INTRODUCTION TO SEXUAL CHEMISTRY
Introduction to Sexual Chemistry
Being attracted to someone else is a biopsychosocial experience...which is a fancy way of saying that there are a range factors to consider from the realms of biology, psychology, and social systems.
When you're sexually attracted to someone else;
- Biology comes into play through physiological responses, hormonal responses, your bodies stress levels, your sexual functioning,
- Psychology is influential because of the stories we tell ourselves, and the effect of our lived experience on our interpretations of the world, and
- Social factors (sexual activity, sensuality, communication, social contexts)
- And relational factors will often inform our experience of that attraction.
What that means is that by understanding clearly the inputs that create sexual attraction (especially when you're attracted to someone else) we can make choices and take actions that are aligned to our greater good, not feeling helpless to choose.
What is Sexual Attraction?
There are a bunch of ways to slice this, and every school of thought has their own take on what factors generate desire, lust, and attraction.
The purpose of this piece on what to do if you are attracted to someone else is to give you a quick primer, then some actions you can take. I have cherry picked aspects of each system, if you're interested in more comprehensive research & analysis you can skip right ahead to Resources & References.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher writes;
"I believe that three primary, distinct, but interrelated emotion systems in the brain mediate mating, reproduction, and the rearing of young: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each emotion system is correlated with a speciﬁc neurobiology in the brain; each is associated with a different repertoire of behavior; and each evolved to direct a speciﬁc aspect of reproduction in birds and mammals.
THE SEX DRIVE SEXUAL DESIRE (libido or lust) is characterized by the craving for sexual gratiﬁcation and associated primarily with the hormones (the estrogens and the androgens). The sex drive desire for sex evolved to motivate individuals to seek sexual union with any appropriate partner.[Note: Strikethrough text is my own emphasis. I have changed it because it is vital to note that sex is not a need, nor a drive. Read the section below on Desire: Actually It's Not a Drive]
THE ATTRACTION SYSTEM (in humans termed “passionate love,” “obsessive love,” or “infatuation”) is characterized by increased energy and the focusing of attention on a preferred mating partner. In humans, attraction is also associated with feelings of exhilaration, intrusive thinking about the beloved, and the craving for emotional union. Attraction, I hypothesize, is associated in the brain primarily with high levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine and with low levels of serotonin. This emotion system evolved chieﬂy to enable males and females to distinguish among potential mating partners, conserve their mating energy, prefer genetically superior individuals, and pursue these individuals until insemination had been completed.
THE ATTACHMENT SYSTEM (termed “companionate love” in humans) is characterized in birds and mammals by behavior that may include defense of a mutual territory, mutual nest building, mutual feeding and grooming, separation anxiety, and shared parental chores. In humans, attachment is also characterized by feelings of calm, security, social comfort, and emotional union. Attachment is associated in the brain primarily with the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin. This emotion system evolved to motivate individuals to sustain their afﬁliations long enough to complete the parental duties of their species."[Read more: Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment]
Emily Nagoski describes desire as "the result of the interplay between context and what we find pleasurable."
Sexual energy through this lens can then be expanded beyond merely sex, and explored through our many engagements with the world. It's the energy generated from (and by) pleasure, sensuality, embodiment, passion, and creativity.
This is different from individual to individual, but it's safe to say that there is something about the context of your crush, that overlaps with your ideas of pleasure, which is creating and/or magnifying the biological effects of you being attracted to someone else.
PART 2: THE IMPLICATIONS OF BEING ATTRACTED TO SOMEONE ELSE
Meaning Making About Being Attracted to Someone Else
I've often heard it said that we humans are meaning-making machines; We love to tell stories about our experiences, and we LOVE to interpret those stories to bring greater meaning to the events in our lives.
That happens in this sequence;
- Thing Happens
- Brain interprets event as bad/good
- Brain chemistry happen
- Body has feels
- We make up a lil story to explain the event (based on the feels).
In my experience as a couples therapist, most of the distress that arises when one partner is attracted to someone else is due to individual narratives about the role of relationships, the meaning of sexuality, and what that means for you each relationally.
In the scenario where you are attracted to someone else, the most problematic ideas come from patriarchal paradigms of relationships;
- Being attracted to someone else is dangerous for your relationship
- If you aren't giving your partner enough sex, it's your fault they're looking elsewhere
- Monogamous relationships are the foundation of a moral society
- Flirting is cheating
- Sexuality should be kept behind closed doors
- Sexual confidence is unprofessional
- Infidelity is a deal breaker
- and a whole bunch of gendered shit.
But this isn't limited to monogamy or patriarchy-
- If you're in an ethical non monogamous (ENM) relationship, you shouldn't be jealous
- We're in an open relationship so I can flirt with, or fuck, anyone
- I can behave however I like (be authentic, speak my truth) and if you don't like it it's your problem
This essay isn't about unpacking all of that, but it is important to note. As you explore your own meaning making around what is happening right now, it's worth reflecting on the influences that have informed your ideas (more on that in section three).
Is It Normal to Be Sexually Attracted to Someone Else While in a Relationship?
- Yes, it absolutely IS normal to be attracted to someone else when you are in a relationship, and
- Yes it is absolutely normal NOT to be attracted to someone else when you are in a relationship.
As with every relational realm, there is no normal. Your experience of your relationship is valid and worthy of attention.
This type of meaning making is very unhelpful. It is likely to lead down paths of shame and blame which aren't good for you, for them, or for your relationship/s.
Why Am I Physically Attracted to Someone Else?
This is a little bit the same as the previous question, with a dash of sorrow.
Its equal parts "why is this happening to me?" and "is there something wrong with me?" and "this is confusing/painful/challenging" and "what the fuck do I do?"
The basic answer is: biopsychosocial, bitches!
That is, you are having a chemical & physiological reaction to someone, who maybe also ticks some boxes about what you think is hot.
But I don't think that'll ease your pain. Your answer will be the result of deep introspection, embodied exploration, and experimentation. I hope as you engage with the reflections & experiments below you will begin to uncover what is best for you in your life.
Does This Mean My Relationship is Over?
There's a weird narrative that sexual energy is either dangerous (and must be stamped out), or destiny (and must be pursued).
In a relationship with rigid rules about what constitutes infidelity, being attracted to someone else might be interpreted as a betrayal. In this context the chemistry of sexual energy can be seen to have a life of its own. It lures the unwilling to cheat, or lie, or otherwise betray their partner. “If I play in this sexual energy, then I am cheating”.
This kind of belief will lead to a 'block' approach, where the partner experiencing the attraction is expected to override and shutdown their attraction, and in more extreme scenarios to end any contact with the other.
The other side of this belief is that if one doesn’t block sexual energy, then the only other option is to fuck it. That is, this chemistry is so strong that;
- I am too weak to fight it (or don’t want to)
- Or, it must mean that this other relationship is meant to be.
Neither of the above is true. Being attracted to someone else is an inherently neutral event. It doesn't mean anything at all.
I invite you to be gentle with yourself, and curious, as you consider the questions in the action taking section below.
PART 3: WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU'RE ATTRACTED TO SOMEONE ELSE
How to Handle Being Attracted to Someone Else
I'm going to assume you are here because you have concerns, so there's some decisions you need to make now.
There's no single way to handle this, it will depend on your culture, family, lived experience, intersections in identities, and other contextual elements that have influenced your personality and approach to life.
What I can do is give you a series of reflections to help you discern what is best for you.
Step 1 - Check In With Yourself
Take some time to consider the following;
- How do you physically feel? What are the literal sensations in your body? Where are they? (more about interoception here).
- What emotions are you experiencing? There are rarely single emotions when you are attracted to someone else, it's common that there are both positive & negative emotions. Sometimes at the same time!
- What story are you telling yourself? Begin with "the story I am telling myself is..." Be honest with yourself about how much of the story is made up in your head. Are you fantasising about a future with someone based on very limited knowledge of them? Are you comparing them unfavourably (and unfairly) with your partner/s? Are you blaming someone else for your unfulfilled desires?
- What are the values that are important to you? What are your relational values and how do you express them?
- Is this actually a problem for me? Let's not be too concerned about what you should or shouldn't feel, think, or do. Deeply consider how being attracted to someone else actually effects you. Perhaps this feels like a harmless delightful flirtation! Go for it! Maybe you are worried, or feeling uncertain. Pay attention to that!
Step 2 - Process & Manage Your Shit
Take some time to process your experience;
- Manage your emotions. Good emotional self-awareness is crucial! Emotions are data, they should inform your decisions but not make them for you. Practice good emotional hygeine and emotional first aid so you can make choices that are best for you.
- Assess the danger. I have already said that being attracted to someone else is a neutral event, and now I'm also saying that it might be dangerous. Not for your relationship/s, for YOU. What is the honest likelihood that you are going to behave in a way that doesn't suit you? Rate the level of danger that this attraction has on a scale of 1-10 (where zero is "no trouble" and 10 is "I'm fucked").*
- Identify the yearning. Often being attracted to someone else can highlight a facet of our life, or our relationships, that we yearn for. And then we make it mean that our partner/s aren't right for us, or trying hard enough. That's crazy! Explore whether there are needs or desires you have that are unmet. Once you've identified your yearning, explore personal fulfilment (do it yourself!)
- Tell someone. Talk to a trusted friend or therapist about your crush. Sometimes it's the secret that is exciting, not the crush.
- Assess your relationship. For reals.
When I was 21 I was in a long distance relationship. I had a big crush on someone at work. I have always been faithful (to a fault), so I stayed in that unsupportive relationship instead of honouring and acting on the fact that I really fucking liked someone else. It's okay to leave someone because you change your mind!When I was 35 and 36 and 37 and 38 I wanted to leave my relationship. I felt like the issue at the time was intolerable, and I would be better off with someone else. I am filled with gratitude every day that I stayed, because this man is the love of my life.I guess I'm just saying; here you are at a cross roads. Take stock of your options.
- Is this part of the natural rhythm of a relationship? As relationships evolve, they move both in a linear fashion from their conception to their death, as well as through circular temporal and energetic cycles. That means that being attracted to someone else, wondering if this is as good as it gets, and feeling dissatisfied are common experiences in every intimate relationship. Learn what to to do address those cyclical highs & lows.
- Consider if this is a PATTERN. Could this be attachment style fuckery? Are you pathologising your partner? Are you projecting onto them? Are you always wondering if you'd be happier somewhere else? Are you always shopping and considering options? This is something you might address with a therapist because the mindset of comparison is a key factor in relationship dissatisfaction.
- Consider if this is a PROBLEM. It doesn't have to be! I crush easily on new friends, new colleagues, and new people. I often feel relational chemistry (which isn't always sexual) AND it is a source of delight for me! I don’t interpret it to mean that I need to do or say anything at all. So it is a pattern, but not a problem.
- Is it ADHD? Just a lil note here, as I and many of my clients are neurodivergent (including my beloved ADHDers)... I personally get crushes All. The. Time.It's a hyperfixation thing, like a new hobby. That new shiny person just is SO GREAT! This almost always runs it's course quickly, and my relationship settles down to feeling less giddy. Again I'm here to say, if it's not a problem, it's not a problem! I love the energy I feel from this experience. My partner thinks it's lovely that I get so excited about new people in my life.
* I'm not making judgements about whether you stay or go, whether you cheat, or whether you ethically act on your attraction. I am asking you to ask yourself: "Am I able to maintain the necessary boundaries so that I behave congruently with my values & relational agreements?"
Step 3 - Context Matters
Consider the contextual elements of this attraction to someone else. It really fucking matters.
- Where are you? (work, holidays, home) Office romance anyone? Don't shit in your nest! There is absolutely no reason to act on sexual energy in an inappropriate context. No. Reason.
- How long has it been happening? (once, a few times, every day) Are you worrying too much about a passing phase? Are you allowing an issue to drag on without addressing it?
- Who are you sexually attracted to? (friend, colleague, teacher, partner's friend) Again, don't shit in your own nest. You need to consider very carefully the impact of your choices on your existing relationships because you can't go back.
- What is your relationship structure? (monogamous, open, poly, ENM) Do you feel like the current structure is the right one for you?
- Which relationship roles are working? Consider whether the roles you play in your exisiting relationship need a refresh.
- What are your relational agreements? (how do you approach, discuss, and act on sexual attraction to someone else) This is super important and will dictate the way that you manage this moment. Ideally you have already talked about what to do if either of you are attracted to someone else!
Step 4 - Make A Decision
Step Four – Make a Decision
- Take your time. This is a decision that deserves to be made from a place of love & information, not fear & pressure. Instead of a continual assessment of the minutiae of day-to-day life, make time for yourself to consider the true potential and implications of your decision.I recommend that you choose a period of time of more than a week, and less than 4 weeks - that should be long enough for consideration and not so long that things escalate.
- Consider your options. There are always pros and cons, allow yourself to explore many options (not just the obvious ones)
- Discuss with your partner. If your relationship is on the line, include your partner/s. It is discourteous & uncool to make this decision unilaterally.
- Write the story of this decision. How would you like to tell the story about this part of your life in 10 years? What do you want to be able to say about your actions?
- Make a decision. The uncertainty of a situation is far more distressing than the actual outcomes. Many couples choose the certainty of separation over the discomfort of not knowing whether they can resolve things.
- Get professional help. This is important depending on the scale of your decision. If your relationship, job, family, friends, or other parts of your life are at risk here please consider bringing in outside help. That isn't just for perspective (though its helpful) but also to support you emotionally.
FREE eBOOK DOWNLOAD: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The decision to stay or go is complex & nuanced.
It’s not as simple as writing a lists of pros and cons, in fact, there is no 'right' answer. Any decision you make will be challenging and rewarding in different ways, so it's important to explore all the possibilities before you make a decision that you can’t unmake.
This guide frames some considerations, and shares the commonalities for individuals & couples who are also trying to decide: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Step 5 - Take Action
Step Five – Take Action
- Delight in the energy. According to Esther Perel, "Eroticism isn’t sex; it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination. It’s the thoughts, dreams, anticipation, unruly impulses, and even painful memories which make up our vast erotic landscapes. It’s energized by our entire human experience, layered with early childhood experiences of touch, play, or trauma, which later become cornerstones of our erotic life."I invite you to explore possibilities of what it might mean to enjoy that sexual frisson as a source of vitality, not a sign of danger. This approach to eroticism in your life can reinvigorate you, be channeled toward creativity & joy, and be shared as a gift to rebuild your friendship with your partner.
- Channel the energy. Sexual energy and the energy of attraction don't need to be used for sex! That seems obvious to me, but unfortunately many folks don't realise it.You can channel physical energy toward many activities, and you also have the capacity to hold it without action. You can channel emotional energy toward a partner, pet, or yourself, and you also have the capacity to hold it without action.And you can channel sexual energy, and you also have the capacity to hold it without action. Sexual energy is particularly great to channel into creative endeavours, projects of passion, and engagements with pleasure (either sexual or not).In fact, developing your sexual skillset requires being able to identify, manage, and direct sexual energy in the way that you choose. An immature sexuality relies on 'getting off' to manage sexual energy. Blue balls is not a thing.
- Put down your phone. Be present to your life, and consider if your phone is damaging your relationship. Digital space is NOT the place to be when you are engaging with deeper considerations about your future. It's hard (I know!) so I've got your back.
- Stay off the fucking socials. Social media is not your friend. Reels do NOT have answers. They are designed to take you down ever more dramatic paths, especially in the midst of a doom scroll or depressive zone out.
- Have challenging conversations. You are going to have to put on your grown up pants here and address what is happening. Pretending everything is fine is never helpful. That might mean speaking with your crush, your partner, or someone else who may be effected.AND you will need to be discerning here. That is, you don't always have to tell everyone everything in your head (this has been a hard lessson for me!) Are you someone who tends to avoid talking about things? Probs need to address that. Do you chronically overshare? Maybe practice keeping it to yourself. You will need to assess which approach is appropriate for your specific scenario.
- Implement & maintain appropriate boundaries. This is whatever you gotta do to make you okay. I also suggest you incorporate what your partner requests to help them be okay (don't manage shit with rules, but respect). That might include guidelines for yourself around frequency of contact with that person, location, activities, you might limit topics of conversation, or you might never see them again.I'm not advocating for you to shut down that you're attracted to someone else! I'm saying: This is your one wild & precious life. Make your choice and make it work.
- If you are still not sure what to do, this is an appropriate topic to explore in couples therapy. You can do that as an individual, or with your partner/s. A good couples therapist will be able to help you get clear on the path to take from here.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If you're attraction to someone else has become intrusive, distressing, or otherwise unpleasant for you and/or your partner/s, you would do well to begin couples therapy as soon as possible.
This is a really common relational experience, and if it is handled with sensitivity & care can lead to healthier happier relationships.
In contrast, when an issue like this is ignored or left to fester, the cumulative frustration, confusion, resentment and (insert angst here) become the biggest factor in any future couples therapy. That is, the work of addressing the actual issue is 100 times harder in the face of those feels.
You can take the next steps to work with me here, or check out my article Couples Therapy Newcastle: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing a Therapist
Resources & References
Come as You Are - Emily Nagoski
So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex - Iam Kerner
Mating in Captivity - Esther Perel
Why Eroticism Should Be Part of your Self-Care Plan - Esther Perel
Loving you from afar: Attraction to others (“crushes”) among adults in exclusive relationships, communication, perceived outcomes, and expectations of future intimate involvement Lucia F. O’Sullivan, Charlene F. Belu, Justin R. Garcia (Journal of Social and Personal Relationships) First Published August 24, 2021
Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment by Helen E Fisher.
New Relationship Energy NRE megjohnandjustin.com
The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
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