Who Turns You On Is All In Your Head.

We’ve all had the experience of seeing someone on the street and feeling an instant attraction. Our eyes lock, our pulse races, everyone else disappears. Other times, attraction sneaks up on us slowly as we get to know someone. One day we realize that we are sexually attracted to him. Whether it is his hair, his body, his tattoos, his smell, or his attitude and behavior that attracts us, we attribute it to the mysteries of chemistry.

But chemistry isn’t so mysterious. And in my opinion, it’s not necessarily what evolutionary scientists say — that is, our instinctive reaction to the right set of genes.

On the contrary, chemistry begins in our thoughts. The subconscious mind reads signals and symbols and interprets them in relation to our individual fantasies and sexual desires.

Many psychologists believe that our sexual desires originate from unresolved childhood conflicts or unmet needs. According to this theory, by the time we leave adolescence most of us have eroticized those feelings. These fantasies transform painful feelings into pleasurable ones as the mind attempts to heal us from old conflicts in the same way that our bodies call into action the immune system to heal a cut finger or other wounds.

Here’s an example from one of my patients: 38-year-old Sarah, the only child of unhappily married parents. Sarah’s father, a warm and affable man, had failed in business as a contractor because, out of kindness, he often underestimated the cost of jobs, giving his clients bargains he couldn’t afford. He also had a secret habit of gambling on weekends and, over the course of a few years, lost the family savings. Furious, Abby, Sarah’s mother, never let her husband or Sarah forget this; Sarah was constantly compared to her father for her weaknesses and inability to assert herself in the world. Over the years, Abby’s anger grew increasingly abusive.

Sarah secretly wished that her father would stand up to Abby’s attacks and protect her — and himself. Instead first american cash advance payday loans, he withdrew from the family by sitting in front of the television for endless hours. Sarah felt abandoned by her father as he faded from her life.

During adolescence, Sarah daydreamed about sailors and sea captains and devoured romance novels with these themes. Soon she was having sexual fantasies in which she was kidnapped by pirates, only to be later rescued by a strong and handsome sea captain. In her fantasies she unconsciously found a solution to her childhood feelings of helplessness and abandonment. As an adult, Sarah was drawn to men with beards, tattoos, thick burly bodies, long hair and piercings, because these symbols came to represent her deepest desires.

Like Sarah, a person whom we consider our sexual “type” possesses those qualities that inspire the themes of our fantasies even though we may not be always conscious of this. We may feel strongly attracted to someone with a cocky attitude, muscular body and deep voice, for instance, because our true desire is to be dominated and those qualities signal strength and power — the qualities we imagine are necessary to achieve that.

But the same attitude or physical attributes would turn us off if we were someone who felt lonely or isolated early in life. In that case, those traits that suggest a gentle spirit who is in touch with his feminine side, such as a soft voice, a delicate frame or soulful eyes.

Because our fantasies are so embedded in our psyches, they remain relatively constant throughout our lives and are generally resistant to change, particularly if we deny, suppress or police them. We cannot will them away. Yet when we allow ourselves to experience their deeper nature, by choosing a partner whose sexual desires complement our own and who we trust and respect, we can counteract and repair old conflicts or satisfy the unmet needs on which our desire is based. New desires or preferences are likely to surface when we no longer require the old ones.

First published on PsychologyToday.com on September 27, 2011.