How friends become enemies--the science of fatal attractions


Take this Waltz is the story a woman named Margot (Michelle Williams), who falls out of love with her husband, a slightly more mature version of the classic Seth Rogen character. You can tell what initially attracted Margot to her husband: he’s in possession of a sweet, hiccupy laugh, and he has this wonderfully irreverent sense of humor (“I love you so much, I’m going to put your spleen through a meat grinder”). She laughs at all his jokes and plays along with the water fights until she meets someone else, someone very different from her husband. An artist. He has that sculpted face often seen in vampires, and a slightly tortured way about him. Sociologists use the term “fatal attraction” to describe this phenomenon, one I’m sure you’ve experienced, when your favorite thing about someone—say, their goofiness—becomes the very thing you can’t stand about them. Diane Felmlee, a professor of sociology at Penn State, published landmark research on the fatal attraction in the early ‘90s. “Like a moth to a flame, people can be drawn to the very aspects of another person that they eventually find troublesome.” Another way of thinking about it: disenchantment.

A recent article in The New York Times listed three types of fatal attractions: “traits that initially are fun but then seem foolish (someone who is funny can't be serious); traits that are strong but then seem domineering (decisive becomes controlling) and traits that are spontaneous but then seem unpredictable (impulsive becomes erratic).”

Thirty percent of couples end their relationship over a fatal attraction.

I was surprised to find that research on the subject only examined romantic relationships (‘adult intimate relationships,” as one study called them). Why not platonic relationships? Can you, like me, think of a friend you were close with last spring who you’d rather not make eye contact with now? Maybe they were the supremely confident type, the type that makes you wonder if a killer sense of humor could be contagious, if you could learn deliver one-liners like that. Six months later, you’re telling your other friends that you can never seem to manage a serious conversation with this person. It’s so wearing.

On average, it takes six months to a year for an initial attraction to turn fatal. “Typically, one partner's fatal-attraction traits are those the other partner lacks,” wrote Felmlee.

Fatal attraction research makes me a little sad. Virtues turning into vices—it’s the sort of thing Cupid would do with his bow and arrow if someone set him off, or Maleficent would do with an idle flick of her wand. But really, why are intelligent, perceptive, kind people (hello, Kings) prey to this phenomenon? Is it because we’re not all that perceptive—we miss the warning signs when meeting people? Or is it because we’re not all that kind—we’re too easily bored with people?

I’ll come right out and say it: you’re going to meet a lot of narcissists in Manhattan. And being self-involved is strangely helpful to people who want to appear charming. They radiate a rosy glow of health on first meeting them, but then—well, you know what comes next. That’s one type of fatal attraction.

I have to wonder whether the long-term success of relationships has to do with similarities or differences. I don’t think the primary reason we like people is not for confidence, mysterious aura, or sense of humor. It’s for the way they make us feel about ourselves. Take the classic study in which a researcher told participants they won “contest money.” He circled back with some of them, telling them that there was no contest; the money was his, and if he didn’t get it back he’d be nearly broke. What happens next is important. The participants who agreed to give the researcher his money back evaluated him more positively than the people who hadn’t had a favor asked of them. Forget the common-sense assumption that we like people for their virtues.

Social psychologists Carolyn Weisz and Lisa F. Wood from the University of Puget Sound studied a group of college students as they progressed from freshman to senior year. The obvious factors that effect a friendship—sense of closeness, regular contact—were determined by a separate, more powerful factor: social-identity support. “Sometimes all a friend needed to do to keep the best friendship going was to affirm the other person's identity as a member of the given group ("You're a real Christian") or even the status of the group itself ("It's so cool that you play sax for the Stanford band!"),” Psychology Today explained.

Perhaps this is the key to keeping friendships intact. Don’t waste your time worrying that your best friend is going to get sick of your hyena laugh. What gets you in trouble—what’s really fatal—is being too distracted to care about someone properly.

So go tell your best friend that it’s so cool they’re in debate club. Go.