There are many experiences in life which guide us and inform future decisions. The foods we eat as a child, the movies we watch, the social interactions that we have, will all impact where we land as adults and what we consider to be our comfort zone. According to Psychologist Jean Piaget, a child develops early life conceptions based on what they see around them and draws conclusions which are then applied to other scenarios. When a child first uses a crayon and learns to scribble with it, he or she can grasp the concept of a crayon. However, if you give the child a pencil, without any instruction he or she will instinctively start scribbling with it. How can their young, developing minds understand pencils, if all they have learned about are crayons? It is this ability, which Piaget explains, as being the foundation to many of our worldviews. We see one item and learn to apply it to others.
When I counsel young men who are struggling with relationships and dating, they often get stuck in the “pre-screening” stage. This is where they look at a woman from a distance, whether across the room or at a photo online, and instantly decide if she is the “right look” for him.
Of course, as the adage goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and it is important in a marriage for spouses to find one another attractive. Why might a man say that he wants to marry a woman with a certain “look”? Perhaps as a child he once saw a woman on TV, a billboard or someone in his life, and his brain decided that she was the epitome of beauty, which his adult brain is now applying towards his search for a wife. Does that mean that every woman he meets that does not match his early conception of beauty should be automatically disqualified for marriage?
Since beauty is a subjective notion, developed based on our early influences, it is, therefore, possible to explore with clients, not only what they deem as being beautiful, but why they feel that way. Even more importantly, we can explore whether physical beauty is really something that belongs at the top of their list.
The following is a conversation I have had dozens of times with various clients of mine, mostly men in their twenties, but some of them female as well. Let’s call this client Joe.
“Joe, what are you looking for in a spouse?"
Nine out of ten times, I am prepared to hear the words - tall, thin, smart, kind, caring, funny; all of which are great generic adjectives to explain the perfect spouse. However, like all people, Joe has his own perception and definition of what each of these words mean to him. Therefore, I will lead Joe on an exploration of, not only defining the terms, but to try to understand their origins. The goal of my conversation is to help Joe shift his focus from prioritizing the physical appearances of a woman, and to look more deeply to appreciate who she is on the inside.
In our conversation, Joe explains his vision of what he thinks a beautiful woman looks like, and the type of woman he anticipates marrying. However, the conversation then turns to his frustrations of not being able to find the perfect woman. Joe is being genuine in expressing his true stress and anxiety over being trapped in this situation.
“I can’t help if this is what I’m attracted to. God made me this way. I wish I could be attracted to any woman and then I’d marry someone who is just beautiful on the inside – but I can’t.”
While I think Joe's plight has more to do with him than with God, I therapeutically approach the situation in a number of ways ways. Firstly, I ask Joe permission to engage in some honest banter. If he agrees, I take the conversation on a quantitative route and ask him to rate on a scale from 1-10 what he is looking for in a woman’s physical beauty. Inevitably, Joe hesitates and says something like, “oh, come on, I’m not shallow, I wouldn’t rate a woman”. Once he gets that little disclosure off his chest, we delve directly into discussing his physical prerequisites for marriage, and I ask him to try and answer the question.
Joe says, “I suppose I am looking for someone who is between an 8 and a 10, but I would also settle for a 7."
With that information, I thank him and proceed to ask whether he would date a 6? After a little squirming and hesitation, Joe says, “Yes, I would date a 6, provided that she has everything else I am looking for.” I then push further and ask, what about a 5? Joe reluctantly says, “Sorry, I generally would not. However, Its hard to say never, so, I suppose I can’t rule it out entirely.”
I then give Joe a little perspective and remind him that a 5 is not ugly, it is simply what we would call ordinary, normal or average – not a bad things at all! Furthermore, if they work on making their relationship magical, he will grow to see his wife as the single most beautiful woman in the world!
I then step back and point out that at the end of this brief discussion, Joe has successfully opened his mind. Previously, he was set on an 8-10, but now after exploring it, might even consider dating someone between a 5 and a 10.
While this was progress, its just the beginning.
I then ask Joe how important her inner qualities are versus her external ones? Of course, Joe responds as any fine gentleman would, “her inner beauty is far more important and the connection and love that we share is really what matters most.”
I continue, “Joe, are you planning on having a family together”?
“Oh yes, I can’t wait for kids."
I then ask Joe if he understands that a woman’s body will change dramatically during and following pregnancy and will never return to being the same. While all my male clients answer yes, their eyes often have a “deer in the headlights” look.
I give Joe a moment and then I ask, “If in fifty years from now, your wife looks old, wrinkled and puts on weight, and dips below a 5, would you leave her?
“Certainly not”, he exclaims, “when I get married, I look forward to growing old together, because the love that we share is all that really matters."
“So, Joe, what you're saying is that once you and your wife get older, her appearance will not really be that important to you?"
“Yes, that is correct.”
At this point, I help lead the conversation toward the inevitable conclusion of this earth-shattering idea. I explain to Joe that while right now, he only wants to date women that are close to a 10:
- He just admit that when they are older, the looks will not really matter as he will always love his wife (even is she were a 3).
- He also said that as they start a family and his wife puts on weight with each pregnancy, he also will no longer be concerned with her being a 10.
Therefore, when looking at the big picture, this illusion of wanting to marry someone who is a 10 is only something which will last for the first year of two of marriage – after that it is gone, forever.
Joe then sits back in his chair, looks up at the ceiling and nods as he processes this new perspective as it sinks in.
Throughout this process, I am in no way am I trying to break Joe’s spirit or tell him what he should be looking for in a wife. However, I am helping him to overcome his anxieties and frustrations by seeing a bigger picture and helping him to appreciate his own values and desires, when seen through an alternate perspective.
While Joe and many other people who are searching for a spouse want someone who is beautiful, they also long for the internal qualities, love and deep friendship. They may just need some help balancing and prioritizing these yearnings. Ultimately, it is important for people to recognize the temporary nature of the illusion of beauty. When the youthfulness and beauty fade, all you are left with is the heart and soul of the person you married. It is the friendship that must stand the test of time.
Society at large often romanticizes the fantasies of beauty, as if you can see someone across the bar and know that he or she is your soul mate. These Hollywood stories sound wonderful; but there is really very little about a person’s true essence that you can learn by simply looking at their appearance.
This applies even more so, to the incredible people who carefully search for a spouse by engaging in online dating. Often someone will turn down a date because they don’t find the other person’s photos to be attractive. Let’s be honest, humans were never intended to be attracted to the digital pixels generated by a computer screen which comprise a photo of someone.
Although it may take some time and therapy to shift one's perspective to focus on seeing the internal beauties - it can be done. Only when you meet someone in person, look deeply into their eyes and engage in optimistic and hopeful conversations can you test and enjoy the connection and energy that you create together. It is with that energy, combined with the feelings which develop over time, through investment, patience, respect and thoughtfulness, which help a person identify the true and lasting beauty that fuels a happy, successful and loving relationship.
To contact Ari Sytner for counseling, interventions or feedback, please click here.