One of the biggest problems I see with my coaching clients when it comes to their social lives (and with friends and family in general), is they get three different concepts confused with each other: attraction, connection, and relationships.
Anybody who doesn’t know what these three things are and doesn’t know how to separate them, or to measure what they’ve got with someone, can often end up in really terrible friendships, or bad-fit partnerships, or unpleasant dating situations, or – the very worse – an unhappy marriage.
Today, I’m going to try and give you an insight into how to tell the difference between these three things and to make your social decisions accordingly.
Attraction is just a feeling of desire or interest, nothing more than that.
Attraction is not a reliable source of information. You look at someone or you hear someone or you think about someone, and you feel more interested in them than others. That’s it!
You could feel that way about someone as bad as Hitler. You have no idea how good someone is based on attraction alone. It’s just a feeling.
Connection, on the other hand, is the ‘click’ of getting onto the same wavelength of someone.
It’s when you find out through empathy, curiosity, and respect that you have a lot of the same values and interests and viewpoints in life. You like being around this person, you find it easy to be transparent, you feel safe to be honest with them. And they reciprocate; there’s a balance here.
You are well-connected when you’re free to be yourselves with each other.
Relationships are basically boundaries and rules of engagement.
You can have a relationship with someone you hate – it has nothing to do with how you feel about each other. A relationship is all about the rules around how you’re going to engage with each other, how you behave both when you’re with each other and even when you’re not.
Relationships define what it means to have boundaries, what respect looks like, and the length of the agreement. It’s more of a verbal contract than anything else.
Confusing them together
The biggest mistake people make is when they confuse or combine two or more of these things, and don’t realize that one is not another.
For example, when you think attraction means someone’s good for a relationship, or when you think a connection means you’re also attracted to someone, and so on.
What I’d like to do now is flesh out what it looks like when you make these confusing mistakes – as I have many, many times in my life – so that you can understand why things have gone wrong for you socially in the past.
the 3 for 1 attraction bargain
First, let’s deal with the mistake of thinking that the existence of one of these concepts alone is evidence that all three of them are valid. This is something I used to do a lot.
The main example for me is attraction. When I was attracted to someone, I used to assume that meant I also already had a connection with them and that we’d be good in a relationship. And I know a lot of people that make this terrible mistake.
A girl friend of mine assumes any guy who opens a door for her and is really gallant and chivalrous must also be great boyfriend material, yet any douchebag could do that stuff! It doesn’t actually tell you anything about his personality. If guys do things that she’s attracted to, she mistakenly assumes this is evidence that they’re going to be good for relationships. She’s been hurt many times by this error, yet continues to make it.
I used to be attracted to very unstable and emotionally crazy women with chaotic lives – I found that combo really hot. I didn’t realize that there was a pattern of this until I learned the hard way: what I was attracted to was that they needed fixing. I was a Nice Guy fixer type, so these were like my ‘projects’ that I was ‘attracted’ to.
Of course, they were actually terrible for relationships and I was unable to connect with them deeply. It was just attraction. I constantly tried to make these girls into my girlfriends, which as you might imagine often ended in disaster and heartbreak.
Connection is not everything
Now, if you only going to have one of these three, I’d say connection is probably the best one. But still, just having a connection by itself does not guarantee the other two are good or are occurring.
I can be deeply connected to someone without really being attracted to them, especially not sexually. And that’s fine. This is what a friendship is based on. But it won’t last if I’m not at least interested in something about them.
I can also be deeply connected to somebody just because I have a lot of things in common with them, yet they’re actually not really good for me. An example of this might be people who are in recovery together. You might find another addict who’s gone through the same hell as you, and think this is somebody who you feel really connected to. But actually, they’re not right for you. And there isn’t anything particularly interesting or attractive about them either. So they’re not good for attraction or relationship; you just have a connection.
And specific circumstances might the only times you can have that connection, like in your recovery group – you don’t need to keep seeing them outside of the group, you don’t need to sleep with them, you don’t need to get confused. I might have a great connection with my therapist but they just stay my therapist, I don’t try to take it anywhere else. (This is where a relationship boundaries come into play.)
Understand that you can have a great connection with someone but you might not need to see them ever again (e.g. you just have one great conversation and then move on), and you might not need to escalate this romantically either.
Friends without boundaries
There’s also the problem of thinking a connection implies the existence of a good relationship. I think this error most commonly occurs with friendships more than anything else. Somebody will feel like they have a really good friend – they connect really well – so they don’t bother to set boundaries or to establish the rules of engagement for a relationship.
You think it will just be organic, that this person will just naturally be respectful and know what you want, and so on. This is how friends so constantly get into conflicts, because they never actually set up real rules and so the imaginary rules get broken.
I had one friend of mine do this. A girl I was casually seeing came around to the house while I was asleep, and he ended up fooling around with her right before she came into my room, apparently. Now, he felt really bad about it the next day, but he was also confused because he didn’t really know what he was/was not allowed to do with girls that I was ‘kind of’ seeing. We’d never talked about that.
I had this assumption in my head: “Hey, he’s my friend, he wouldn’t do something like that. I don’t even need to talk about it.” But we did need to talk about it. (P.S. He’s no longer my friend).
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that a good connection is enough for a long term friendship or relationship, but setting up the relationship properly is important if you want the connection to last.
The worst deal
Probably the worst combination of all these things as to just have a relationship, without connection or attraction. This is the Hell that so many people live in every day of their lives; to be in friendships or relationships where there is no real interest in each other. There’s no interest or transparency or connection or respect. It’s just rules that you follow.
I’ve had this both with romantic relationships and with friendships.
There are a lot of people that I was ‘friends’ with simply because we called each other friends, and they were friends with my other friends and we were a group together. I’d end up one-on-one with somebody who’s my ‘friend’ and in my group… and I had nothing to talk about with them. I didn’t even like them very much. It felt super awkward. And yet I felt I had to go to every party they invited me to, and hang out with them at New Years, and text them each week to see what’s going on.
I was just following the rules of friendship without any other reason to be involved with them. I was so afraid of being alone that I’d accept a friendship that was only skin-deep.
While that’s bad enough, at least friendships are easy to end. What’s even worse is when people get into romantic and committed relationships without the other two factors. Initially, there might have been some attraction but there probably wasn’t much connection, just attraction masking the lack of connection. And then they get all excited and commit.
They start to feel like they’re committed for a long time, and they get panicky they “can’t” get out of it. So they get married, buy a house, have kids, and yet they never really liked each other. The attraction fades, there’s no real connection underneath, and then they just stay in the relationship because they’re following stupid rules, like ‘loyalty’.
It’s commitment without love – probably the most awful social situation to be in.
Getting the mix right
If you’re only going to have one thing, connection is probably the best one to have. But ultimately, if you want a good social life, you need at least two of these factors to occur simultaneously with each person in your life.
You should never combine attraction with relationship. Never set rules about staying together and committing to each other based on attraction alone. Never have relationships without connection. Yes, you can have a relationship without either of the other two – e.g. a business partnership – but it won’t be the best possible business partnership. You’re better than that.
For example, you can just agree to get along with your boss, even if you fucking hate their guts and you don’t know anything about them and they don’t know anything about you. That’s possible. But it is nowhere near the best work situation you can have.
So if you want a great life, not just a mediocre one, what you’re looking for is that a majority, if not all, of your established connections with people have all three of these factors in play.
Attraction = Attraction
They go in order, and attraction comes first.
Now attraction doesn’t just mean sexual interest, it means interest of any kind; desire to be with someone, a fascination with them. It can be romantic, it can be philosophical, it can be psychological, it can even be political – it’s just the sense of being more interested in one particular individual than most others. One person rises above the crop to capture your attention.
If that basic attraction is not there, then how are you choosing people? Your attraction and interest in people should be genuine from the beginning. Don’t just arbitrarily pick people out – like how most people just treat their workmates as default friends or assume that because someone is a family member that you must show interest in them.
Look to see who you actually have an interest in. It might be physical, but it also might be mental. It might be a fascination with someone because of what they’re talking about, or because of who their friends are, or because of the things you’ve heard about them, etc. Start from the very beginning by choosing your people based on genuine attraction.
But also hold on to the idea that attraction can be deceiving. You might be wrong about this person, it might be just attraction and nothing else. So keep an open mind as you move forward with the people you’re naturally interested in. You’re looking to reduce the number of people you’re attracted to down to people you also feel connected with… this will be a minority.
Attraction + shared values = Connection
Once you’re attracted to someone, you go and engage with them. You initiate and try to establish a connection.
Now this does not mean you try to make a connection happen. You’re trying to discover if there a connection is already there. Think of it as exploration rather than creation.
While building a connection is not a necessary step for professional relationships, they will be better if a connection is there. And connection is an absolutely vital element for friendships, family, and romantic relationships.
Connection means you see eye to eye on certain values. You feel safe to be honest with them. You feel like you’re respected and understood by them. That everything is kind of 50/50; you both view each other as equals and treat each other well, at least as well as you treat yourself. There is a kind of safety in being with this person. And the attraction is still there – they’re still interesting after you get to know them.
Still be wary, because attraction will override your system and project a fantasy of the person – you’ll start to tell yourself that somebody is a great connection just because you’re attracted to them, and yet there’s no real evidence of it there.
So it’s always good to have cooling-off periods. For example, if you go on a date with someone or you hang out with a new friend the first time, give yourself 24 hours to cool off afterward and then write down: What did we actually connect on? Where’s the evidence? Beyond attraction, what do we have together?
Often, you won’t really find any signs of connection – e.g. that you both value honesty and that you both had trauma in your past that you’re dealing with and you’re both in the same place in yourself development etc. If there isn’t clear evidence of these deep commonalities, then you’re just being fooled by attraction. And that’s okay, but just don’t take it any further. Enjoy the thrill of attraction briefly and then initiate with someone new.
If you can’t open up to each other, can’t find a connection, and can’t share your values, this what we call a ‘bad fit’. It’s someone who’s just not right for you, and you’re not right for them. It’s time to move on.
Attraction + Connection + boundaries and rules = Relationship
Now, if you do find that someone you’re interested in/attracted to is also a great connection for you, and it’s been going a little while – you’ve had a few interactions with each other and you really want to see this person again – it’s time to start talking about boundaries.
When people have attraction or connection with someone they often become so scared of losing it that they shy away from setting boundaries. They don’t want to do anything that might rock the boat or upset the enjoyment of each other. And this is a disaster because you set a precedent, a ‘covert contract’ of hidden hopes and expectations. You expect them to just know, which is a mask you hide behind so that you don’t have to say it out loud and have a confrontation.
Boundary-setting is going to hurt a lot less at the start that it will later on. There are certain things you need to establish and need to know asap.
What are make-or-break behaviours in a relationship for you? What will you never tolerate? What will you sometimes tolerate? What do you need them to accept about you? And so on.
You can make a list for a big discussion and/or you can just respond firmly to behavior as it occurs. Make sure you always do it, even if you’re in that dreamy honeymoon period of getting to know someone. Still make sure to call out anything that annoys you, or anything you find disrespectful. Ensure you nip it in the bud early – when it first arises. Talk about it honestly and establish a clear rule of engagement so they know what being connected to you requires for long-term success.
And learn what the rules are for them too. Don’t shy away from potentially uncomfortable truths; they’ll come up sooner or later anyway. Try to elicit it from them, like “How do you want me to behave with you? What do you consider to be respectful? Is there anything I’ve done that bothered you but you didn’t bring it up?”
These are conversations you need to have out loud. If you don’t have them, fine, but don’t be disappointed later on when the person ‘betrays’ you because they don’t know what your rules are.
Your autopilot assumption – that everybody thinks the way you do – is just not true. They don’t. They have a different perception of what respect is and what treating people nicely is. We all view that differently. You have to establish a joint understanding of that for a relationship to survive.
Attraction + Connection + Relationship + enduring hard times = Quality Social Life
When you have those momentary lapses of attraction and connection (which inevitably happens over time), what’s awesome is that the relationship can act like a bridge to get you through that rough period. If your boundaries ensure that you still treat each other with respect and remain open and honest, and so on, you can surivive momentary dips in interest or connection. So if you are having a bad week where you just don’t really like the person, you’ll be an adult and talk about it because of the relationship agreement.
The rules of engagement will mean that you don’t just run away or slip into passive-aggressive tactics. You have to be open and honest, and that will probably reconnect you. So the relationship can like act as a bridge to get you through the valleys.
Relationships even have rules to protect attraction. A lot of people make the absolutely devastating assumption that attraction will just survive by itself; that you’ll both just keep being interested in each other. There are subtle relationship habits that people get into that kill attraction: being too nice; spending way too much time together; touching too much; avoiding conflicts; not allowing anything that might create jealousy or anger because you’re scared of those emotions.
It can be important, especially for a romantic relationship, that you clearly establish that you’re allowed to flirt with other people, for example, or you’re allowed to have outside friends, or that you must spend time apart doing different activities so that you increase your interest each other. You’ll have new stuff to talk about with them later on.
Some couples can even be too affectionate. This absolutely destroys their sex drive for each other because there’s no tension there. There’s no flirting or banter or teasing like back when they were dating. They’re just nice all the time, and it just absolutely mellows their sex drive. So relationship rules can actually be designed to protect attraction as well (e.g. you can’t touch me intimately unless you’re horny).
Bad times can often lead to increased attraction if you get through them with healthy communication (because tension creates the spark).
First is attraction, then there’s connection, then there’s a relationship.
If you want a great social life, you have all three with every main person in your life and not get them confused. Attraction does not mean you have a connection. Connection does not mean that you need to sleep with someone or keep seeing them. And a relationship does not guarantee that things are good between you. You need all three for them to be good.
And here is the hard part: Have a look at your current people in your social circle and ask yourself,
“Which of these three do I have with them?”
And for people who are just two or one… it’s probably time to say goodbye (unless all that’s missing is relationship boundaries – set them asap).
In general, don’t settle for anything less than all three. You only get one life. Don’t waste it suffering through a mediocre social life.
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