I find myself using these words without defining them precisely, though I do not use them interchangeably. I find others using these words as though they were interchangeable, with that idea clearly in mind, but with enough difference in their usage to tell me they have some idea of their difference.
They’re related, certainly, but different enough that thinking of one when one means the other is a sure path to confusion at the least, heartache at the worst. So let’s sort them out, shall we?
A couple quick hits from dictionary.com on the subjects:
attract: v. 1. to draw by a physical force causing or tending to cause to approach, adhere, or unite; pull
2. to draw by appealing to the emotions or senses, by stimulating interest, or by exciting admiration; allure; invite
arouse: v. 1. to stir to action or strong response; excite
2. to stimulate sexually
Attraction, we see, is a desire for association with or the presence of someone. Arousal is an energy toward sexual activity.
Put another way, someone who attracts you is someone you want to be around; someone who arouses you is someone you want to be wrapped around.
There are two main reasons for confusing these ideas. First, one’s qualifications for attraction and arousal may overlap enough to cloud the differences. Second, one may simply have very little idea of what goes on in one’s own mind. It’s a common enough problem, and easy enough to correct. No judgment, here, unless there’s an aversion to self-understanding, toward which I shall wag a shaming finger.
When it comes to romantic interest, it is important to understand which, or both, of these impulses is in effect at a given time. It’s certainly possible to be attracted to someone but not aroused by them, or (odd as it may seem from a certain point of view) the other way around. Because they often do occur simultaneously, and because they each involve an interest in drawing closer to someone, the terms can get switched around if care is not taken.
“So what?” you might say. “If you have one you should have the other!” Well, no. First of all, as Tony Robbins has said, things can get messed up when you “should” all over them. Trying to redefine words for a subjective piety isn’t going to serve clarity very well. Secondly, it’s fairly unrealistic to assume both will always be present even in a serious relationship.
Now, a great many people writing on the subject of romance and relationships will use “attraction” to mean that which leads to sexual interest. This is only natural, since as we’ve already covered, there is a relationship between the two, and an overlap of traits that qualify for each. I have no problem with that, personally. In fact, it is such a reasonable use of the word, with correct connotations and everything, that I mean to do the same unless a distinction needs to be made between them.
The trouble comes from confusing “that which I love” with “that which turns me on.” Admittedly this is a mere restatement of the premise above, but when put this way and kept in mind, you will see that most of the frustration people have on the subject, the confusion they have in their own actions and others, is based on switching one with the other. And let me tell you, dear friend, that the two sets of attributes are sometimes only a very partial overlap.
The confusion in terms gets even worse when you include “desire” and “value” to the mix. Someone may value traits like artistic talent and say they desire it in a mate but not find it desirable as in sexually arousing. Someone else may find high social value to be arousing but too intimidating for long-term attraction. Help!
Your humble host will do his level best to keep from confusing things in this way, and invites you to mention and make correction should it go otherwise! Again, because the subjects of the Garden don’t often include platonic attraction, unless there’s a need to make distinction in that way, “attraction” will usually mean something of a more romantic nature. We have a lot to discuss on the topics of attraction and arousal, and it’ll go much better if what is meant is kept clear. Besides, an honest understanding of thought processes can only be a good thing.