My Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines chemistry in the context under which we are talking about it as a strong mutual attraction, attachment, or sympathy. But a “strong mutual attraction” could refer to a pair of magnets as well as two people in love. “Attachment” might describe a pair of Legos sandwiched together, and “sympathy” could imply a human element to chemistry in the absence of any romantic connotation.
I’m not berating Webster’s definition of romantic chemistry. I’m simply trying to unravel a complex phenomenon, an enigma of human emotion we all experience at random and often unpredictable moments in our lives. I titled this chapter “The Magic of Chemistry” because in some ways, it really does work like magic. More than just something you feel, chemistry defines something you experience when you hear a favorite song, watch a favorite movie, enjoy a live performance, or make eye contact with an alluring stranger across a crowded room.
From a romance perspective, two types of chemistry exist: romantic chemistry—or sexual chemistry fueled by emotion—and intellectual chemistry—driven by logic and reason. A new relationship can begin to unfold with only one or the other, but it takes both kinds of chemistry to sustain a meaningful and lasting romance. The nature of romantic chemistry seems obvious because it defines the type of chemistry we most easily recognize. Typically, when we first meet someone, we either feel a spark of attraction or we don’t. With intellectual chemistry, things get a little more complicated. Whereas romantic chemistry brings two people together, intellectual chemistry sustains a romantic relationship beyond the initial infatuation stage. Furthermore, intellectual chemistry stimulates our capacity for communication, compromise, and commitment. It occurs on a higher level of thinking and usually takes longer to develop or discern than romantic chemistry, which we often, but not always, gauge the first time we meet someone. The importance of intellectual chemistry should not be understated and ripples through the following chapters in this book. But for the purpose of this chapter, I primarily focus on romantic chemistry and its role in a meaningful and lasting romance.
To understand the fundamental workings of romantic chemistry, we start by taking everything we know about the science of chemistry and throw it out the window. The chemistry of love does not abide by the laws of physics or the laws of chemical reactions. It can’t be governed by theories or postulates. It can’t be quantified by the scientific method. It can’t be dissected into physical elements or described by the laws of quantum mechanics. And despite certain anecdotal evidence to the contrary, it cannot be predicted.
So how do we define the indefinable in chemistry? A person’s outward appearance? Their tone of voice? Their smell? Their touch? Their taste? Their air of confidence? Their aura? Their personality? Their feelings? Their behaviors? Their beliefs? A combination of a few factors or all of the above?
Sometimes chemistry appears subtle. Sometimes almost palpable. And sometimes we find chemistry with someone we least expect—someone who doesn’t fit our preconceived type; someone with the wrong height, wrong weight, wrong age, wrong hair, wrong demeanor, and so forth. Yet somehow we can’t fight the urge to get close to this person despite our intellect telling us they don’t fit our mold of how a perfect partner should appear or act. That’s because chemistry knows no boundaries and doesn’t hinge on someone’s physical characteristics or the make of car they drive.
People often choose their partner based on a list of personal preferences or preconceived notions of who they think a perfect match should be while ignoring the absence of chemistry. At times, partners fail to acknowledge the lack of chemistry and wonder why their relationship never felt right in the first place. In the absence of chemistry, romance wilts like a flower without sun or water.
Romantic chemistry isn’t governed by logic or reason. Unlike some aspects of romantic relationships, chemistry can’t be faked. Unfortunately chemistry isn’t something you can work on. It’s either present or it’s not. This partly explains why many promising relationships fail despite their best intentions. The chemistry we feel or don’t feel constitutes human emotion. It’s engrained in our DNA and just as complicated to understand.
Without romantic chemistry, you’re missing a key ingredient required to sustain a meaningful and lasting romance. When the right chemistry is present, it’s usually there in a big way. Part of this has to do with what scientists term our biological rhythm. Each and every one of us has a genetically determined biological rhythm inherent in our body movements, speech patterns, and emotional responses. When we experience romantic chemistry with someone, we feel in sync, or in tune with each other’s biological rhythm.
As the first of the 4Cs I examine in this book, chemistry sets the tone in our romantic relationships. Unlike communication, compromise, and commitment, you can’t work on improving the chemistry in your relationship. You can nurture it, certainly, and we’ll touch on this later, but fundamentally, chemistry is either there or it isn’t. Similar to the law of conservation of energy, chemistry cannot be created or destroyed. Energy can change form within an isolated system, but the energy persists. Chemistry can change form within a romantic relationship—through various stages of love, and if the right conditions exist—our needs are met—the chemistry will persist.
We frequently overlook the importance of chemistry, hoping that by the second or third date we’ll start to develop feelings for this person; however, “feelings” themselves, as defined by fondness, affection, or interest, do not entirely equate to chemistry. You can’t impose chemistry because you want it to be there. You can’t fake it. And you can’t wish it upon your budding relationship. You can only acknowledge if a spark exists. For some of us, it takes longer than others to determine if we feel the right chemistry or not. For many of us, our emotions ignite the instant we meet the right person.
According to a survey from the professional dating service, It’s Just Lunch, which polled five thousand single men and women, the importance of chemistry was rated almost twice as high as the importance of compatibility on a first date. The survey also asked the question, “On a first date, how much time do you need before you decide if you want to see your date again?” I interpret this as a question of chemistry. Of the five thousand single men and women surveyed, forty-four percent indicated they knew within twenty minutes whether they wanted to see their date again or not. And thirty-three percent indicated they knew within an hour. Although this survey polls a small sample size from a significantly larger general population of single adults who live across the United States, it supports the notion that we either feel a certain romantic connection on a first date or we don’t. At least one Harvard study corroborates this assertion by suggesting people can intuitively sense the basic impression they will have of the other person in the first thirty seconds of an encounter.
In general, we tend to feel attracted to people who fulfill important needs and desires. Most people are attracted to individuals with similar interests, philosophies, and appealing physical features. Women tend to be attracted to tall men with distinctive cheekbones, a strong jaw, and a symmetrical face. Men tend to be attracted to tall women with a certain hip to waist ratio. Regardless of the physical features both sexes desire, we are also drawn to a sense of humor, social and economic status, common interests, and goals. Psychologists add another dimension when they suggest we are prone to selecting mates who are similar to the parent with whom we have unresolved childhood issues, and unconsciously seek to resolve this natal relationship in adulthood.
At a biological level, we’re driven by a human impulse governed by our natural chemistry. For men, this primarily involves the male sex hormone, testosterone. For women, it primarily involves estrogen. The balance of these two chemicals, combined with others, plays a role in the strength of our libidos. Our brains naturally produce phenylethylamine, an amphetamine believed to be responsible for our feelings of ecstasy, euphoria, excitement, and joy. Dopamine, another important element, increases sex drive in men by stimulating the release of testosterone. In both men and women, elevated levels of dopamine in the brain produce exhilaration, hyperactivity, and accelerated breathing. Norepinephrine, a chemical derived from dopamine, also produces a similar effect for both genders.
Sometimes chemistry sneaks up on us. Other times it beats us over the head. And sometimes it tricks us into thinking it’s really there when it’s not. Although we can’t control whether we feel a certain romantic chemistry or not, we can learn to make better use of our “chemistry receptors,” to help us determine the presence of genuine romantic chemistry.
Chemistry Reception in a One-Dimensional Environment
We all have “chemistry receptors” that help us process and understand our environment through our sense of smell, sight, touch, taste, and hearing. We use these senses to communicate with one another in our daily lives. These senses can also act as chemistry receptors to attract us toward a particular voice, or the look of a person’s face or how they smell with a given cologne or perfume. Beyond our five senses, we also employ our intuition or gut feeling we derive about someone. Collectively, these chemistry receptors provide us the ability to discern a certain level of romantic chemistry within the context defined by our particular communication environment, which I define as either one, two, or multidimensional.
One-dimensional communication environments include social network sites, email, instant messaging, and text messaging, which only engage our sense of sight. With the proliferation of online dating—a topic I’ll explore in great detail in Chapter IV—we’ve set the bar at an all time low in terms of chemistry reception. The input we glean from a web page or a text message conveys very little human content. We can see a person’s smile in a picture, but we can’t feel the warmth of their smile like we can in person. We can’t see how their expression changes when we talk to them. We can’t hear the tone or inflection in their voice from a one-dimensional email or text message.
From the perspective of someone we’ve never met before, this type of one-dimensional communication environment causes problems by deceiving us into thinking we have a real emotional connection, when in reality, our connection is tenuous at best. With one-dimensional communication, you can send and receive messages all day long with a false sense of intimacy, a sort of pseudo-connection. And therein lies the rub. You think you know someone from their Facebook page or text message dialogue, only to talk on the phone for the first time and realize this person you’ve been emailing or texting doesn’t fit the type of person you imagined at all. This same phenomenon occurs, although to a lesser degree, when you meet someone briefly through a chance encounter and exchange phone numbers only to languish in the world of text messaging without making an effort to actually call one another and engage in a real conversation that combines what you see with what you hear. Merging two senses moves us toward two-dimensional communication, which vastly improves our ability to determine if romantic chemistry exists or not.
Chemistry Reception in a Two-Dimensional Environment
In a two-dimensional communication environment, our sense of hearing comes into play, and along with it, our ability to more accurately discern if the right chemistry exists or not. In two-dimensional settings, we hear not only what someone says, but how they say it. We interpret subtle nuances in the way they speak, or in the way they laugh, or whether they seem quiet or gregarious. Some voices grate on our nerves. Some are pleasing to the ear. Some people talk slowly while others persist in a manic state.
A conversation also reveals a lot about a person’s education level. Do they converse in slang? Do they use big words and sound condescending? Do they ask questions? If so, are they general, get-to-know-you kinds of questions, or probing, personal interview types of questions? Do they open up and share about themselves or do they perpetuate the dreaded awkward silence? Are they recently divorced or have they dated enough to know what they’re really looking for?
I recall an instance where I met an attractive, professional, single mother through a popular online dating site. After we exchanged several emails, she shared her phone number and invited me to call her. Unfortunately, the impression I’d gleaned from her through our email correspondence was diametrically opposed to the person on the other end of the line. My association with her through our one-dimensional email communication had led me to believe I’d met a kind, articulate, well educated, and very attractive—she had nice pictures—woman who shared many common interests with me. On the phone, however, she cursed like a sailor and came across as ignorant, crass, mean, apathetic about her students, and eager for me to do whatever it took to plan a dream date for us. That conversation was five minutes of my life I won’t ever get back, and an important lesson learned.
A short phone conversation reveals a lot about a person, much more than you can ever glean from a Facebook page or an email introduction from a friend playing matchmaker. This assumes you’ve seen a picture of this person to gauge what he looks like. If not, your short phone call might leave you with the image of a tall, dark, and handsome Fabio look-alike, when in reality, he might very well be a stout, handsome bald man with a Telly Savalas flair. Of course, a two-dimensional communication environment has its limitations as well when it comes to establishing the presence of romantic chemistry. I’ll address nonverbal communication at length in Chapter IV, but for now, consider that the majority of our communication is nonverbal. This explains why we often feel an instant attraction to someone we meet in person, and not based solely on their physical appearance, but on how they communicate to us with their eyes and body language in a multidimensional environment.