When Cate Sabol, 39, went on a first date at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago, it wasn’t love at first sight. “My initial impression was that he didn’t dress up for the date enough,” she says. “I liked him, but it definitely was not ‘yup, this is The One.’” The guy actually emailed her afterwards to say that he’d had fun, but hadn’t felt any spark. But Sabol told him she thought it was too soon to tell, so three weeks later, they met up again for hot wings to give it another try. “We played a board game, Quarto, and I remember at one point our hands touched and… well, if there wasn’t a spark!” recalls Sabol. The couple is now married and living in Racine, WI with two kids.
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As Sabol’s story proves, first impressions aren’t always accurate. And sometimes, love can blossom in the absence of that initial spark or instant chemistry that many people expect to feel. We asked dating and relationship experts to sound off on those elusive sparks — to delve deeper into understanding why some couples don’t feel them at first, for example, and when you should agree to go on a second date.
Why chasing that elusive spark can backfire on you
According to Evan Marc Katz, a Los Angeles-based dating coach and author of Why You’re Still Single: Things Your Friends Would Tell You If You Promised Not to Get Mad, “chemistry is one of the most misleading indicators of a future relationship. Chemistry predicts nothing but chemistry.” Sure, your date might make you giddy, but will he call like he promised to do? Does she share your goals for the future? These compatibility issues often get glossed over once a spark ignites between two people.
In fact, those lovesick feelings light up the same part of your brain that reacts when you’re on cocaine, which Katz says explains why some people chase that elusive frisson of chemistry and repeatedly date heartbreakers instead of looking for better, more long-term prospects. However, “that intoxicating feeling wears off in 18-24 months,” Katz explains. When people choose their partners based on mutual physical chemistry, it can cloud their judgment and cause them to ignore any unflattering qualities about each other. “Those traits will eventually be prominent,” warns Dr. Laurie Betito, a psychologist, author and talk radio host based in Montreal. “Once the smoke clears, then you’re left with the real person as-is, not the person you created in your mind.”
Factor in first-date jitters
Some relationships start out with full-blown fireworks and then burn out; others build more gradually over time. As New York-based dating coach and matchmaker Maria Avgitidis points out, “most first dates feel like interviews. People are nervous, tensions run high… they can be full of hijinks. Even if there is no initial spark, it just may be an off day.” To take the pressure off, Avgitidis reminds clients that “the point of the first date is to get a second date. You don’t have to share your whole life story. Just tell [the other person] enough.” She also suggests working out before a date to get your endorphins pumping or doing something silly on the way to lighten your mood.
Even if your date didn’t make you weak in the knees, he or she may have more potential once you get to know each other better. “You have to assess whether there’s enough there in terms of, ‘Did I enjoy myself? Was he/she funny? Was I able to be myself around him/her?’” says Katz. “It’s a sliding scale. If you never give a chance to the sixes and sevens [out of ten], you could be sabotaging something that has legs in the long term.”
That’s why Betito recommends giving someone at least two dates before writing that person off… unless he or she is a real jerk: “If you can’t say ‘that’s a really nice girl or guy,’ maybe you shouldn’t go out with that person again,” she says. “But sometimes, attraction goes beyond the physical and you have to get to know a little bit about somebody. Or it can awaken with a first kiss.”
Prioritize finding shared commonalities over chemistry with your date
So if chemistry can be misleading, then how do you really know if someone is right for you? Betito suggests looking for shared values or goals: “If you look at the literature on arranged marriages, you have a lot of success, because they’re arranged based on commonalities,” she explains. “Families fix you up with people who have the same beliefs, culture… a spark can build based on what you have in common. You can grow into love, but you grow out of lust.” Most important, though, is communication. “As long as an appropriate communication channel between both parties is created,” says Avgitidis, “it shouldn’t matter how fast the sparks flew.”
That’s certainly proven true for Sabol and her husband. In fact, she finds it funny that he was so honest about the lack of chemistry after their first date, and that admission allowed them to talk about it together and decide to give things another go. “I plan to tell our kids about it,” she adds.
Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, PARADE, SELF, YourTango.com and many others.