Romantic Chemistry, Explained

Why are we often drawn to the wrong people—or feel no sparks for the right ones? Come learn the answers.

By Dan Bova

ew topics in life are more complicated and riddled with contradictions as the question of romantic chemistry. Why, for example, can two people be insanely attracted to each other but have absolutely nothing to say to each other? How come people can click amazingly online but feel nothing face to face? And what makes those people who are obviously bad for us so dang irresistible? Believe it or not, these conundrums actually do have logical explanations. So, stop scratching your head and read on for the answers—and some advice on how to handle it if you’re faced with one of these scenarios.

Mystery #1: How is it that sexual chemistry can be amazing when people have absolutely nothing to say to one another?
While it’d be nice to have something to say other than “Yes, yes, yes!” to someone you find so irresistible, that’s not always the case. If you feel like certain parts of your
“When you are attracted to someone, he or she can be giving every indication of ‘I’m not interested’—but you can’t hear that.”
anatomy have a mind of their own, it’s because in a way, they do. “Sexual chemistry does not always equal love, and this is because we’ve evolved distinct brain systems for mating,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, research professor in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. “One system controls the craving for sexual gratification. Another system rules over romantic love, that obsessive thinking and craving and focusing on one individual. They’re not always connected, which is why you can be madly in love with someone and only have so-so sex with them while you can have intensely passionate sex with someone you never want to see again!” With time, and a little luck, however, lust can lead to more tender feelings. “You can start having sex with someone and then fall in love,” says Dr. Fisher. “Sometimes one thing can trigger the other.” So keep chipping away at making chit chat and you may find yourself enjoying this person’s company out of bed as well as in it.

Mystery #2: What makes people we know are bad for us so attractive?
Much like booze, cigarettes and reality TV, we know bad boys and girls are, well, bad for us, but we just can’t help ourselves. Why do we crave something we know is trouble? “I call this ‘frustration attraction.’ It’s a very common part of romantic love,” explains Fisher. “Even if you don’t like someone that much, if you find out they don’t like you or people are telling you to dump them, you suddenly want them more! These kinds of relationships could literally become an addiction where you do crazy things: You wait all night by the phone or even join in dangerous behaviors.” If you’re stuck on such a shady character, try to find the reason you’re so smitten: Some people are attracted to the challenge of changing or improving a wayward partner; others may be seeking the added excitement that comes from unpredictable types. Knowing your motivations can help give you control over your emotions—and hightail it out of there if things get too dicey or the relationship starts to self-destruct.

Mystery #3: Why is it that one person can feel like there's a great connection, while the other feels nothing at all?
Miss Manners might be to blame for this dating dilemma. “The truth of the matter is that some people are just very polite,” says Dr. Fisher. “And in their politeness, they are sending signals that the other person misinterprets.” So, if you’re not into someone, make sure you’re not appearing like you are—we’re not saying you
No longer tearing each other’s clothes off? You might fear your love is dying, but it actually may be a good thing.
should be rude, but definitely keep flirting to a minimum and end the date with a handshake (and don’t say, “We should do this again sometime.”). And if you find yourself on the overly arduous end of this equation? Know that your own feelings could be deceiving you. “When you are madly attracted to someone, you re-interpret everything they do,” says Dr. Fisher. “They can be giving every indication they aren’t interested and you still can’t hear them. They say love is blind and it’s true—the emotion is so powerful, it is designed to overlook things to the contrary.”

Mystery #4: Why is it that you can have great chemistry chatting online or on the phone, but not in person?
“They call it love at first sight, not at first e-mail,” points out Dr. Fisher. “Eighty percent of what we take into the human brain is visual. So somebody can be clever and charming online, but if you don’t like what you see, it’s not going to work.” Plus, e-mails can be crafted and re-crafted into how people want to be, not who they actually are in a spontaneous way. “Face to face, people get nervous and clam up and can’t perform,” says Dr. Fisher. This, however, can bode well for you—maybe all it takes is a second or third date for this person to relax and show their true personality.

Mystery #5: Why does the spark of chemistry disappear over time?
No longer tearing each other’s clothes off every time you meet? You might fear your love is dying, but it’s actually just transforming into something you can handle for the long run. “The calming of passion in a relationship is actually a survival trait,” says Dr. Fisher. “When you’re courting, you do things that are very taxing to your mind and body: You talk until dawn, you forget to go to work, you forget to call your friends, you forget to feed the dog, you dash off and spend all of your money in Paris. If you were to live the next twenty years in that state, you’d certainly die of exhaustion!” Settling into a calmer place can, you see, be a very good thing.

Dan Bova has written for Stuff, Redbook, and other magazines.

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