How Much Does Chemistry Count?

What is it? Can you create it? Our panel of experts and real people explore the power of attraction—and how to harness it in your own love life.

By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

hemistry. What is it? It’s that…well, thing. That “I need to see this person again” impulse. Or that “We click” feeling. But what causes it? Does it need to happen naturally, or can you create it? Does it die over time, or are there tricks to keep the sparks flying? To explore these questions and more, we gathered together a group of real people and experts to delve into this titillating topic. Here’s what they had to say—see if you agree, and glean a few tricks on generating more chemistry in your own dating life.

The Subjects:
  • Joyce Catlett, MA, mental health specialist and author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships
  • David Givens, Ph.D., anthropologist and author of Love Signals
  • Sean and Alison, 36-year old newlyweds that met on and are now living in Rancho Cucamonga, CA with their blended family
  • Michael, 35-year-old single man from Denver, Colorado
  • Pamela, 29-year-old single woman from Seattle, Washington
Q: So how do you define chemistry?

Alison: Chemistry is like cookie dough and vanilla ice cream: When it works, it works.

Sean: Chemistry is the igniter, the catalyst for the relationship.

Pamela: I think chemistry is an animal attraction between two people that is purely physical. The connection appeals to the five senses: the way someone looks, their smell,
“Chemistry is like cookie dough and vanilla ice cream: When it works, it works. You know you have it when the only goal you have is to get back to that person.”
the way they taste, the feel of their body, the sound of their voice. The reaction to one's chemical match is often excused or explained as overwhelming and uncontrollable. It’s the "throw-down factor."

Michael: To me, chemistry is a connection, a bond or common feeling between two people. In my opinion, it starts very early in a friendship/relationship. Positive or negative chemistry is often one of the first feelings two people have about each other. It can be verbal or nonverbal, conscious or unconscious—yes, just like you were hit over the head with it!

Joyce Catlett: If you’re talking about chemistry as something that stimulates love or sexual attraction (or both), brain chemicals are definitely involved. In Why We Love, Dr. Helen Fisher found that levels of the chemical dopamine rise in a person who is infatuated, particularly as the relationship starts to take on more meaning.

David Givens: Chemistry is basically when the pleasure centers of the brain are engaged. The pleasure you get from chocolate, a martini or a roller coaster is basically the same. The brain doesn’t differentiate. While chemistry isn’t everything, many of courtship's most powerful signals are unheard, untouched, and unseen. Operating chiefly through unconscious channels, these invisible aromas, tastes, steroids, sterols, and hormones strongly shape our feelings about each other.

Q: How do you know you have chemistry with someone? Are there “symptoms”?

Alison: You know you have chemistry when it is easy. And the only goal you have for the day is to get back to that person.

Sean: I knew I had chemistry with Ali when I would spontaneously smile when I was with her or even just thinking about her.

Joyce Catlett: Symptoms? Rapid heartbeat. Shortness of breath. And sensations of excitement that are often similar to sensations associated with danger. As one researcher said, “Adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder.”

David Givens: You can tell when there is chemistry between people because the sympathetic nervous system gets aroused. Blood pressure goes up a little, the skin may flush, the face and ears will turn red and there might be a feeling of weakness in the knees. It’s that combination of basic psychological arousal combined with a feeling of pleasure.

Q: Can you create chemistry with someone you’re not initially feeling it with and, if so, how?

Michael: I think you can build chemistry, but personally, I like chemistry to just hit me. It’s much more fun that way. I enjoy suddenly realizing “Hey, I may be interested in her” and then WHAM! Makes me smile just thinking about it.

Pamela: Nope. It cannot be created. Unfortunately, it's one of the few things in life you can't learn and can't teach. You, as a couple, either have it or you don't.

Alison: Actually, I think chemistry can grow. Some people may be reserved at first, not showing their true selves. Over time, their personalities show and chemistry develops.

David Givens: Yes, I think you can create chemistry. Ordinary courtship goes over a period of weeks and months, and it builds up and adds up and eventually you get this
“Chemistry is the start or end of it all: Good chemistry equals move forward, bad chemistry equals keep looking.”
kind of chemical bonding. Eye contact and discussing personal subjects can accelerate this chemical bond.

Joyce Catlett: Sometimes alcohol, which takes away inhibitions, could make it easier to be attracted to someone. But it’s an artificial “high,” only a temporary tension reliever. The chemistry you felt might very well disappear.

Q: Can you tell if you have chemistry with someone online or on the phone, or do you have to meet in person to know?

Ali: I think you can tell whether you have compatibility online. You can’t tell that you have chemistry until you meet the person. I got tingly when I first saw Sean—until then I wasn’t quite sure if I should even be going out on the date.

Sean: I could tell there was a potential for chemistry with Ali before we met in person, based on her physical appearance in her photo, grammar, and tone in her bio, in e-mails, and then especially on the phone. However, I could definitely tell there was chemistry, and not just potential, on the first date.

Pamela: Online? Nope. Doesn't stimulate any of the five senses. Phone? Sure. The sound of someone's voice can be an incredible turn-on. Ever notice what suckers we are for people with Australian accents?

Joyce Catlett: I think chemistry would probably be less strong online or on the phone because research has shown that eye-to-eye contact is important in transmitting emotions. The exception would be for a shy person, who has trouble relaxing in social situations. Online contact would be less stressful for this person, and the more relaxed state would allow the chemistry to emerge.

Q: How long does it take to know if you have chemistry with someone? Five minutes? When you kiss? After getting intimate?

Joyce Catlett: It may take only five minutes. Simply spotting an interesting person at a cocktail party from a distance could start the chemistry perking. Many people have also reported that the first kiss was how they knew they were falling in love.

Pamela: If the first kiss isn't fireworks and hot flashes in certain regions of the body, then move on. Intimacy is the ultimate chemistry test. And that feeble excuse of “The first time is always awkward”? Not true!

Michael: Chemistry is the start or end of it all: Good chemistry equals move forward, bad chemistry equals keep looking. I don’t think the first kiss is the magic threshold, nor is being intimate. In my opinion, you should already have chemistry at that point.

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