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Why Strong Chemistry Doesn’t Always Lead to a Strong Relationship

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” ~C.G. Jung 

Everyone says it. They say chemistry is a must. I know I say it. But why do we say this?  What exactly is chemistry, and is it really the best indicator of a good partner?

The man I had the most chemistry with (we’ll call him Tim) treated me like an option and was never particularly concerned with my needs, desires, or feelings.

I remember the day I met him, and he opened the door and flashed his ear-to-ear grin. I literally said to myself, “FML, this guy is going to break my heart.” Despite knowing he would, and despite his treatment, I stayed with him in a long-distance, off-and-on relationship for two and a half years. Oh, and yes, he did break my heart.

Not only have I done this once, but I’ve done it SIX times!

Why did I place my feelings for him and my desire to be with him over my own sanity, my security, and my needs? Why do we do it over and over again? Why do we value chemistry over caring?

What is Chemistry?

According to anthropologist Helen Fischer, chemistry is really a mixture of hormones (testosterone and estrogen) and neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin). In her book Why We Love, she lays out a framework indicating there are four distinct personality types, each made up of varying degrees of hormones and neurotransmitters.

The Four Personality Types

  • The Explorer, defined by high dopamine activity, is adventurous, novelty-seeking, creative
  • The Builder, with high serotonin activity, is cautious, conventional, managerial
  • The Director, pumped up with testosterone, is aggressive, single-minded, analytical
  • The Negotiator, more estrogen-influenced, is empathetic, idealistic, a big-picture thinker

But, underlying this biological chemistry is a psychological chemistry, which is when we are seeking out someone to heal the damage done in our childhood. This chemistry is where our problems come in.

Most of the time we don’t know that we are drawing this parental figure toward us in some quest to get them to do things right by us this time, thereby fixing our wounded hearts. Sometimes we know it, but we keep moving forward anyway.

With Tim I knew immediately. I felt his avoidance and his emotional unavailability. My intuition told me to run the minute I met him. Unfortunately, my hormones, my soul, and my heart told me otherwise, and I continued a pattern of push and pull, love and disdain for over two years.

With all of my other boyfriends and even my husband, it wasn’t so obvious. Some it showed up later and some were worse than others. But I felt an immediate connection with every single one of them and went from being single to being in a relationship within a matter of days.

So, Is It All Or Nothing?

Not once did I take the time to determine how they treated me. Not once did I take the time to observe their behaviors and their willingness to meet my needs. I let chemistry and my feelings toward them override common sense.

This isn’t to say they are to blame or that they were bad guys, because they weren’t. My childhood issues were running the show and have been since I can remember.

Every one of them had the same characteristics. They were all kind, honest, good guys. But none of them seemed to care about my needs as much as their own. Life was all about their wants, needs, and desires, and I was supposed to just accept it. Unfortunately, I did accept it. I took it for as long as I could until I eventually left.

However, this is not a healthy way to interact in a relationship. I was at fault for settling and not speaking my mind and discussing my needs. I suppose I felt that I was lucky to get their crumbs, and if they said they loved me that should have been enough. It wasn’t.

There was always an underlying chemistry with all of them that kept me there and kept me trying. One night while I was separated from my husband, he spent the night after we went out to dinner. I remember lying there next to him. My body craved being physically next to him, but I kept looking over at him and thought to myself, “I really don’t like you very much.”

Chemistry can override our common sense, and it can keep us with someone who isn’t right for us or doesn’t treat us well. Chemistry can be the most amazing thing on the planet. The highs you get are amazing. Unfortunately, the lows that can also come with it are very low. So, what do you do?

Moving Forward

I’ve come to realize that as of right now I am always going to be chemically attracted to someone who has a little bit of an avoidant personality. Emotional ambivalence feels safe and normal to me at first. It feels like love and it feels like home. Unfortunately, that type of love is not at all fulfilling as an adult, and I have to figure out how to rewire my brain.

I’m not a doctor or a therapist, but I know myself and I think I’m fairly smart. What I think needs to be done going forward is to examine my choices more carefully before diving in.

Almost all dating experts will tell you the same thing: Relationships are built on mutual trust, intimacy, and how each partner is willing to meet the other’s needs.

If you haven’t heard of the famous study by John Gottman, here is a quick recap. They put couples in a room together and let them interact. They followed them over the years and came to this one conclusion: Every person turns toward their partner in an effort to make an emotional connection. They called these needs bids.

They found that the couples that were happiest and that remained married met their partner’s emotional bids eighty percent (80%) of the time.

Gottman identified nine separate emotional bids that include:

1. Attention
2. Interest
3. Affection
4. Extended conversation
5. Emotional support
6. Humor
7. Enthusiastic engagement
8. Play
9. Self-disclosure

What does this have to do with moving forward and with choosing a partner based on caring instead of chemistry? It means you have to observe them. Don’t rush in. Don’t choose someone just because you like them so much or you have chemistry with them.

When you reach out in an attempt to make a connection, how does your partner respond? Do they respond to your bid or move away from it? It doesn’t matter whether they do it consciously or subconsciously; what matters is how they respond.

Of course, it’s your responsibility to communicate your needs, desires, and wants, and if you fail to do this, you can’t blame it all on your partner. But, if you have and they still fail to meet your bids, then your relationship is likely doomed to fail.

Choices

It’s irrelevant if the person you choose has the physical appearance, job, sense of humor or ethics, or personality that you covet and are attracted to. If they fail to meet your bids for emotional connection, you will end up miserable and it won’t work. Period.

So, take some time to write down what it is that you need in a partner. What are your non-negotiables? This should not really include things like height or hair color or body type.

Non-negotiables are things like:

  • Honesty
  • Considers my needs as well as their own
  • Hard Working
  • Not selfish
  • Makes me laugh
  • Able to communicate their needs
  • Wants children/doesn’t want children
  • Accepts the fact that I get super fussy when I’m tired and doesn’t make me feel bad about it
  • Listens to me

This is a basic list of some things to consider. Before you invest time dating you need to invest time in yourself. Figure out what you can and cannot do without. Write down three to five of your non-negotiables and stick by them.

I’m not saying it will be easy to do this. The heart wants what it wants and chemistry can be a powerful force. Maybe this is what we all should think about if we keep choosing chemistry over caring.

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About Carrie L. Burns

Carrie L. Burns is a blogger on a mission of self-discovery. As a sexual abuse survivor that struggled for years with depression anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of self-love, and relationship issues, she found her purpose through writing and sharing her story with others. Check out her other writing at www.acinglife.com.

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  • Monica Elrod

    Carrie, your article is so timely for me. I finally made the connection recently that in my last two year relationship what I thought was “chemistry” was really that familiar pattern from childhood, where I felt that I was invisible and not important, and didn’t speak up to get my needs met because I thought I didn’t deserve it. With the help of Buddhist practices -meditation and self compassion, I’m finally seeing that I deserve better, and I’m not settling.
    Valuable information about getting your emotional needs met. As I “screen” potential dates I’ll be sure to watch for their ability to listen, to be empathetic and emotionally supportive, and avoid those self-centered, narcissistic people I’m usually attracted to.

  • Greg

    Carrie, super post!! It makes so much sense and I related to it as it resonated with me. Thanks so much for sharing! It’s funny you had mentioned “observe”. That has been my stance lately is strictly one of observation. It’seems made a difference of how I choose or more often have chosen not to dive into a relationship. Awesome post!

  • Belinda Pringle

    Thank you so much Carrie. I teally needed to wake up to this this morning. You just made my day. X

  • Wow! It makes a lot more sense when you remove feeling of failure, guilt, and wrong or rightness out of it and just see it for what it is. Your article definitely shined a light on my string of not so satisfying relationships. “This isn’t to say they are to blame or that they were bad guys, because they weren’t.” is exactly what I felt and the source of so much guilt! Thank you for sharing.

  • Carrie Burns

    You are quite welcome Cecily! I do believe that once we remove all blame out of relationships and we accept who we are and what we need it makes everything easier!

  • Carrie Burns

    Thank you Greta! Hollywood definitely makes us think everything is/should be perfect if we just have that “spark”…when in fact that spark is usually our childhood calling out for us to help fix it!

  • Carrie Burns

    I know it’s so hard to put our own needs first. Be proud that you recognized it and keep moving forward and slowly those toxic people will just disappear and won’t even enter anymore 🙂

  • Carrie Burns

    Thanks Greg!

  • Carrie Burns

    You are so welcome Belinda. 🙂

  • lv2terp

    Great post! Thank you for your insight, I really enjoyed the moving forward section, good info! 🙂

  • Carrie Burns

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Definitely worth the read. I am intrigued on how the four personality types interact with each other and how can you figure out which type you are.

  • Carrie,

    This is something we can all relate to. The “want to be with someone so I will ignore my instinct” affects each of us more than once in our lives.

    I am very curious to know more about the Gottman Study. I did some research over on his website (thanks for the link) but would love to know how you heard about the study. Is this something that you now base your dating decisions on? Do you ask and seek out how compatible you are with another based on the 80% rule?

    Very fascinating,

    Joel

  • ShaunTheCHB

    The only chemistry I understand is the periodic table.

  • ShaunTheCHB

    I can’t relate. I have never had that moment before. What’s it like? If you don’t mind me asking.

  • Not at all. I dated a girl for 6.5 years, the last 2 of which were the worst years of my life. I was blindsided by my desire to “make things work” and that things would get better. Against my judgement as well as that of my friends, family, and associates, I stuck it out.

    The dynamic between what they hearts wants and what the brain knows causes an internal struggle. You look at the person and know that the relationship is destined to fail, yet, you hang onto every moment you can. It is filled with intense highs and the lowest of lows. While in the relationship you feel lost and unable to find your way out. This happens even though you know exactly what you must do.

    Although my mind knew that it was over, even after it broke off, my heart felt empty. It was a strange feeling and one I vowed to never live again.

    Does this help?

  • ShaunTheCHB

    It does make some things clearer to me. I hope I never encounter such an event. It’s almost like a desperation type of feeling.

  • JS

    What if you don’t have a chemistry and still stick out the relationship? Your head and heart are not into it and yet you settle!

  • Carrie Burns

    Ha. I wish I were so lucky…I don’t even understand that!

  • Carrie Burns

    I would say No to that. Never settle….honestly it isn’t fair to you and it isn’t fair to the other person because my guess is you are not truly invested in the relationship. But, that’s just my opinion! I would never want someone to settle to be with me or keep me around as a convenience (which has happened and was horrible)

  • Carrie Burns

    Hi Joel-
    The Gottman study is fairly well known by all relationship coaches and pretty much anyone who studies social interactions. I think everyone has different needs and expectations. There is so much that goes into a relationship, but the core of the study is that you are more prone to divorce if your partner doesn’t meet your “bids” a majority of the time.

  • Carrie Burns

    Only ONE? I think I’ve had like FIVE! Yes, I believe you were definitely mirroring…because it feels normal. It FEELS like love. But, alas it’s just comfort and not necessarily fulfilling.

  • Brandy Mundy

    I think I’m going through what you are saying now. I have been with s man I love for almost three years and today I told him how I feel and let’s just say it was an interesting eye opener. This relationship has taught me to continue working on me at all costs.

  • Pam Magellan

    You described how I am in a relationship to a T…. long distance for 3 years. I feel in my gut that something hasn’t been right. So much wrong doing in the past. The excuses he has made. I actually have written down all his excuses. The list is long. I would fret about the situation and Talk to him and then feel like the whole thing was my fault. He is a master at turning the tables. I’ve even told him that. I don’t know why I keep hanging on. Neither of us are going to move. He lives east I live west. Every man in my life has left and made me feel abandoned. Started with my father. My best and most healthy relationship was when I was 16 until 22… I am now 47 and alone. No kids like I always wanted. Why? Because I’ve been dating with chemistry and not real feelings of being treated right.

  • Su

    I have a partner who fulfill all my emotional needs and meet all the standards set by in this article….except that there is no chemistry at all…..what do I choose in this situation….

  • DrAwesome

    Carey you have an uncanny knack of writing an article just as I am thinking about things.
    I have a question.
    I agree that it is our responsibility to communicate our needs.
    I always felt that if you have to ask someone for something, it is never as sincere as when it happens organically through actions, because then you know they are willing to do it themselves.
    Now I am no longer sure if that is right anymore…

  • Carrie Burns

    Thank you! I think we are all egoistic and we assume others see the world from our perspective, which is totally normal. But, once we step outside ourselves and “seek to understand and THEN be understood” everything changes. Others will never automatically know what our needs are as they are specific to us…so the more we can express our needs in a loving way the more your partner can choose to meet them or not.

  • Carrie Burns

    Su-this is a complex issue I’m sure. Is it a friendship? What did your parent’s marriage look like? Do you want more or is the comfort of the relationship acceptable to you? I’m guessing by the way you framed the question is that it is not…so you need to ask yourself why. What DOES it give you? Does it keep you safe? Does it keep you from true intimacy? Does it keep you from having to change? These are a few questions you might ask yourself.

  • Carrie Burns

    Pam-I totally get you. Mine went on for 2.5 years and it was NEVER enough, but I let it be okay. I was continually chasing that love i wanted from my mother. You chose him to try and fix the abandonment. Unfortunately-he can’t fix it….only you can fix it. I know how hard it is to leave. The only person who can change your life is you and when you are ready you will. Janet Jackson just had a kid at 50…so you never know. Look into those abandonment issues and gather your strength and decide what you want and how you want to spend your life….hopefully you will transition to something better. I’m finally with a secure man who treats me wonderfully…but it took TONS of trial and error and about 6 failed long term relationships. Hang in there….

  • Su

    I am not sure, I am also someone like you who have gone through so many disappointments….and now I am just so tired. I don’t want to experiment anymore…I am so done with the whole chasing game. For first time I let a guy who i am not attracted to or who dint excite my chemicals to come into my life…..as I mentioned it gives me all the safe feeling and all….but I m often struck by the fact what if I find someone better…what if I find someone who I am attracted to and who takes care of me like this guy….but then I again also feel that these are very rare things and doesn’t happen with everyone and I need to start adjusting and being ok with whatever I have….i am continuously swinging between these thoughts and don’t know what to decide and as a result of these swingings it is affecting my relationship with him as well….i keep dumping him and then patch up…..
    Somewhere I also feel I am not being fair to the guy as well….he so deserve someone who would take care of him back just like he does….
    I am so confused right now….I don’t know what to settle for….
    I read posts by happy couple who keep saying they just feel blessed everyday to wake up beside their partner and things like how extremely happy they feel in the presence of their partner…..i don’t feel all that with him…..i just feel like he is a safe option….i won’t end up feeling crap….or neglected or things like that…but I also won’t feel super elated and happy as well….

  • Issa

    Great article, Carrie. Couldn’t agree more. Some months ago I ended up with a harsh heartbreak because of chemistry. Relationships are more than just hormones. Hugs from Mexico 🙂
    Issa