Is there more to chemistry than sexual attraction?

One of the top eHarmony questions is “How important is chemistry to you?”. I like the question but it got me thinking — what exactly is chemistry? The dictionary defines chemistry as the complex emotional or psychological interaction between two people. Nice, but not particularly helpful. What exactly is it? How does it work? Is it simply a chemically-induced high that comes from lust or infatuation?

The answer to that question probably depends on the person. I think the majority of people think of chemistry only in a relationship context and what they’re really talking about is sexual chemistry. But I think there’s more to it than that.

I think chemistry is a sense of connection you have with another person. It’s energy. It’s the feeling of feeling good when you’re with them and missing them when you’re not. Although we traditionally associate it with romantic relationships, if we’re open to it, we can experience it in other contexts as well. If we limit chemistry to romantic partners and only think about it when we’re first dating, then we cheat ourselves out of a lot of potentially “feel good” experiences.

Experts suggest that familiarity, similarity and non-judgement play a key role in feeling a sense of chemistry. This is likely because these qualities make us more comfortable, trusting and likely to open up and engage. When we engage, the sense of connection builds. The difference between romantic chemistry and friendship chemistry would seem to be that romantic chemistry includes the items in the above list and sexual attraction.

Kelly Campbell in More Than Chemistry suggests that chemistry occurs most often between people who are down-to-earth and sincere. If a person is comfortable with themselves, they are better able to express their true self to the world, which makes it easier to get to know them. Understanding oneself would also make a person more tolerant and accepting of other people, even if perspectives on important matters differed.

Campbell also looked at personality to see if some people were more prone to chemistry than others. She found that people were more likely to experience friendship chemistry if their personalities were open (e.g., adventurous, imaginative, and emotionally in-tune), conscientious (e.g., competent, disciplined, hard-working), and agreeable (e.g., friendly, cooperative, and considerate). Openness and conscientiousness were key determinants of romantic chemistry as well, but agreeableness was less important.

The Chemical Cocktail, aka Love is a Drug

When we’re attracted to someone, the hypothalamus of the brain releases a chemical cocktail which includes sex hormones, dopamine, cortisol and norepinephrine. This results in a combination of physical and emotional responses — some good, like excitement and giddiness, and some not so good, like fear and anxiety and the racing heart, sweaty palms and flush cheeks that go along with that.

Dopamine is a “feel good” hormone responsible for the majority of the brain’s reward system. The “high” we experience when we’re attracted to someone is similar chemically to the high an addict gets when he satisfies his addiction. The same regions that light up when we’re feeling attraction light up when drug addicts take cocaine and when we binge eat sweets.

Stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine also increase when we’re attracted, mimicking the fight or flight stress response. As cortisol levels rise, serotonin levels decrease resulting in anxiety, preoccupying thoughts, hopes and fears — the obsessive-compulsive behaviors often associated with infatuation.

Although we get a nice high from the release of these chemicals, the longer term effects may be unhealthy, especially when it comes to the continuous release of cortisol and norepinephrine,. It’s very similar to having the fight or flight switch on all the time which depletes your body and damages other systems. When you’re in this mode, the body ignores or shuts down other systems, like digestion, sleeping, and most importantly the immune system.

There are more good chemicals in the cocktail as you move from initial attraction or infatuation to intimacy. These include oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is often called the “cuddle hormone” and like dopamine, is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding and childbirth. Vasopressin is also a bonding hormone and serves to modulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

Beyond the initial high

In looking at the chemical effects of chemistry, it’s easy to see how people could get addicted to the initial rush that comes when you first meet someone and ultimately look to repeat that over and over with a new someone all the time. But it begs the question — is that chemistry or is it just sexual infatuation? The answer depends on the context and perhaps the sequencing. You can certainly have sexual chemistry without a real connection and you can have a real connection without sexual attraction. I’m guessing you don’t get the good drugs like oxytocin and vasopressin without the real connection, which would suggest that relationships that are purely sexual would prove to be not only emotionally unhealthy over time, but also physically unhealthy.

In the end I think we’re all looking for meaningful connections, but we sometimes get lost and let our hormones drive the bus. It’s OK if the sexual attraction leads but then you move into exploration of a deeper connection. But if it doesn’t go there and you want it to, it can be deeply painful.

Perhaps we would be better served if we took sex off the table for a minute and focused simply on how we feel around the other person. Do I feel comfortable, able to be my true self? Do we laugh, share stories and talk about things we have in common? Is the conversation effortless? Do I feel like I’ve known this person for a long time even though we just met?

This to me is true chemistry.