I’m in a new relationship for the first time in a few years, and it’s going really well. And like most people that find themselves in an exciting new romantic tryst, I’ve been thinking about gravity a lot.
Yup, you read that right—gravity—one of the four basic universal forces that distorts time, bends light, and shapes the very fabric of the reality itself. I know it’s nerdy, but I can’t help but wonder: If gravity influences all the matter in the universe, what affect does it have on my romantic relationships?
Like I said, I’ve been single for a while.
Gravity is insanely hard to understand. No one understands it—not really. Ok, like 35 people on the planet get it, but they could be proven wrong tomorrow. General relativity is weird man…
But I’ve never been one to let complete ignorance of a topic stop me from writing about it on the internet, so let’s take a look at how gravity works to see how it relates to you and your special snuggle bear. (I’m workshopping some pet names).
Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation states:
“Every particle attracts every other particle with a force which varies inversely as the square of the distance. The law thus suggested is assumed to be universally true.”
-Newton’s Principia: Sections I, II, III (1863), 217
Another simpler definition says that gravity is “A force that attracts a body toward any other physical body having mass.” Or here’s some math if you’re nasty:
Essentially Newton says that every particle in the universe attracts every other particle in the universe — relative to it’s mass — but that attractive force diminishes as the distance between the objects increases. It’s called the Inverse-square Law and sounds a lot like long-distance relationships.
The main takeaway is this: The bigger you are, and the closer you are, the more gravitational force you have. And just like the planets and stars, every human relationship has it’s own unique type of gravity. And I’m gonna prove it.
According to Newton, all attraction is mutual.
The chair you’re sitting on exerts the same type of gravitational force on you as the center of the Earth does. However, the reason you’re not orbiting your chair is the same simple reason you don’t fly off the Earth as it rotates at 1,040 mph—Earth has way more massive than a desk chair. We conform to the most massive objects around us, and in relationships, that’s our partner.
The joke that old married couples start to look alike, or “relationship chameleons” take on the traits of whoever they happen to be dating that month stem from this simple premise. More mass = equals more gravitational pull. If you keep that truth in mind, some of your friends’ and your past bizarre romantic behavior starts to makes a weird kind of sense.
Mass Matters (see what I did there?)
In astrophysics, every object orbits something larger. The Moon orbits the Earth, which orbits the Sun, and the Sun orbits the supermassive black hole at center of the Milky Way. The Milky Way probably orbits some crazy intergalactic Sarlacc pit made up of billions of black holes. (Seriously, guys: suuuuuper single for a while).
Each of these systems has a specific mass that determines the way the objects in them orbit each other. People have mass too, and while our physical bodies might not exert gravity the way the Sun affects the Earth, our interests, experiences, appearance, ethics, morals, values, and life choices combine to create a peculiar gravitational pull on the people we date.
It sounds like hippy nonsense, but what’s interesting is that just like “invisible” gravity, we can identify the effects our “invisible” romantic influence has observing the effect we have on our partners and vice versa. You can literally quantify who has more “relationship mass” with just a few simple observations.
Whose Apartment Has More Mass?
The most obvious gravity well in any modern physical relationship is where you spend the night. Assuming you don’t move in together after the first date or wait until marriage to bone, you will inevitably play the game of “your place or mine?” at least a few times before a familiar pattern sets in.
In the beginning of a relationship, people go to extremes to maintain the illusion of equilibrium when it comes to spending the night at each others’ places. You ride the Staten Island Ferry twice a week to stay at her place. She ignores that smell at your place. But that level of energy isn’t sustainable. Entropy inevitably sets in, and romantic gravity wins.
Wriggle however you like, one person’s place always emerges as the optimal choice — it’s cleaner, more spacious, he lives alone, she lives closer to the subway, it’s near that bar you both like, etc. — the reasons vary, but inevitably a relationship orbit is identified.
The Gravity of Dating
It’s no coincidence that we call it “falling in love.” As you date someone, you both “fall” towards each other. You adapt to her early work schedule. She watches Star Wars with you…or whatever. Over time, you adopt each others’ personality traits in a million subtle ways.
Don’t get me wrong, in a healthy relationship both people (or more if you’re in an open relationship, I’m hip to every lifestyle) compromise and adapt to each other. You grow together into two new (hopefully better, more interesting, vibrant) people instead of just dealing with some new person in your same old life. However, it’s naive to say that a healthy romantic relationship affects both people equally.
Binary star systems exist, but they’re not the universal norm (more on that in a bit). We all like to think that the person we’re with feels exactly the same amount of love, affection, and attraction towards us, but while it’s often the goal, it’s rarely the reality.
Types of Romantic Gravity
The best relationships are built on mutual respect, compromise and communication, but gravitational balance is rare in the cosmos and even rarer in love. The Moon orbits the Earth, not the other way around (although technically we both travel in an elliptical orbit around an invisible point of mutual gravity between us, but that point is closer to Earth since it’s bigger yada yada yada…).
One partner typically has more “relationship mass.”
The point is, every particle in the universe has a vector (Newton’s First Law of Motion). The gravity of nearby objects affects not only which direction you’re going to take, but in a very literal sense gravity warps space itself affecting which direction you can take.
Nothing can ignore gravity, not even light. Quantum tunneling aside, a comet might look free but it’s beautiful path through the cosmos has been predetermined to the nanometer by the gravity well it’s orbiting in.
Every closed system in the universe is directed by gravity — even your love life.
Below are a few examples of typical celestial orbits. I’ve taken some liberties and aligned each with it’s corresponding relationship type. See if anything looks familiar.
The lucky few that find someone with mutual interests, similar goals, sexual chemistry, and compatibility on multiple levels are rare pockets of romance in a sea of void. I’m not a “soul mate” kind of guy (if you couldn’t guess based on my affinity for physics and causality), but I think that true pairings of this nature are precious.
If you find your binary star, thank your lucky…well…stars and do everything you can to orbit as close to the values, interests, and mutual attraction that captured you both in the first place.
There’s nothing wrong with an alpha and a beta partnership. In fact, a lot of psychologists thinks it’s an optimal pairing and many people find true happiness fulfilling this type of romantic role. It takes a special type of self-awareness to identify when someone really different than you is the ideal partner.
As much as I’ve argued that gravitational orbits are singular and fixed, a lot of successful relationships actually have thousands of concurrent orbits going on at the same time behind the scene. It’s like calculating a shuttle launch—there are a lot of hidden variables that affect the trajectory.
Some people prefer to let their partner take the lead in social settings. Others defer to their partner in bed, their careers, or when it comes to raising kids. The Earth might be the dominant body in its orbit with the Moon, but life here on Earth desperately needs the Moon’s gravity. Without it, the tides wouldn’t exist, the ocean would stagnate, and life here on Earth would be completely different—if it existed at all!
This kind of romantic gravity is fraught with peril. One partner drastically outweighs the other in almost every way and pulls the lesser mass out of its own path to circle around the larger object. The Earth acquiesces to the immense mass of the sun, and while life here is pretty awesome thanks to solar energy, it’s a completely one-sided relationship. If the sun broke up with us tomorrow, Earth would spin off into oblivion, a cold dead lifeless rock eating ice cream and watching Maid in Manhattan. Again.
While this relationship type can work, try to address situations when the gravity completely tips in favor of one partner. If you never see your own friends or stay at your own place, you might be stuck in a gravity well. Sure, your partner might sparkle like the sun, but there’s a reason the Earth has a protective magnetic sphere—to protect us from all those harmful UV rays and solar flares.
Elliptical Binary Orbit
Not every relationship has to last until the heat death of the universe. Some great relationships can be casual or span long stretches of time without seemingly interacting at all. If you find yourself in one of these orbits, enjoy it for the beautiful cosmic dance that it is. Sometimes two disparate bodies are attracted to a singular point that exist for fleeting moments in space outside of your norm.
Gravity Doesn’t Compromise
For decades Mercury’s orbit puzzled astronomers and theoretical physicists alike. All the planet’s in the solar system, from Mercury to Neptune (sorry Pluto) orbit the sun in the same direction. Combined with Earth’s diurnal rotation, planets in the night sky travel east to west. End of story.
Yet every few years Mercury does something strange. It orbits in reverse for a few weeks.
The thing is, Mercury doesn’t really change directions. Gravity never wavers. The explanation is much simpler: Mercury orbits the sun faster than the Earth orbits the sun.
Mercury is also closer to the sun, so you get an optical illusion that makes it look like Mercury hits the rewind button from time to time every time Mercury “laps” us. It’s comically simple when you have all the facts, but just like an erratic relationship when viewed from the outside, it doesn’t make any sense.
(Check out this awesome Mercury Retrograade breakdown from Vox for more info if you’re a geek like me).
The point is, we all like to think we’re special unique snowflakes. We think that the laws of human behavior that govern billions of other peoples’ live and actions don’t apply to us.
We aren’t special. Your relationship isn’t something brand new.
People have loved before you, and they’ll love after you, and they’ll probably do it in a very similar way.
The Illusions of Binary Star Systems
Nearly every choice you make in relationship is binary. This or that. Here or there. Two (or more, again, I’m open-minded) people agree on a single shared outcome.
- Are we eating Italian or Mexican food tonight?
- Your place or mine?
- Are we spending the holidays with my family or yours?
- Are we taking a vacation to Europe or Japan?
While the potential options are limitless (you can eat whatever you want or vacation anywhere), the act of choosing is singular. One choice eliminates all other options. The decision sets that invisible point of orbit closer to one of you.
Sure, you might both want to see Maid in Manhattan (man, that movie kicks ass), but one of you wants to see it more. True parity between physical bodies does exist, but it’s not the norm.
I’d argue that if you look closely at your relationship—whether it’s great casual sex, a successful polyamorous partnership, or a loving committed monogamous relationship—you’ll find areas where the relationship tips in one person’s direction, even if it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved.
Gravity Isn’t Sinister
That’s an important point to stress: Gravity is not a competition. Gravity simply is. There’s nothing immoral or vicious about it. Bigger stuff influences smaller stuff. Often times the same is true for romantic gravity.
If you stay at her place every night because her bed is amazing or she lives alone, you both benefit from a sweet situation. She has more romantic gravity, but who cares? It’s all coming up Millhouse for you too.
She expends less energy since it’s her place, but you get to sleep right there next to her. And that’s the whole point, dummy.
The difference between gravity and romantic gravity is that while both exert an inexorable attraction, we get to choose the people that we orbit. Sure, there are romantic black holes and abusive, unhealthy relationships that sucks us in and chew us up, but you always have a say in the people you choose to spend time with. As beautiful as they are, the same can’t be said of the fixed, immovable stars.
A Final Note About Love and Special Relativity
Don’t understand anything you just read? Not sure how gravity fits into your love life? What about special relativity? Imagine something for me, for just a second and see how it makes you feel:
Think about the weight of your lover on top of you, or pressed against your back.
Does it seem both heavy and light? Like you’re held down and supported at the same time?
Think about when you hold the hand of someone special.
Do you feel rooted to the ground and like you could float away any second?
We like to think that we’ve mastered the laws that govern the cosmos. We declare that we can categorize and order the stars. Yet a universe of contradiction, chaos, and complexity exist in the arms of the ones we hold close at night while we lie together tangled in the sheets.
This universe is a beautiful mysterious place that only gets more wonderful when you share it with someone else.