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Sparks and Leaves

On the difference between true passion and “chemistry.”
Oct. 17, 2010

My grandparents married in St Joseph, MO on June 6, 1931. They were still happily married over 50 years later when my grandmother died of cancer. My grandfather wept bitterly at her side to the very end. After she passed he carried on with a full active life, but died only two years later. Without her, he just didn’t have the heart for life he used to. “With your grandma gone Scotty… I just don’t care anymore whether I live another day or 20 years. Until I’m with her again it’s all the same to me…” I will never forget the spark I would see in his eyes as he spoke of their wedding day. “Boy Scotty! She sure was pretty in that hat!” Half a century later the sparks were still there.

On the other hand, there’s actress/socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor. Having to date been married no less than nine times, she once told a reporter,

“Tiring women are forever asking me why my family and I have had so many husbands. Is it not possible for them to understand that you fall in love, but you also fall out of love?”

In fact, she divorced and remarried again twice after making this comment.

Modern singles in a world of online dating would do well to think about the difference between the kind of love my grandparents had and the kind Zsa Zsa fell into and out of—an image that suggests nothing so much as the blind stumbling into and out of ditches.

If there is an overused and under-questioned word in the modern single lexicon, it’s “chemistry.” That beautiful spark… the pounding of the heart and tingling, joyful electricity we feel when we connect romantically with another. We all know what it is, and we were made for it. My grandparents had it. Zsa Zsa didn’t—at least not in any way that matters. And despite a cacophony of online soliloquies about its importance and demands for it in relationships, few singles have it either. Why not?

Over the years I’ve noticed patterns in how people I’ve known describe what chemistry means to them. Some can describe clearly what it is about this or that person that lights the fires in them. He/she is attractive, kind, has a nice smile, shares their values, has a wicked sense of humor… the point is, there are reasons and they can delineate them clearly. Others however, cannot provide anything even remotely approaching a thoughtful reason for what drives their romantic feelings and dating choices. “You can’t explain chemistry!” they tell me. “It’s a mystery!” It may ruffle some feathers to say so but the fact is, most of the former were men and without exception the latter were all women. Forgive me for being blunt ladies, but there's no point in not calling a spade a spade—like it or not, whatever else may be said about them good or bad, there's a reason why the term ditzy is rarely used to describe men. ;-) And it's also likely that this explains at least some of your well-documented tendency to be far pickier than us and less likely to honestly, and accurately communicate your true interest level when dating (Penke et al., 2007; Todd et al., 2007; Place et al., 2009).

I believe chemistry eludes many of us at least in part because we lack two things my grandparents had—self-awareness, and resolve. They knew who they were—what they needed, their strengths and weaknesses, and what works in relationships and what doesn’t—far better than most of us, despite our loud claims to the contrary. They knew that love is more than just passion, it’s a decision—an act of will. “Love one another,” Jesus tells us (John 13:34), a phrase that appears repeatedly in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Wherever it is used, the original Greek is conjugated in the imperative—in other words it is a command, not a statement or wish. This makes no sense at all if love and companionship are founded mainly on sparks.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that sparks aren’t important, or that we weren’t made to have them. But they must serve us, not the other way around, and they cannot be the sole basis even for the beginning of a relationship much less for its long-term foundation. Research has shown that most of what we call “chemistry” is exactly that anyway—interactions of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, both of which are produced in the mid and lower brain of animals as well as humans and can be regulated by a host of psychopharmacological drugs (Fisher, 2004; Wikipedia 2010a, 2010b). For instance, some SNRI (Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor) medications used to treat depression and bipolar illness have been shown to suppress libido to some extent. Mood, diet, stress, and even medication can all impact that “mysterious” spark of chemistry whether we realize it or not.

Since my divorce I’ve dated numerous women who struck my fancy—women for whom I had chemistry (for reasons!) and would’ve loved to have gotten to know better, but it wasn’t to be. Initially these women showed every sign of having had chemistry for me as well. They pursued me, made time to go out, flirted, and even told me they were excited about the possibilities. But their spark vanished after no more than one or two dates. All agreed that my online profile and pictures were not misleading in any way, and most described me with words like “handsome,” “intelligent,” “talented,” and in a few cases even “inspiring” (for the record I never once solicited any of these comments or put anyone in the position of having to avoid hurting my feelings). Yet all went away after a no more than one or two dates claiming the “chemistry” had just "vanished."

Now, none of this would’ve been surprising provided that;

  1. There had been reasons they could sanely articulate as to why, and
  2. They had taken at least 3 dates, say, to get to know me beyond an initial impulse.

Neither was the case. Not one of these women could give me anything even remotely approaching a lucid explanation as to why the stars weren’t aligned just so any longer, and few were willing to give even a second date a chance. Some lost the spark after a single phone conversation before even meeting me in person. I, on the other hand, had no confusion at all as to why I had sparks and wanted to continue getting to know them (for at least 3 dates anyway!). But all attempts to find any sign of clarity in these women were in vain. There never was a chance for anything to develop or for either of us to know each other to any depth.

By contrast, my grandparents went through a courtship ritual. They dated—more than once—did things together, made time to get to know each other a little, and gave some level of relationship a chance. Sure there were plenty of sparks but not always, yet they continued to spend time together on days when there weren’t. They had good and bad times, occasionally created romance where there wasn’t any, and at other times set romance aside to answer important questions about life and each other. After a while a funny thing happened… those evanescent sparks that came and went ignited into a deep fire that gave light and warmth to a relationship that lasted over half a century. This happened because they were willing to invest the time and intentionality necessary to create a hearth where those sparks could ignite and grow into something.

Show me someone who thinks chemistry is an ineffable mystery and I’ll show you a leaf on the winter wind—someone who is ultimately a slave to random forces they don’t understand and will be blown to and fro by every whimsical or hormonal breeze that passes. Rarely if ever will such a person settle down with anyone long enough to actually know him/her to any degree and give lasting fires a chance to ignite. And as long as he/she is unwilling to subject these “mysterious” feelings to the light of day there is no reason to believe that their relationship dramas will ever end. Indeed, I’d love to have a nickel for every person I’ve met whose dating choices show long-running patterns of drama and disappointment with no sign of any lessons being learned along the way.

In The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck tells of working with a young, artistic, “bohemian” couple locked in a turbulent marriage riddled with screaming fights and regular infidelity interspersed with passionate chemistry. When it became clear that he was calling them to more discipline and self-awareness they terminated therapy accusing Peck of wanting to remove the “passion” from their relationship. Peck described them as follows;

“There is no doubt that there union is, in a certain sense, a highly colorful one. But it is like the primary colors in the paintings of children, splashed on the paper with abandon, occasionally not without charm, but generally demonstrating the sameness that characterizes the art of young children. In the muted, controlled hues of a Rembrandt one can find the color, yet infinitely more richness, uniqueness and meaning. Passion is feeling of great depth. The fact that a feeling is uncontrolled is no indication whatsoever that it is any deeper than a feeling that is disciplined. To the contrary, psychiatrists know well the truth of the old proverbs ‘Shallow brooks are noisy’ and ‘Still waters run deep.’ We must not assume that someone whose feelings are modulated and controlled is not a passionate person.

(Peck, 1978 – My italics)

The same can be said for feelings that are understood as well as modulated. It is too easily forgotten these days that fire can only give warmth and light when it is contained in a hearth. Wisdom and self-awareness do this for passion. Mysterious, uncontained fires may seem exciting, for a while anyway. They also have an even bigger advantage in that the less understanding of them we allow ourselves to have, the less responsibility we have to assume for their consequences. ;-) But sooner or later they become conflagrations that consume everything in their path, including us.

Prophets of chemistry fashion themselves as free, deeply feeling people, in touch with mysteries that are out of reach for those who are more rational and disciplined. In fact, they are slaves to the reckless abandon of primary colors and have ceded control of their destinies to the random. It’s little wonder that most of the online dating profiles I’ve seen insisting “chemistry is a MUST…” and the like, belong to women who are attractive, intelligent, accomplished—women who should have legions of eligible men available for relationships—yet have remained there for months or even years, apparently without much success.

Ladies, I’ll grant you that quality men are few and far between and that finding a lasting relationship isn’t easy. I agree wholeheartedly that you should have standards, including a desire for passion. But by my lights this only explains part of your trouble. I’ve dated many of you, and I’m here to tell you—you’re charming, attractive, and desirable. Even after the legions of frogs are weeded out, it isn’t reasonable to think that you’re not being presented with plenty of decent, eligible men.

Those of us who have been seeking relationships for extended periods and aren’t finding anyone we wish to connect with for at least 3 or more dates would do well to examine ourselves. Perhaps it’s time to set aside the primary colors and study Rembrandt. After all, we’re worth it, and the sooner we do the sooner we’ll find relationships that are worthy of our efforts.


Fisher H., 2004, “Why We Love” Henry Holt and Company LLC, 175 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10010, ISBN 0-8050-7796-0.

Peck S., 1978, “The Road Less Travelled” Simon & Shuster, New York, NY 10020, ISBN 0-671-24086-2

Penke, L., Todd, P.M., Lenton, A.P. and B. Fasolo (2007). How self-assessments can guide human mating decisions. In G. Geher & G. F. Miller (Eds.) (2007). Mating Intelligence: New insights into intimate relationships, human sexuality, and the mind's reproductive system. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 37-75. Available online at Accessed Oct. 19, 2010.

Place, S.S., Todd, P.M., Penke, L., and J. Asendorpf (2009). The Ability to Judge the Romantic Interest of Others. Psychological Science, 20 (1). Pp. 22-26.

Todd, P.M., Penke, L., Fasolo, B., and A.P. Lenton (2007). Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 104 (38), pp. 447–458. Available online at Oct. 19, 2010.

Wikipedia, 2010a. “Romance (love)” Wikipedia. Available online at Accessed Oct. 17, 2010.

Wikipedia, 2010b. “Dopamine” Wikipedia. Available online at Accessed Oct. 17, 2010.

Wikipedia, 2010c. “Norepinephrine” Wikipedia. Available online at Accessed Oct. 17, 2010.


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