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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."


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