More Than Chemistry

What makes relationships tick.

Relationship Chemistry: Can Science Explain Instant Connections?

Why friends and romantic partners click.

Why do we foster instant connections with some people? I initially became interested in this topic because my friends were so eclectic. In each case, I had formed a relatively quick connection with a person, despite our sometimes disparate ages, cultural backgrounds, and lifestyles. It made me curious as to what caused our close and easy bonds.

I began asking people in my network about chemistry. The first person I asked was my hairdresser. I said, "I want to study chemistry, which is the natural connection between two people. Do you know what I mean?" Her response, "Oh sure, you just have it with some people. Like the other day, I had it with this kid who came into the salon." Later, I was in the car with my friend and asked, "What causes chemistry?" He thought about it and said, "My friends and I share a sense of humor. We're also pretty good looking guys. I'd say those are the commonalities." Over dinner, another friend and I had a long discussion about it. We tended to think chemistry occurred 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.

Although being non-judgmental facilitates chemistry, my research has also shown that similarity between people is crucial. Upon first meeting a person, if we perceive at least some similarity, we may feel more at ease disclosing information about ourselves, because we believe the other person will understand us. Feeling understood is essential to forming relational bonds. So in terms of similarity, there can never be too much, if our goal is to develop satisfying partnerships.

Another relevant variable is the degree to which we disclose information about ourselves. The theory of social penetration describes that at the beginning of a relationship, individuals tend to discuss a wide array of topics. If this initial discussion is rewarding, they begin to disclose more personal information. Although disclosures are good for relationship development, revealing too much too soon is not the best strategy. Even in long-lasting marriages, partners tend to balance self-disclosure with some degree of secrecy. It is perhaps this element of secrecy or mystery that maintains the excitement within friendships and romantic relationships.

One of the most important factors for romantic chemistry is sexual attraction. Many of my study participants described a strong sexual magnetism as the basis for their romantic connections. Surprisingly, my research indicated that attraction is relevant to friendships as well, but to a lesser extent. Taken together, the core components of both friendship and romantic chemistry included non-judgment, similarity, mystery, attraction, mutual trust, and effortless communication.

So are some people more prone to experiencing chemistry? I originally suspected that extroverted people would encounter chemistry most often. Extroverts tend to thrive on positive interactions and seek out such exchanges. They are additionally at ease in social situations, which makes other people comfortable in their presence. Surprisingly, my prediction was not supported by the research. Instead, I 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.

My studies also revealed that not everyone experiences chemistry. I asked individuals why they did not think it had happened to them. Most of these people did not know, but some identified specific reasons including not having the personality for it (e.g., being too shy); lacking trust in other people, which made them closed off; not having the opportunity to meet people; and not meeting people with similar interests.

In the end, my journey to understand chemistry afforded many answers. But even after the personal reflections, discussions with friends, and research studies, I still question whether chemistry involves something that cannot be explained by science. Part of me thinks so. Maybe it is caused by a spiritual connection, remembering the future, or destiny, I don't know. I do know that when I first meet someone and experience that feeling, it puts me into the flow of life. I am rejuvenated and eager to learn more. Whatever causes that experience, I hope it continues because in getting to know others, I have been able to discover new parts of myself.

Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

more...

Subscribe to More Than Chemistry

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.