In this Sunday's New York Times Vows column, actress Sarah Kabanuck and Il Divo singer David Miller recalled their first meeting. She said "There was a moment of connection, but it was so intense that we couldn't be friends". David said "I was out of place and out of time". "I had all the emotional upheaval of a teenager in love." Sarah was already married at the time and David "had a reputation as a womanizer". This story perfectly captures the topic of today's post on intense chemistry.
My last post, Intense Chemistry (Part 1) focused on the "chemistry" that amounts to physical attraction and not much else, but is often over-interpreted as a deeper connection. Now I want to talk about the immediate chemistry between two people that does come from deeper connection - which can either be fortuitous or disastrous. How can you tell which path it will take?
In many cases of intense chemistry there is powerful magnetism because, in addition to physical attraction, you each have some of the major positive and negative characteristics of significant people in your partner's earlier life. You will be consciously aware of the positive features, but the negative ones that also lure you will stay below radar until you get to know each other better.
Once the initial romantic blowtorch begins to cool, each partner's negative submerged characteristics become visible (typically after two or three months of dating regularly). The negative features will often be closely related to the positive qualities that initially attracted you. If partners are psychologically and emotionally mature it's a soft landing that exposes minor quirks to be modified or accepted. In the immature couple it's a crash landing. For example, confidence seems to morph into dominance or conceit. Independent spirit twists into emotional distance or selfishness. Calm reserve becomes cold withdrawal. Energy and passion turn into harsh attacks. Admiration becomes possessiveness. Now partners look at each other and wonder what they could possibly have been thinking when they were so infatuated. They were once hot. Now they're now hot and bothered.
Partners are usually evenly matched on emotional and psychological maturity in high-chemistry relationships - for better or worse. The greater the maturity, the greater the proportion of healthy positive attractors there will be. At the healthiest end of the continuum are rare megawatt relationships that begin with great passion and stay hot, supportive and satisfying for a lifetime - perhaps Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith?
The less emotionally and psychologically mature the partners are, the greater the proportion of negative characteristics lurking beneath the surface to pull them unconsciously towards each other. At the extreme negative end of the continuum are the passionate but toxic couples that find it difficult to leave each other but can't stay together without hurting each other. Sometimes toxic chemistry plays out publicly as in Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown's fourteen-year corrosive tug-of-war before they finally divorced.
Unfinished Emotional Business
People are drawn to immature magnetic matches because they provide opportunities for completing unfinished emotional business. Unfinished business comes from missing some kind of nurturing that is necessary for emotional stability, validation and growth because parents or other important figures in your early life could not provide it. The love that did come from those figures went hand-in-hand with deprivations so love and negative characteristics end up getting fused in emotional memories. This person then unconsciously chooses a romantic partner who is best suited to re-enact those specific deprivations - and turn on feelings of love that are also bound to them.
At the point where the glow of infatuation wears off, unfinished business leads to a power struggle in which each partner highlights, provokes and responds to familiar negative characteristics and tries to get what was missed in early life from the current partner. As each partner projects his or her old hurts onto the current partner, they each (justifiably) feel blamed for something that's not entirely about them. The part that is about them is often a big blind spot so they can only see their partner's role in the problem.
If couples commit to staying and working through this kind of high-chemistry power struggle they have a golden opportunity to grow in a relationship. The ground rules for this growth can be very tough for these couples to honor consistently. Relationship growth and repair must include (1) treating each other with respect during conflict (e.g., no sarcastic remarks, aggression, put-downs, stonewalling etc.) (2) dealing with substance abuse issues, if any (which are common among high-chemistry toxic couples) (3) using triggers and flash points as clues for identifying and developing the immature aspects of each partners self-development.
A short activity I created called Flip Sides can help you begin to identify partner features that may turn into triggers in your high-chemistry relationship. A good therapist can facilitate the relational growth process, whether working with you individually or as a couple. If partners break up before learning more about those negative characteristics they were drawn to and how to develop the missing pieces in themselves, next time they feel intense chemistry with someone they will probably repeat the whole process ...and blame the demise of the relationship on their partner again!