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Linda Young
Linda Young Ph.D.

Intense Sexual Chemistry Part 1

Sex, love, growth, or pain?

Key points

  • The average American sees porn before puberty.
  • Messages about attractiveness come from one's culture, popular media, family, and peers, which shapes one's "type" when it comes to partners.
  • Reading too much into a lustful encounter can lead to hurt, anger, and confusion if both partners are not on the same page.

You're single and content and suddenly ambushed by an intense, intoxicating connection with someone you've just met. Intense sexual "chemistry" is a high like no other. But it can also make you do ridiculous things. When does intense chemistry lead to the motherlode and when does it become a death spiral? Today's post deals with the simplest kind of chemistry and why it can be misleading.

Chemistry, Lust, and Imprints

Sometimes intense chemistry is just strong mutual lust and nothing more. You're simply each other's physical "type" and lack, or don't bother finding out about any other kind of compatibility. But what shapes your "type?"

Blatant cues come from messages about attractiveness from your culture, popular media, family, and peers that you receive all your life. Other cues are more personal and unconscious. The first people and things that generated a strong arousal response in you when you were a child leave sensory imprints that are triggered when similar ones show up in your adult life. You didn't necessarily identify the sensations as sexual when you were a kid, just pleasurable—the thick curly hair of a family friend that brushed your cheek when she hugged you, or the perfume and green eyes of a flirtatious cousin who tickled you.

Sometimes imprints coincide with sexual awakening such as when a kid views porn for the first time (and the average American does see porn before puberty these days). The size, shape, or ethnicity of the explicit object of desire gets seared into memory. Extreme imprints that begin like this partially explain some paraphilias such as fetishes and voyeurism.

If you and your partner both recognize the intense spark of chemistry as a pure lust thing, you might pursue a brief sexual encounter and part ways once you've had your fill of each other, carrying sweet memories and no expectations. It's the uber-hookup without strings or regrets.


  1. You get hooked on repeated highs of impersonal sex with a particular physical type (masturbatory or with a partner), which hinders you from finding real intimacy in a long-term love relationship. The ebbs and flows of long-term passionate love start to seem too anemic by comparison and true closeness feels claustrophobic or like too much work. Online dating sites have made finding quick matches with physical "types" easy and tempting. A book called The Centerfold Syndrome captures this caveat well, though it was written before the internet changed the dating and porn landscape drastically.
  2. A single mind-blowing encounter becomes your new (impossible) sexual benchmark. You had one unforgettable high chemistry sexual experience with a near stranger and you can't get it out of your head. Lovemaking in any serious relationship now falls short of this impossible-to-repeat standard so you keep breaking up with people who could be excellent mates, but can't compete with your brightly lit sexual memory. Replaying the memory in high-def feeds and embellishes it. That peak experience needs to be relegated to distant storage so you can focus on discovering unique sexual pleasures within your full-featured relationship without unfair comparators.
  3. You read more into a pure lust thing. Two situations make people especially vulnerable to this distortion. First, if you are really hungry for love when lust comes along, you become more prone to fantasizing about a relationship where none exists because your unmet relational needs cause you to selectively interpret reality. For example, your lust partner has said a lot about how attracted he or she is to you but you have learned very little else about each other and no future plans to meet have been made beyond "I'll call you." When your calls aren't returned you make excuses because "the chemistry was so strong." You're left feeling hurt, used, angry, confused, or regretful when you have only deluded yourself. In this situation, it would have been healthier to bask in the delicious feelings of arousal without acting on them until you learned much more about each other's personalities, characters, and life situations.

    Second, if you have been taught that hedonistic sex without love or commitment is wrong — but want to succumb to pure desire, you may imagine there a relationship in order to reduce the dissonance between your "wants" and "shoulds." In a study I conducted among college women using a hypothetical dating scenario, I found a significant relationship between conflicted sexual self-concept (e.g., I want sex but I shouldn't be having it) and negative feelings after consensual sex.1

The same study showed that women who had conflicted sexual self-concepts and drank alcohol before sex (in their real lives) were more likely to believe that they had been coerced after a hypothetical consensual sexual encounter than those who drank before sex but had congruent sexual self-concepts. In my practice, I work with individuals on identifying and managing the contradictory values they have about sex that interfere with healthy relationship decisions.

More Than a Lust Thing

Intense sexual chemistry is often way more than a lust thing with an ideal physical type. In my next post, I'll talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of love relationships that begin with intense emotional chemistry and how to know if they will lead to growth or disaster. See Intense Sexual Chemistry Part 2 to find out.


1. Young, L R. (1996). Ambivalence and Sexual Mixed Signaling: Women's Self-Belief Discrepancies and Reversals of Decisions to Participate in Sexual Behavior. Dissertation Abstracts International, 57, 5983.

About the Author
Linda Young

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

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