When you’re feeling sparks with someone you have recently started seeing, there is an adrenaline rush that often feels thrilling. Your heart may beat fast, you may experience shortness of breath, or you may feel butterflies in your stomach.
These are the same types of physical responses that you would experience if you detected a threat in your environment. When these types of physical responses occur in a dating context, they may be incorrectly interpreted as romantic attraction—a phenomenon referred to as a misattribution of arousal. Research has demonstrated that a heightened level of anxiety in the moment may cause someone to feel more attracted to a potential partner than they would have otherwise.
Our subconscious minds are primed to be drawn to what is familiar to us so when we meet someone who reminds us of a person from our past, we may feel a magnetic pull to be with them; a sense that we’ve “known them forever.” Initially, you may feel like you’re on cloud nine but if you didn’t have a healthy role model for a romantic relationship growing up or your relationship with your caregivers was strained or inconsistent, then it’s possible you may be feeling anxiety around a potential partner but interpreting it as strong chemistry.
For example, Sarah is a woman whose parents had a tumultuous relationship with lots of highs and lows. Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between her parents stirred up anxiety for Sarah and since this was the role model she had for a romantic relationship, she associates love with extreme highs and lows. When Sarah meets potential partners with whom she experiences the same dynamic, she feels a sense of familiarity as if she’s known this person for a long time. Sarah may feel the most drawn to partners who stir up the same feelings of anxiety she experienced as a child, but mistakenly perceive these feelings as excitement or strong chemistry.
What is often surprising to people is that they may feel the most excitement and chemistry with individuals who mirror this early dynamic, even if they disliked their parents’ relationship. Research has shown that people are often drawn to partners who seem familiar to them and exhibit similar qualities as their primary caregivers. A relationship template is often the basis from which one interprets a partner's compatibility and contains the core beliefs that were learned early on about love. In the above example, if Sarah were to meet someone who is stable and does not evoke the same type of anxiety for her, she may assume there is no chemistry or perceive them as boring. This can be particularly true of individuals who are typically drawn to the same type of partner repeatedly without success.
Although it’s often easier said than done, pacing yourself when you meet someone new that you’re interested in can prevent you from getting prematurely attached and help you to recognize red flags early on. It’s natural for many people to feel nervous during the initial stages of dating someone they’re interested in, so feeling butterflies or sparks isn’t necessarily a sign that a potential partner isn’t a good match for you.
So how can you determine if the sparks you’re feeling are a result of your compatibility with a potential partner or your anxiety? A few questions that can help you get started on exploring this further are:
- Have you had this feeling before? If so, when and with whom?
- If this same feeling has come up with previous romantic partners, why did those relationships end? Would it have benefitted you during the initial stages of dating, to consider whether you were feeling anxiety or sparks?
- How do you feel around this person and how does your body respond around them? Do you feel a sense of ease or do you feel on edge?
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Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. This post is not intended to be a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition or well-being.
Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510–517. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0037031
Geher, G. (2000). Perceived and actual characteristics of parents and partners: A test of a freudian model of mate selection. Current Psychology, 19(3), 194–214. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-000-1015-7