A couple months ago I was taking an Uber to the airport when my driver asked me what I did for a living. My quick and easy go-to response is, “I am in graduate school.” When I eventually told him what for, he enthusiastically responded, “Wow! So like, couple’s therapy?” Typically upon hearing this news, people respond in a variety of ways including their terrible experience in therapy, how they feel like they are their own friends’ and families’ therapist too, their crazy friend who definitely needs therapy, or my personal favorite, “Why would you ever want to do that?” But this man responded differently. Instead of going on a whole spiel about his opinion on therapy, he simply asked me, “What do you think makes relationships most successful?” I sat back in my seat and took a second to think about it, granted it was about 6:00 in the morning and my brain was only at about 30% capacity, but his question really made me think. I decided to on the typical answer of the importance of honesty and communication, ya-de-ya-de-ya-da. I mean, come on, it was 6 am.
We went on to have a 15-minute conversation about his friend’s relationship and how unhappy he is. I nodded and listened and daydreamed about what kind of coffee I could get in my airport terminal and how I hoped I would be able to get a window seat. But once I got on the plane, I started thinking about his question again. What is the key to a successful relationship? There are the obvious answers such as honesty, open communication, being loving and respectful, and all that mushy stuff. But what people sometimes forget to talk about is the big C word: chemistry.
The first things that comes to mind when thinking about chemistry is that feeling of butterflies you get when you see that person, and how your heart skips a beat when they grab your hand. But what I started to think about was the different kinds of chemistry that we have in our relationships. There are three different types of chemistry that are vital to having a successful intimate relationship: intellectual, sexual, and emotional chemistry.
The first kind of chemistry is intellectual chemistry. While intellectual chemistry can come in many different forms, it is a huge part of what helps you to initially connect with your partner. Intellectual chemistry can mean you read the same books, watch the same movies, and are like-minded folk. It is what allows you to stay up all night with that person talking about your upbringing, music, or your favorite comedian’s stand-up routine that had you peeing your pants the other night. While you and your partner could have different interests, you both may have an equal level of intellectual curiosity for learning and trying new things, especially with each other. You may also enjoy challenging each other intellectually and make the other person think about things in a completely new way. You probably have great intellectual chemistry with most of the important people in your life, including your best friends. People with great intellectual chemistry can relate to each other when it comes to interests, humor, sense of adventure and trying new things, and having those long, philosophical conversations about life. Intellectual chemistry is apparent very early in a relationship and helps keeps the relationship fun, interesting, and engaging.
The second type of chemistry is the fun one, sexual chemistry. This is also the most obvious form of chemistry. It is a gut feeling, a hormonal reaction, a primitive response – whatever you want to call it – but put in terms most simply, it is lust. When people talk about love at first sight, what they are referring to is lust at first sight. There is new research and studies that prove that attraction is a deeply embedded biological reaction when we meet certain individuals with similar ratios of hormones and neurotransmitters as us. In plain English, sometimes it really is just biological. While attraction can sometimes feel out of our control, it is still a very important and key element to a successful relationship. Bottom line, if you do not want to have sex with this person, it probably is not going to work out. While sexual chemistry is necessary for a successful relationship, it cannot be the only kind of chemistry you have or it will not last long. You can have amazing sexual chemistry with someone you hardly know, including a hook-up buddy or even a one-night stand. But by itself, sexual chemistry isn’t going to hold you at night or spoon you in the morning.
Sexual chemistry paired with intellectual chemistry is going to feel great. Couples who have great sexual and intellectual chemistry are likely to pass the initial dating phase and enter into the committed relationship phase. You have great conversations, have a lot of fun doing activities together, and you are having a blast between the sheets. Good relationships have a healthy dose of intellectual and sexual chemistry; however, in order to have a great relationship, you must also have emotional chemistry. Emotional chemistry does not necessarily have to come last in the relationship, but it usually takes the longest to form and is the least understood.
Let’s face it, emotions, especially talking about and addressing emotions, can be very difficult for a lot of us. Many of us hardly understand our own emotions, let alone have the ability to be attuned to someone else’s, especially a partner’s. Emotional chemistry is that gut feeling that says, you will be there for me if I need you. If you are a psychology nerd such as myself, emotional chemistry is similar to having a secure attachment to your partner. It is allowing you to “go all in” to the relationship. Walls are coming down, and baggage from past relationships is being addressed and is staying in the past. To have emotional chemistry with someone is allowing them to see you at your lowest lows; everything from when you are sick and coughing up a lung and there’s a pile of tissues next to you that’s way too high, to when someone close to you has passed away and all you need to do is cry and be held.
Without emotional chemistry, it will be very difficult to fall head over heels in love with someone. You could be having incredible sex, be able to stay up all night talking about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, but if that built-up trust and support is absent, those walls are staying up. Another way to think about it is to think of who is in your emergency contact list on your phone, maybe your family, best friends, or old room mates. At what point do you add your new boy friend or girl friend? When you feel comfortable with them, when you trust them, when you know they will be there for you if something happened? When you have a strong emotional connection or chemistry with them. Emotional chemistry and connection will continue to build throughout your relationship, as you get to know your partner better and as more issues inside and outside of your relationship inevitably come up. Emotional chemistry is what will keep you two together when those problems do come up.
Every relationship is unique and interesting in its own way. Sometimes emotional chemistry may be the one to come first in the form of a friendship, or maybe a one-night stand could turn into something more long-term and amazing. Each component is important in its own way, and even can build upon each other over time. When thinking about your relationship or your next relationship, keep these three aspects of chemistry in mind when choosing a mate. Successful relationships form when all three of these types of chemistry are present; however, that is not to say that now your relationship will last forever. I see these three forms of chemistry as the base or the root of the relationship, but it is up to you and your partner to make the relationship blossom and flourish into a long-lasting and loving relationship.