"Tell me whom you love and I will tell you who you are and, more especially, who you want to be." - Theodore Reik
About two years ago, I met this guy who I went crazy for after our first meeting. We had an amazing, fun, and exciting first encounter (which admittedly involved alcohol). I was just beginning the carefree, bold, and reckless stage of my life, and I wanted something that was just fun. I got a lot more than fun. The day after we met, he said we had so much chemistry, and it was the perfect word to describe it. For two days after meeting him, I literally caught my breath thinking about him. We only talked and kinda/sorta dated for about a month, and we only saw each other a total of three times. But I can never forget that experience and how fast I became so crazy for him. How the euphoric highs were incredibly high, but those lows were miserable. I’ve never met someone who I’ve had that much chemistry with.
Chemistry, obviously, isn’t the only or most important thing that makes a relationship good or keeps it going. But it’s a vital part of relationships. After ongoing debates with a friend about love, we agreed that you can choose how you’re going to love someone, but you can’t choose who you click with. Ever since we agreed upon that condition, I became very curious as to why some people click and have instant chemistry, and why others don’t. Why are we attracted, not just physically, to some, and repelled by others? Why is it that in a crowd of strangers, two pairs of eyes can find each other and instantly be drawn to each other? Is it just divine intervention, or is there a science behind it?
To try and answer these questions, most of my research comes from anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the chemistry of love, but I have many other sources as well. She says everyone has a love map, made of intricate and unique life experiences and values that leads us to be drawn to certain people. She also says there are three important factors in determining who we choose: timing, proximity, and mystery. In her book, Why We love, she says, “Love can be triggered when you least expect it - by pure chance” (pg. 100). I have a friend who would argue that it’s not chance, but instead when two people are willing and ready. There is probably truth to both.
When I met that guy who I had so much chemistry with, I know a big factor was that I chose to let my guard down, because I knew what we had wouldn’t last. I know that sounds kind of strange, because people usually do the opposite. When I met him, he wasn’t the kind of guy I would ever choose to be in a relationship with. As I mentioned, I was beginning a stage where I wanted to be carefree, so I wanted to jump head first into something crazy that would be a whirlwind of fun, but that wouldn’t turn into anything serious. I chose not to be cautious, but instead to enjoy every moment I had with this guy. So, it ended up being very easy to nearly fall in love with him. However, I am a cautious person by nature, and ultimately care too much about thinking things through. Thus, I ended things before I could really become too attached, because he wasn’t someone I saw a healthy relationship with.
I think my experience with him is the perfect example of timing, proximity, and mystery. If I had been at any other more cautious time in my life, I wouldn’t have let things progress past the first day. He’d also recently entered a stage in his life when he wanted to just be single and have fun. Proximity actually ended up being a cause of separation, because we lived an hour away from each other, but still close enough for two strangers to make an attempt at seeing each other. It also played a role in the fact that he didn’t go to my school, because at the time, I had no interest in dating anyone who went to my Christian college.
The biggest reason of his allure was mystery, which Fisher explains as, “The sense that one has a slippery grip on an elusive, improbable treasure…,” (pg. 101). Throughout our short romance, I was most intrigued and captivated by what kind of person he was. He was so confident and charismatic when I first met him, but then I discovered he was also shy and intelligent. On the surface he seemed one way, but underneath he had this amazing heart. Most importantly, I never had the sense that he was fully committed to me, which made me want to pursue him even more.
Just to be clear, I use him as an example, not because I’d still want something with this guy (I like to think I’ve matured a little over the past two years), but because he’s the best example I’ve ever had of instant and easy chemistry. It was a short-lived mutual attraction that has been so hard to explain. I’m sure many of us have had this experience, where we wonder why that person at that place and time of our lives? To explain our attraction to certain people, I’m dividing two distinct features of attraction: chemistry (biology and evolution), and compatibility (societal and personality). Let’s start with the one easier to pinpoint.
In Jonathan Small’s article, he says there are five types of chemistry:
- “Type #1: Tear-each-other’s-clothes-off chemistry”
- “Type #2: We’re-so-comfortable chemistry”
- “Type #3: We-laugh-like-crazy-together chemistry”
- “Type #4: We’re-so-complementary chemistry”
- “Type #5: We-have-so-much-in-common chemistry”
You never click with two different people in quite the same way for the same reasons. Most people think chemistry is only the type #1 kind, but we can experience it in different ways and even with people who we never want a relationship with. You can have chemistry with friends, or with a job interviewer, or among a group that works well together. My focus for this post is on relationships between men and women.
Immediate and Equal
In Mark Manson’s article, “Compatibility and Chemistry in Relationships,” he explains very clearly the difference between the two. He says that chemistry “represents the emotional connection present when you’re with each other.” Chemistry can only happen when both people equally feel it. So if you’re into someone, and think, “This is great. We are getting along so well,” but that person is not feeling the same way, then you don’t have chemistry.
Another important aspect is that it happens immediately. Vanessa Van Edwards says that attraction happens within the first 30 seconds. Fisher goes even further and says we know whether someone else is physically attractive within 1 second. Many studies have been done to reveal these findings and how quickly we judge someone based on first impression. Interestingly, many of our snap judgments turn out to be true, because we have an intuitive sense of who someone is based on the physical and verbal cues they display. I think that’s why we can deduce so quickly who we are drawn to in a crowded room. Just a quick scan, and you already know all the people you are and are not attracted to.
It’s important to point out that attraction is not just physical. We are attracted to many things, many of which are outside of our control.
Much research shows that common physical characteristics men and women are attracted to has everything to do with femininity, masculinity, and who would contribute in producing healthy babies. In Brie Cadman’s article, “Why do Some People Have Types?” she notes that hyperfeminine women with a “strong adherence to traditionally feminine attitudes and beliefs” prefer stereotypical masculine men. They even have a higher tolerance for male sexual aggression. Likewise, hypermasculine men prefer stereotypical feminine women.
Men are attracted to anything in women that signals fertility. An attractive quality in women is when the circumference of their waist is about 70% of their hips. Women with this waist-to-hip ratio are more likely to bear babies. Women who vary a lot from these proportions have more trouble getting pregnant, conceive later in life, and have more miscarriages. They also suffer from more chronic diseases, and are more prone to various personality disorders. Men also find youthfulness, long hair, and scent attractive because they all signs of a fertile women.
Women are attracted to signs of virility in men, too, such as a large chest, square jaw, and powerful profile. Fisher says, “Masculine cheekbones and a rugged jawline are built with testosterone - and testosterone suppresses the immune system. Only exceedingly healthy teenage boys can tolerate the effects of this and build a rugged face," (pg. 115). Women also like tall men, because it’s a sign of dominance. Fun fact, I learned from a homosexual guy that even gay men like other men who display these same masculine traits.
Regardless of gender, and even among every mammal, everyone loves symmetry. We find it beautiful. Fisher explains the reason for our attraction to symmetry, “Creatures with balanced, well-proportioned ears, eyes, teeth, and jaws, with symmetrical elbows, knees, and breasts, have been able to repel bacteria, viruses, and other minute predators that can cause bodily irregularities,” (pg. 105).
The weirdest finding I came across was that we prefer people who look like us. That doesn’t sound weird at first, but after you learn about this experiment, it will. Researcher David Perret asked students to rate faces of the opposite sex on attractiveness. For each student, he took a picture of their self and morphed it into the opposite sex. The students almost always chose the face that was their morphed self. Talk about narcissistic. The reason behind this choice is that we want someone who looks familiar.
Fisher calls this “positive assertive mating” or “fitness matching,” when you seek someone like yourself. She explains that we are influenced by our genes, and “genetic types gravitate toward one another.” This is an evolutionary development, because when a women carries a fetus, they are genetic strangers. The closer they are genetically, the easier the pregnancy will be. Fisher says, “mates who are genetically similar experience fewer natural abortions and bear more and healthier babies,” (pg. 104).
Too much familiarity is a bad thing, though. In fact, in a study of children who grew up in an Israeli kibbutz, “where they lived, slept, and bathed with other youths of all ages,” none grew up to marry each other. Scientists think that “sometime between ages three and six, boys and girls who live in close proximity and get to know each other well lose the ability to fall in love with one another," (pg. 102) In nearly every species, individuals have a sexual aversion to others who are too familiar, and prefer to mate with strangers. This is to discourage in-breeding, and mixing DNA that is too closely similar.
Does that mean the classic falling for the boy/girl next door doesn’t actually happen? Peter Parker and Mary Jane were neighbors all their lives and fell in love and got married, but you know, that is fictional. As it turns out, we seek the familiar who have a touch of mystery, and who are the most compatible and complementary to our genes. In a weird gross experiment, women were asked to smell men’s sweaty T-shirts and choose the one that was the most sexy smelling. Women ended up choosing “T-shirts of men with immune systems that were unlike but compatible with their own.” Cadman also attests to this strange smell-immune system compatibility. She says, “Scent also plays a large role in what we consider “chemistry” and relates to how our own immune system matches up with a potential suitor's.” So, the next time you love the way someone smells, it may be because of your compatible immune systems. Think of all the healthy babies you could have together.
So clearly, a lot of things come into play when you are attracted to someone – scent, physical attributes, genetic make-up. Linda Young, Ph. D, has even more to add about this intense magnetism to each other in her two part article, “Intense Sexual Chemistry.” She explains that we acquire imprints during childhood, which is made up of strong sensory arousal responses. For example, a parent’s embrace was warm and comforting. As an adult, certain people’s hugs could remind you of this feeling of security and comfort. As we grow older, we acquire these different associations that other people could bring out in us as adults. We are subconsciously drawn to these people.
Similarly, Young adds aside from sensory feelings, the person we are attracted to could have “some of the major positive and negative characteristics of significant people” in our lives. This gives evidence to the age old “Girls like guys who are like their fathers and boys like girls who are like their mothers.” Our preferences now are influenced by our upbringing and important figures in our lives. Funny enough, I have a friend who is more like her dad than her mom, and a few months into her current relationship, she realized he was like her mom. It freaked her out, but I just laughed at her.
Young also points out that in high-chemistry matches, both usually have evenly matched emotional and psychological maturity. That means if you’re vibing really well someone who seems pretty immature, chances are it’s because you are too. This also explains why emotionally destructive people tend to attract other destructive people, and emotionally healthy people attract other healthy people. The more mature both people are, the more positive qualities that will attract them to each other, and vice versa.
Chemistry isn’t enough
Who we choose isn’t just about chemistry, because even when we’re drawn to someone, it doesn’t mean that person is right for us. If we are smart enough, we’ll run the other way before we can get swept up and stuck in the highs of being together, even though the lows are very low. Hence, the guy I had insane chemistry with. Staying with him would have led to an unhealthy, yet exhilarating roller coaster that most likely would have eventually ended badly. There were a lot of red flags for me, and we were not compatible. I appreciate Manson’s take on what happens when there is chemistry but not compatibility:
“It’s when it feels so right, but you know it’s so wrong… These relationships usually begin quickly and passionately, exploding like a flaming geyser, which then extinguishes just as quickly as it began. Logic kicks in. Reality makes itself known… And getting out is easier said than done. Your heart says yes, but your head says no… So your decision making defaults to your genitals — even though their track record for decision making is about as good as a drunk third grader’s — which only leads to embarrassing public arguments, unpaid drink tabs, thrown iPhones, changed locks, unanswered phone calls, tear-ridden voicemails, and the sterile interior of a clinic… you find yourself jobless with two one-way tickets to Bermuda that were never used, six stitches, slashed car tires and a shattered cell phone. But at least that psycho is f***ing gone (even though you still kinda miss him/her).
For my purposes, compatibility and chemistry, though very different, are still very intertwined. The main distinctions are that one focuses on biology, evolution, and subconscious choices, while the other focuses on personality, values, and conscious choices. Manson describes compatibility as “a natural alignment of lifestyle choices and values between two people.” It’s about the long-term potential between two people. Chemistry is what makes two people attracted to each other. Compatibility is what enables them to get along.
Among Fisher’s research, she has found that not only do we prefer someone close to our physical appearance, but also, “Most people around the world do feel that amorous chemistry for unfamiliar individuals of the same ethnic, social, religious, educational, and economic background, who have a similar amount of physical attractiveness, a comparable intelligence, and similar attitudes, expectations, values, interests, and social and communication skills,” (pg. 103). Apparently, it’s a valid excuse when you don’t want to date someone because you have nothing in common.
So then, do opposites ever attract? Manson explains that they definitely can, because “High levels of chemistry usually come from opposite yet complementary qualities in people.” He gives the example that introverts usually have natural chemistry with extroverts. As an introvert, I can attest that I love other introverts as people, but I want to date an extrovert. I find extroverted people more attractive, because I feel like they can bring something out in me that another introvert can’t. Two people should be able to have things in common while also complementing each other. No one wants to be with someone else who is exactly like them.
Men and Women
In a study of about 10,000 people in 37 societies, scientists asked men and women to rank characteristics they look for in a spouse. Both ranked love or mutual attraction first, then a dependable character, followed by emotional stability and maturity, and a pleasing disposition. Both also wanted someone “kind, smart, educated, sociable, healthy, and interested in home and family.” They differ in romantic tastes.
Men seek youth and beauty more than women do. American men who placed ads in newspaper or magazines looking for a partner were three times more likely than women to say that they want someone beautiful. Interestingly, Fisher says, “people in general tend to regard beautiful women (and good-looking men) as warm, smart, strong, giving, friendly, polite, sexy, interesting, financially secure, and socially popular,” (pg. 109). Youth and beauty are also signs of elevated estrogen, which can aid in reproduction. So, men are after more than someone visually pleasing. Another difference is that men like women they can save. “Psychologists report that men want to help women, to solve their problems, to be useful by doing something. Men feel manly when they rescue a damsel in distress,” says Fisher (pg. 111). Men have the desire to protect and assist women.
Complementarily, women seek men who can protect and provide. As independent and strong as women have become, this is still something most women desire. Women look for a man with financial security and a higher status than themselves. American women placing ads looking for a partner said they wanted financial security twice as often as men did. “In fact, women everywhere in the world are more attracted to partners with education, ambition, wealth, respect, status, and position - the kinds of assets their prehistoric predecessors needed in a parenting partner,” says Fisher (pg. 114). As well as these qualities, “women are attracted to men who are willing to share their rank, their money, and their position,” (pg. 116).
Women are attracted to men who are self-confident and assertive. They are more likely to choose a long-term partner who is intelligent. They like men who are well-coordinated, strong, and courageous, as well as someone with a sense of humor, which is associated with intelligence. Women also seek difference things at different times of their cycle. Fisher says, “Around ovulation they seek men with good genes... At other times of the menstrual cycle they favor men who display signs of commitment,” (pg. 115).
Men and women seek different things that complement each other. “As scientists sum this up: men look for sex objects and women look for success objects,” says Fisher (pg. 114).
Though there are generalities for what make men and women compatible, each individual has their personal interests, values, and beliefs that will either draw someone else in or push them away. For most people, personality and interests far outweigh any physical preferences. I may like guys with toned arms and an athletic build, but I have a secret deep interest in the nerdy type, because intelligence is far more attractive to me. I love nerds. Especially the ones that try to be funny. They try so hard.
Well, through years of research and study, Fisher thinks she has pegged down four different personality types that encompass our general interests, values, and character. These four types greatly contribute to who we’re drawn to, and we like the least. Everyone has a primary and secondary type. For a full description of the four types, you can buy Fisher’s book Why Him? Why Her? or click on this link that shows the results for her personality test. To briefly explain them, the four are:
- Builder (high serotonin activity - associated with sociability and feelings of calm): “Builders are popular, trustworthy and dependable. People like them for many reasons; among them they tend to be stable, loyal and caring and they have a wonderful knack for common sense.”
- Negotiator (high estrogen activity - associated with intuition and creativity): “Negotiators are interested in the big picture. They like to examine large, ambiguous issues and ideas. They weigh all of the variables involved and come up with imaginative solutions.”
- Director (high testosterone activity - associated with independence and rational thinking): “Directors are analytical and independent thinkers with a deep interest in how the world works. They quickly grasp patterns and see many sides of any complex issue.”
- Explorer (high dopamine activity - associated with curiosity and spontaneity): “Explorers have a great deal of energy and vitality. They are curious, creative and resilient. They have many interests; and find pleasure in doing and thinking about all sorts of things.”
In a survey of 28,128 people, Explorers prefer other Explorers, and preferred Directors least, except for women who had an even non-preference for all types. Builders prefer other Builders, and have a general dislike for Negotiators and Directors. Directors prefer Negotiators, and like Builders least. Likewise, Negotiators prefer Directors. Female Negotiators prefer male Directors least, whereas male Negotiators dislike Builders, Explorers, and other Negotiators.
These types don’t mean that you’ll always prefer one over another. It just shows a general pattern in what personalities are compatible. Notably, opposites attract with Directors and Negotiator, which are the two linked to testosterone and estrogen. But Explorers prefer their own, and Builders prefer their own as well. So, sometimes opposites are drawn to each other, and other times we’re drawn to others like ourselves. Fisher says, “We tend to fall in love with somebody who can give us what we need in exchange for giving them what they need.”
#1 Thing Everyone is Attracted To
I know we each have a list of qualities we find attractive. Mine would include green eyes, a great smile, and firemen. I love firemen probably more than I love nerds. Surprisingly, Edwards says that “a person’s most attractive trait is their availability.” This isn’t actually whether someone is single or not. It asks the questions, “Will this person date me? Will this person open up to me? Will this person work well with me?” We are most attracted to people who are physically and emotionally available, though obviously not all of the time.
Our body language tells other people whether we are available or not, whether for a conversation or a long-term relationship. Keeping an open torso, meaning don’t cover your chest or abdomen with crossed arms or by placing something in front of them, and showing your hands are easy ways to show you are available. Aside from body language, there are also people we feel like we can openly talk to about personal things, and I think this has to do with their willingness to listen and empathize.
To Sum Up
There’s just way too much information and research on who we choose for me to include everything in one post. Nor do I feel the need to create multiple posts on the subject. But in the “what we have learned today” fashion, I want to remind you of a few things. Who we choose is both a conscious and unconscious decision. We will be inexplicably drawn to people and repulsed by others. Sometimes we’ll know why, but most of the time we won’t. Manson advises, “You need to know what you like and what you want in a partner. If you don’t, then you need to cautiously gain enough experience until you do know.”
If you have a pattern of being attracted to the wrong kind of people, then discovering why you’re attracted to them is a good place to start to make a change. If you want to be drawn to more emotionally healthy and positive people, then it’s also a good idea to take an in-depth survey of yourself. What are your best and worst qualities? What could use improving? What about you attracts the wrong or right kind of people? Also remember that attraction is instant, so don't force it when it's not there.
There is so much at work that brings two people together who connect on an emotional, physical, and even spiritual level. Biology, evolution, personality, values, etc. There are things you have no control over, and things you do. Chemistry can’t be forced, but compatibility can be acquired when people are willing to grow and change. Manson points out that compatibility without chemistry is dull, and no one wants that. But chemistry without compatibility can be dangerous. Seek out both, but remember that timing, proximity, and mystery are still important factors in this wonderful experience of what happens when two people find one other – it’s as if the stars aligned just to make it possible.
p.s. You can take Helen Fisher's free personality test here, but the only catch is that it's part of the sign up for an online dating site. Once you become a member, you can view your results. Sign up is also free. You can also click here for a more in-depth explanation of the results.
Also not mentioned in this post is compatible personality types according to Myers-Brigg. Have fun.