For three decades, relationship research psychologists have been able to pinpoint behaviors in couples that lead to successful, fulfilling and enduring relationships and conversely, behaviors that are corrosive, insidious and deleterious to the bonds of love.
Over the last dozen years, such relationship data have spurred an explosion of therapeutic approaches, relationship education courses and 911-emergency-like interventions for the divorce-bound. There is a kind of science to staying in love, many psychologists and therapists agree, concrete ways to invigorate a couple’s bond and to inoculate couples against the predictable lows and endemic conflicts of long-term love.
But these efforts stand little chance if a couple doesn’t have chemistry, psychologists Janice R. Levine and Howard J. Markman write in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” (Jossey-Bass, 2001), a collection of essays written by leading relationship researchers and psychologists pondering the mysteries of love.
Chemistry is the inexplicable, ineffable magic that happens when two people are profoundly attracted to each other, magnetized by each other’s voice, smell, body and gestures and infused by a feeling that one has hit the equivalent of the mate lottery and stumbled upon the right fit. There are biologically borne effects when a chemistry combusts between two people: feelings of pleasure, a quickened heartbeat and euphoria, elicited by the brain’s love chemicals dopamine, norepinepherine and phenylethylmine.
This is why couples stay up until dawn talking, lose their appetites and experience extraordinary bursts of energy.
Overlaying the biological chemistry is a psychological chemistry, according to one theory, that is two people matching each other’s mental templates for how love was expressed and received in childhood. (We are consciously seeking someone to heal the damage done in childhood, the theory posits, but in mature love learn that only we can heal our own wounds.) Chemistry between two people is something one “cannot contrive any more than we can contrive a genuine laugh or an orgasm,” psychologist John M. Gottman, an eminent relationship researcher at the University of Washington, explains in the introduction to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
“Chemistry counts for a lot,” said Gottman, author of several best-selling books on relationships, most recently “The Relationship Cure” (Crown, 2001). “I don’t think that you can save a relationship with skills where there is no chemistry.”
Love’s Longevity Drug
Levine, who practices in Lexington, Mass., and is a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, said a person matched with someone he or she doesn’t have chemistry with is not inspired to do the work required to make a relationship last. Chemistry acts like love’s longevity drug--it motivates and enables a couple to go the distance when the veil of illusions is lifted and the arduous work of mature love begins.
“Chemistry opens you to receive another being; you grow to enlarge yourself beyond what you would otherwise be, know and perceive,” Levine said. “We don’t feel that with just anyone--a feeling that is so powerful and rewarding that it motivates people to work hard.”
There is some debate about how long the intoxicating effects of chemistry last. “The chemistry wanes, and it is important to have it because we expect it,” said Pat Love, an Austin, Texas-based therapist and author of “The Truth About Love” (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chemistry’s most seductive effects are felt during infatuation (the we-can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other stage), which can last up to two years. Most relationships go belly-up then, said Michele Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., therapist, when one or both partners conclude that the magic is gone and they are no longer “in love.” This also happens many years into marriage. “I hear this all the time in my practice: ‘I love him, but I am not in love with him,”’ Weiner-Davis said. “They talk about falling out of love like falling off the roof. I think that amnesia is so complete that they believe that is real. Most people feel [that chemistry] at the start of their marriage.”
Although the coal-hot passion of new love--built upon mystery, obstacles and anxiety about the outcome--cools as couples spend years together, not all psychologists agree that chemistry and infatuation are bound to end. “Chemistry can last, and you can create it by taking risks together,” said Love, who cites research that found that people interviewed on a high bridge and low bridge rated the interviewer of the higher, scarier bridge as more attractive.
“The key to long-term chemistry or infatuation is taking risks or doing something different, which elicits the love cocktail of dopamine, norepinepherine and phenylethylmine,” Love said. “Our species bonds in risk. But risk in your partner’s direction.” In other words, if your partner has a fear of heights, probably jumping out of a plane together is not going to do it, but maybe going to bed without tube socks on will. The success of some couples is the best evidence that infatuation and the sparks of chemistry can be rekindled and stoked.
“These people continue to court one another and be romantic with each other,” Gottman said.
Of course, the "$50-million question,” Levine said, is how do you help a couple get back the love and physical chemistry that has perished?
Levine theorizes that in these couples, the love and chemistry are dormant, obfuscated by stubborn emotional obstacles such as resentment, anger and deep wounds. By removing the obstacles and airing out the wounds, Levine believes, love can be “released” and chemistry perhaps reignited.
Gottman is sure that couples can fan the flames of chemistry by being responsive to each small act made toward connection, each gesture of kindness and every invitation to listen, humor and love each other. The problem with chemistry is the definition, Gottman said.
“In my opinion, the chemistry is not love; nor is it having fallen or not having fallen out of love; nor is it passion,” Gottman writes in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
“It is a kind of surrender, a surrender to one’s partner’s charm and power--that surrender is the magic; it is the ‘falling’ part of falling in love.”
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at email@example.com.