Which chemistry is the right chemistry?

Having read a number of books written by single authors sharing their experiences playing the dating field (and who continue on in their single state at the end of the books, incidentally), I find that they all have difficulty determining the type of chemistry to prioritize.

They generally give the top spot to “physical chemistry”–that excitement generated by someone’s physical appearance, the feel of their touch and kiss, the quality of their voice, and/or their ability to have the great sex with you–and then are baffled when things don’t work out.

Understand that I’m an enthusiastic supporter (and beneficiary) of physical chemistry.  However, while physical chemistry will make a good relationship even better, it does not create a good relationship.  In fact, a not-so-good relationship will eventually sour the best of physical chemistry.

On the other hand, as I’d discussed earlier in post #5, positive “relational chemistry” will enhance physical chemistry.  Build a solid foundation for the house first, build the house, and THEN decorate it.To give you a simplistic summary of what constitutes relational chemistry in a new couple, I take liberty in paraphrasing John Gottman’s, et al., longitudinal research on factors that predict with 87% accuracy newlyweds’ trajectory toward a happy marriage, a stable but unhappy marriage, or divorce:

  • Positive perceptions of each other’s behaviors and qualities and the relationship, as demonstrated by how the couple talks about and interacts with each other (including display of fondness, affection, complimenting, teasing, humor, smiling, touching, turning, using “we,” etc.)  For couples that are predicted to have a happy marriage, the ratio of positive versus negative interplay is 5 to 1, respectively.  For comparison, the couples most happy with their marriage have a ratio of up to 20 to 1, whereas the couples that later divorce have a ratio of 0.8 to 1.
  • In the face of negativity or in conflict situations that inevitably come up, for those predicted to have a happy marriage, one partner exercises de-escalating and “repairing” abilities that are effective in “soothing” the partner experiencing heightened (physiological) stress.  Examples of de-escalation and repairing include putting a brake on the escalating conflict, acknowledging the situation, taking responsibility, saying sorry, giving the other authentic attention, using humor, or showing other signs of care; note that as a couple gains more experience with each other, these tactics will be effective only if the relationship has a history of being perceived positively by both partners.
You can read some of the research papers (including the minor differences for same-sex couples) here, and see the 4-part video of a Gottman lecture here.
Most happy couples did not read this research or use this research as a roadmap for building their relationship–they mostly improvised.  Nonetheless, I’m sure that like me, they would wholeheartedly agree that the research tracks consistently with relationships we’ve observed around us:  the good and great ones, the ailing ones, and the ones that broke up.

So my advice is this:  as you’re dating, rather than spend too much time getting “sexy” to keep a date interested, pay close attention to the following:

  1. Perceptions expressed by you and your date, verbally and non-verbally, while
    • Describing each other to someone else; or
    • Describing you and your date’s shared experiences to someone else.
  2. How you and your date interact during a sensitive or tense discussion, or while handling a difficult/problematic situation.
Where you may find it difficult to be attentive and objective in the moment, you can ask trusted friends/family members to tell you what they observe in your interactions.Thanks to Alma Lafler for making me aware of John Gottman and his colleagues’ research–this is fascinating work.

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