‘Chemistry’ in Relationships
Dr Jonathan Haverkampf
Interpersonal chemistry does not make a relationship. Actors can have amazing chemistry but most of the time they do not end up in a ‘real’ relationship. Many of them know that chemistry can make their work easier, but it requires much more for a healthy relationship. Some do not, and this can lead to a series of unfulfilling relationships. Chemistry signals mutual understanding on an unconscious level, which can benefit a relationship, but it cannot maintain it by itself.
Chemistry is how people resonate, how they respond to one message from their partners with another. It implies an understanding for a sequence of messages, but it does not necessarily mean an understanding for the other person as a whole. Interpersonal chemistry can facilitate an understanding for the other person, often though the problem is that the ease of communicating on one level means less of a perceived need to work on one’s interpersonal communication in general.
What we mean by ‘chemistry’ is something that can be observed and empirically observed. The agreement among different people on whether there is chemistry in an interaction is quite remarkable, as any discussion on chemistry between celebrities will attest to. We just know it when we see it. Humans are very good at observing the quality of an interaction, even if they cannot explain why. This is one reason why children who are exposed to unhealthy or even destructive communication between their parents do remember that the interaction was unhealthy or destructive. Since they are more likely to remember their own emotional reaction to the interaction than the details, what might get stored in the brain is that interactions between adult men and women can be scary and unhealthy. It then requires additional information to clarify that while this might be true in some cases, it is not the case in general. Reflecting on the details and the differences in interactions, can make the world more predictable again. Over time we learn that easy mutual understanding and enjoyable engagement on one level, ‘chemistry’, is only part of the story of relationships.
Chemistry is an enjoyable engagement in communication in one area, very much like a game of tennis, an emotional back and forth between two people. There may be losers, when they become conscious of their chemistry or get lost in the emotionally charged exchange. The partners respond to minute details, mostly in the realms of nonverbal communication, that may never be expressed in words. The exchange itself is largely unconscious, unlike the emotions it may trigger in each of them. People can have amazing chemistry to the eyes of an observer, without realizing it consciously. Chemistry is largely an automatic process, and the inherent spontaneity would get lost is people were try to do it consciously.
The understanding for the messages of the other has a biological, a psychological and a situational component. Part of our personality is determined by how our neural networks are built, which is to a significant extent, though not wholly, determined by our genes. The psychological aspect is the information that has been stored in the system of neural networks, comprising our life experiences and the information we have heard, read, felt, and so on. The situational aspect is how we decode the messages from other people depending on the situation we are in. Whether your partner winks at you or a police officer might mean two very different things depending on the situation, even if the police officer happens to be your partner.
Chemistry is not enough for a relationship. Just because people are emotionally on the same wavelength, this does not mean that they share the same values. And in the end, it is about the fundamental parameters of one’s personality, basic values, interests and preferences, that determine whether a relationship can work. The more we are emotionally invested in a relationship, the more important these fundamental parameters become. The more we know about our own fundamental parameters the easier it is to select relationships and, ultimately, have faith in a relationship. Since we do not feel good if we have to compromise on the fundamental parameters of our personality, such as the values that define who we are, knowing them helps to avoid ‘toxic’ relationships and enter the ones that benefit us in the long-run. Also, not being aware of them can distort our preferences and lead us to break up relationships that are good for us and maintain those that are hurtful.
Is chemistry something that can be learned or are we born with it? Chemistry has to do with emotional understanding and the willingness to engage in emotional play. Any meaningful communication means there must be an exchange of a message that means something new to the recipient. Something in the message must trigger something in us that wants us to continue with the interaction. Even if we just feel good about the smile of another person, it means that this smile was not initiated by us but by someone else, that there was something new in our world.
The reason why we like exchanging emotional messages with some more than with others has to do with our expectations of the future. If we see a benefit in the investment we are more likely to engage in the emotional game. This could be anything we attached value to, from a promotion to procreation, or a period of happiness.
The emotional game can make us happier because we feel understood while noting the effect we have on the other person, and thereby the effect we have in the world. It reaffirms the sense we had as children of a magical world, in which we have a secret key to its mysteries. It brings us back to a time when the world only consisted of us and our parents. Chemistry can bring about a joy of mastery of emotional communication and connection with the world around us, which we felt as children, but have learned to disassociate ourselves from since. It is the little world of connectedness in the bigger world which makes us content and happy. Acknowledging this means realizing that we can ‘make chemistry’ if we would like to get emotionally closer to another person. We just have to tear down the walls that make it difficult to receive and decode messages from other people, to be interested with an inquisitive mind and a feeling heart. Then, in every closer interaction we can relive this sense of connectedness form our childhood, expand it into the world of adults and make it part of our expectations about the future.
Becoming aware of one’s chemistry with someone else can reveal important information about oneself and the other person. Asking what makes for the special chemistry often reveals shared parameters of who we are as persons. This can be valuable insight, but it needs to be made conscious. If this is possible, chemistry can be a stabilizing and maintaining factor in a relationship and can give it a more specific future.
© Dr Christian Jonathan Haverkampf. All rights reserved.
Psychotherapy & Counselling, Communication, Medicine (Psychiatry); Dublin, Ireland
This article is solely a basis for academic discussion and no medical advice can be given in this article, nor should anything herein be construed as advice. Always consult a professional if you believe you might suffer from a physical or mental health condition.