Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is Chemistry or Compatibility More Important In A Relationship?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I can’t seem to land on an answer to the question of what’s important, compatibility or chemistry? Logically I know that compatibility is more important to long-term relationship success but is ‘chemistry’ as an idea better left to movies and novels?

I think the reason I’m having so much trouble with this idea is that I grew up as an only child in a household where neither of my parents were particularly affectionate to each other, arguments between them were fairly common and I can’t say I ever really saw any chemistry there. Sometimes they didn’t seem compatible either. I guess I’m happy that they’re still together, even if I can’t shake the feeling that they might be happier apart, but it’s not really for me to say. I just wish I had a better example of what a relationship should look like, so that I could navigate my own easier.

I’m 29 now, and my 20s have been a rollercoaster for relationships. I had one “long term” relationship in my life at 19 that lasted 9 months, was pretty dysfunctional and ended really badly for us both. Afterwards I became really cynical, and my behaviour leaned towards PUA and misogyny, eventually I realised what was happening and that I needed to work heavily on myself and get to therapy.

Now I’ve been single for about 10 years, and honestly I feel pretty good about myself. I’ve grown a self-confidence and self-assuredness that in my early 20s I was really compensating for a lack of. I know what I want for myself as an individual and actively work towards that daily. In the past 5 years, I tried dating again, but the last 4 women I’ve dated (Each for a couple of months) just did not reciprocate in full the intense feelings I had for them and ended things. I also blitzed past some red flags that in hindsight, really should have spelled things out for me.

These intense feelings are what I’ve been categorising as ‘chemistry’ for my entire life, but I cannot name one time where these feelings actually did me any favours in developing a healthy long-term relationship. It always feels more like a drug trip that causes me to act clumsily and out of character and come across as clingy and ultimately cause the breakdown of a relationship rather than give it growth.

I recently met someone on a dating app, we’ve seen each other on average twice a week for over a month. I’m physically attracted to her, the sex is really good for us both and whilst its still quite early to tell, on paper we have shared values and our interests align. But I’m not feeling the usual chemistry that I’ve used to navigate relationships for my entire life, and I just can’t work out whats feeling slightly ‘off’.

She’s demonstrated some clinginess, which I think is partly to do with being off-work during lockdown and having too much free time. The clinginess isn’t a dealbreaker, especially in current times and given my own past, but I’m feeling a bit suffocated whilst I can’t work out what, if anything, I should be feeling towards her. In the past, the teenage-like excitement and euphoria is what motivated me to go the extra mile for someone. Is part of a mature relationship doing that without those feelings at all?

Am I misinterpreting what ‘chemistry’ actually is? Does each individual need to decide for themselves whether to prioritise a relationship of compatibility, or one of chemistry? My gut tells me to keep looking for that spark again, but my past demonstrates that it only ends in unhappiness for me. This could be a really great relationship that blossoms over time, do I just need to ignore the nagging feeling telling me something is missing and commit one hundred percent?


Chemical Reaction

DEAR CHEMICAL REACTION: This is an example of the question that you’re asking isn’t what you need to be asking in the first place. But let’s start with your initial question: is compatibility or chemistry more important? And the simple answer is “Both. Both is good.” But even that question is more nuanced than I think you realize. It all depends on exactly what it is you’re looking for. If all you’re looking for is a short-term relationship, and likely one where your connection is primarily physical or you don’t have any expectation of monogamy or commitment, then prioritizing chemistry is understandable. While you’re certainly going to need at least some compatibility — especially sexual compatibility — for things to progress at all, it’s understandable that you would prioritize sexual attraction and passion.

Similarly, there are plenty of folks out there for whom attraction and sex just isn’t a priority, but who still want loving, romantic relationships. These kinds of relationships  run the gamut; one person may fall on the asexual spectrum. Another may be physically incapable of having sex, or they may be in a long term relationship where the sexual connection has faded, but their relationship is still strong otherwise. These are all examples of relationships where compatibility and connection are vital, but sexual chemistry is less important; they may not be someone’s idea of a “traditional” romantic relationship, but they’re still just as real, valid and important.

But if you’re looking for a relationship where sex is going to be an important part of your connection and you want it to work in the long term… you’re going to want to get you a woman who can do both. While these two aspects may not be in perfect balance — you may have differences in values or backgrounds that come into conflict but the passion is electric and undeniable, or you may not be as hot and heavy as Gomez and Morticia Addams but you are an unbeatable team together — finding the right blend of compatibility and chemistry is going to be crucial for long-term success.

However, the problem you seem to be facing is that you’re confusing “chemistry” with “infatuation” or “new relationship energy”. Chemistry, at its core, is the interplay between physical attraction and emotional connection. If we were to break it down to strict biology, then chemistry is strictly that: chemical interactions in your brain. Love isn’t just an emotion, it’s also hormonal and chemical, the reuptake of oxytocin and dopamine that’s generated through things like orgasm, but also physical touch and laughter. Finding and connecting with someone you find physically attractive and emotionally engaging helps generate the hormones that hit the pleasure centers of your brain, encouraging emotional bonding as well as physical intimacy.

The feeling of not being able to get enough of somebody, of wanting to spend all your time with them and — in a lot of cases — being twitterpated to the state where you lose a couple IQ points in their presence? That is infatuation. Infatuation is the high that you get from that rush of dopamine and oxytocin. Your brain is tripping out on being around them, in no small part because we’re a novelty-seeking species and they’re new. It is, admittedly, a heady rush, one that people chase constantly. It’s also one that people confuse for love, causing them to panic when that rush subsides, as it pretty much always does.

But feeling that rush also isn’t necessarily an indicator of whether this relationship is a strong one or one worth pursuing. You can get head over heels for someone in those initial days and not realize that they’re actually horrible for you. You can also have a relationship that’s a slow burn, where the sense of connection and chemistry grows over time. In fact, in many cases, the latter relationships can end up being stronger in the long term. When you aren’t relying on the rush of oxytocin as the measure of your relationship’s viability, you realize that relationships require trust, communication and effort. To go back to the Gomez and Morticia example, while they very clearly have a passionate connection, part of what makes their relationship work is that they put in the work. Not in the sense of “we have to struggle to make this relationship function”, but that in the sense that they maintain their relationship with intention. They make a point to compliment each other, to flirt and to reaffirm their connection with each other. They make a point of being attractive for one another; they treat each other as though they were still in the initial courting phase, with affection and effort. They talk through their issues together and work as a team in times of crisis. They are supportive of one another’s interests, even if they don’t share them. That keeps their relationship strong, vital and happy.

You don’t necessarily have the butterflies-in-the-stomach-I-go-stupid-in-your-presence feelings for your current partner. But how do you feel about them? Do you look forward to seeing them when you can? When something happens in your life, do you find that they’re the person you want to share the news with? When things go badly, are they the one you want by your side? Do you feel more at peace with them around? Do you look forward to spending time with her, or is it something you like but could live without?

What about that clinginess? Are you able to talk with her about it, without turning it into a huge crisis? If you were able to magically excise that while everything else remained exactly the same, would you have fewer doubts? Or is that just the issue that’s easiest to point to?

I understand that “I have this gut feeling that something’s off”… but part of listening to your gut requires knowing when your gut is trustworthy or not. You don’t have a lot of relationship experience, nor does it seem that you have a lot of great relationship role-models in your life. Sometimes that “gut feeling” isn’t your Spidey-sense going off, it’s just “this is different, and I’m uncomfortable with different”. I’ve known plenty of folks whose gut reaction told them that their relationship was off… but the issue wasn’t that there was a problem with their current relationship, it’s that their current partner didn’t treat them as badly as their past partner did.

Or it could be that while the sex is great… you’re just not that into her. That’s valid too. But again: that infatuation feeling isn’t the indicator of being into them or not; that’s just the feeling of your brain getting high off someone else.

What I would suggest is to have a discussion about the clinginess and see if you can resolve that now, rather than down the line when it goes from “annoying but acceptable” to “testing the structural limits of your last nerve”. But as you do that, I would suggest taking some time to sit with your feelings about having her in your life. If you find that you look forward to seeing her, that she’s increasingly a highlight of your day… that’s a good sign that this relationship has potential. If you find that it’s increasingly a case of “I like the sex, but I could take or leave the person I’m having sex with,” then it may be time to draw the curtain on this relationship and start working towards your next one.

Good luck.

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