You know that feeling when you’re on a first date with someone and you instantly hit it off? When the conversation is flowing effortlessly about a niche show you both like, you can’t help but grin like a Cheshire cat. When it feels like fireworks are popping off in your belly, that’s called chemistry.
But what happens when you don’t feel that spark right away?
Dating in Los Angeles can be messy. In ‘u up?’, we’ll explore common dating problems and provide tips on how to date better.
“I think that a lot of people have this idea that you need to feel this crazy, sexual romantic chemistry when you go on a first or second date, and if it’s not there, that means they’re not a viable partner,” says Amy Chan, who’s the author of “Breakup Bootcamp” and founder of a retreat for people going through breakups. “And that’s where I see a lot of people go wrong.”
Aaron Martin, a San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist, says our society’s desire to obtain things urgently also plays a role in this.
“We’re taught to grab things that we want,” he says. “If they’re not useful to us, we’ve got to move on to the next thing. We switch from one job to the next. We do all these things at such a fast pace, and I think that human connections don’t necessarily work that way.”
But much like in friendships, romantic chemistry isn’t always immediate.
It’s also not the sole indicator of whether someone is a good match for you. Here’s what four relationship experts say you should consider before giving up on a person just because you didn’t feel butterflies right away.
Chemistry can build over time
Oftentimes when people go on a first date, they try to gauge what type of connection they feel with the other person. It’s also a common recap question for people to ask someone after a date: Did you feel a spark? Are you into them?
But Chan says this is unnecessary.
“You don’t need to know if it’s [a] sexual or romantic [connection],” Chan says, adding that she encourages people to think of their first couple of dates as a way to determine if they have a “base connection” with someone.
“You don’t need to know which category it falls under because your brain sometimes takes time to process what type of connection that is, and you won’t know until you spend more time with that person.”
“When you and someone can be yourselves around each other, I would say, that’s when romantic chemistry is truly at its peak.”
— Matthew Brinkley, a licensed marriage and family therapist
Chan tells her clients to ask themselves two simple questions when they are on a date: “Am I having fun?” and “Do I want to see this person again?”
“If you want to see that person again, it means that there is dopamine [the feel-good hormone], which motivates you to want to get more of that reward, and don’t worry so much about where they stand in your future,” says Chan, who also hosts a podcast about navigating breakups.
Matthew Brinkley, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical educator at USC, says he thinks it’s important to look for romantic chemistry early on with the person you’re dating, but it doesn’t have to be intense or passionate out the gate. Chemistry builds over time, says Brinkley, who often posts dating advice on TikTok.
“When you and someone can be yourselves around each other, I would say, that’s when romantic chemistry is truly at its peak,” he adds.
Elizabeth Overstreet, a North Carolina-based relationship strategist who works with global clients, likens chemistry in romantic relationships to that of friendships.
“If you think about your friendships, for example, they weren’t formed overnight,” she says. “Your friendships took time to form. Sometimes, you didn’t like someone at first and now your best friends.”
She adds, “Then you start having experiences and you’re like, ‘They’re not what I thought they were.’ So I don’t know why when it becomes romantic, we don’t have a similar investment in it, especially if this is going to be someone that you might be with for a long time.”
Martin recommends that people who often look for a spark in the early stages of dating to reflect on these questions: “How has this focus on instant chemistry helped me connect to others in the past?” and “Has it ever led to connections being cut off prematurely or a sense of regret?”
Your chemistry compass may be broken
There’s a reason why you feel a strong connection with someone off the bat, and it all starts in your subconscious mind, says Chan.
“That ‘spark’ you feel on a first or second date involves complex neural and hormonal processes,” she says, adding that your brain releases dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure, desire and motivation. That spike leads to an increased heart rate and alertness.
But that feeling can also be misleading if your “chemistry compass is broken,” she adds. For some people, that spark can actually be an indication of a trauma bond, a close relationship that forms when one person abuses another, who then becomes attached. Or it can be felt when you like a partner’s negative traits, perhaps because they mirror negative childhood experiences. That’s known as an attraction of deprivation.
“What they’re picking up on is, “This is very familiar,” she says, adding that it happens subconsciously. “This chaos and unavailability feels like home to me, therefore this is chemistry.”
You can also feel strong chemistry with someone after an exhilarating date, such as riding a roller coaster, watching a scary movie or taking a trapeze class, Chan says.
“[When] you feel this crazy rush [and] your heart is racing, you could actually subconsciously transfer that excitement to the person that you’re with. You can’t distinguish it,” she says. “There’s many different reasons why you could feel that, and they might not always be healthy or correct.”
“I think compatibility should be looked at more because that’s actually the predictor and indicator of long-term relationship success.”
— Elizabeth Overstreet, a North Carolina-based relationship strategist and author of “Love You and He Will Too”
Another component that Overstreet says people should pay attention to during those first couple of dates is their compatibility with someone.
“I think compatibility should be looked at more because that’s actually the predictor and indicator of long-term relationship success,” says Overstreet, who’s also the author of “Love You and He Will Too.” “So yes, chemistry is the gateway, but if you don’t have trust, if you don’t have commitment, if you don’t share core values, that chemistry is going to wear off.”
And just as chemistry can grow over time, it can also dwindle throughout the course of a connection — which is why some long-term couples wish they could reignite their flame.
“I think of compatibility as that long-term sustenance,” says Martin. “If that chemistry is the first lap in a race, compatibility is like laps 3 through 12. That’s like the marathon work.”
He adds, “[If] the race starts and we’re sprinting at full speed and it feels great, but then by the time you hit Lap 3 you’re like ‘Oh, my God. I’m so exhausted.’ That can be where that compatibility piece takes over, or it might switch in and out every now and then. So maybe that sexual attraction or that spark or chemistry has waned, and there are still so many other pieces of this person that I love and appreciate. These are the daily reminders of why I’m with them.”
Take the second date
If you went on a first date with someone and you had a good time overall, but you’re still feeling unsure about them, it’s still worth going on a second date, relationship experts say.
Unless there was something that you blatantly didn’t like about the person or if they failed one of your deal breakers that you can’t live with — you hate cigarettes and they are a heavy smoker — then Overstreet tells her clients to give it another shot.
Changing the setting on a second date — for example doing an activity like bowling together instead of a sit-down dinner — may also give you a different perspective on that person.
Also, first dates can be awkward. So Chan tells her clients to mentally rate their date on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being the highest and zero being an absolute no. If it’s a 5 and above, she encourages them to go out with the person again. Anything lower than that, especially if you feel “disgusted” by the person, could be difficult to bounce back from, she says.
Chan adds, “But I think a 5 is that fine line of maybe they were nervous. Maybe you were nervous. You only have a very small data set on that first date.”
If you’ve been focusing on romantic chemistry in the early phases of dating and it hasn’t worked for you, experts suggest trying a different approach and seeing how it goes.
“I’ve experienced this myself. I’ve had clients experience this where you get to know someone and then you build rapport and then there’s trust, and then the feelings come later and there’s no right way,” Chan says. “I think people need to understand that there isn’t just one way.”