Instant chemistry: Why friends and romantic partners click.

Why do we foster instant connections with some people? I initially became interested in this topic because my friends were so eclectic. In each case, I had formed a relatively quick connection with a person, despite our sometimes disparate ages, cultural backgrounds, and lifestyles. It made me curious as to what caused our close and easy bonds.

I began asking people in my network about instant chemistry. The first person I asked was my hairdresser. I said, “I want to study chemistry, which is the natural connection between two people. Do you know what I mean?” Her response, “Oh sure, you just have it with some people. Like the other day, I had it with this kid who came into the salon.” Later, I was in the car with my friend and asked, “What causes instant chemistry?” He thought about it and said, “My friends and I share a sense of humor. We’re also pretty good looking guys. I’d say those are the commonalities.” Over dinner, another friend and I had a long discussion about it. We tended to think instant chemistry occurred most often between people who are down-to-earth and sincere. If a person is comfortable with themselves, they are better able to express their true self to the world, which makes it easier to get to know them. Understanding oneself would also make a person more tolerant and accepting of other people, even if perspectives on important matters differed.

Although being non-judgmental facilitates chemistry, my research has also shown that similarity between people is crucial. Upon first meeting a person, if we perceive at least some similarity, we may feel more at ease disclosing information about ourselves, because we believe the other person will understand us. Feeling understood is essential to forming relational bonds. So in terms of similarity, there can never be too much, if our goal is to develop satisfying partnerships.

Another relevant variable is the degree to which we disclose information about ourselves. The theory of social penetration describes that at the beginning of a relationship, individuals tend to discuss a wide array of topics. If this initial discussion is rewarding, they begin to disclose more personal information. Although disclosures are good for relationship development, revealing too much too soon is not the best strategy. Even in long-lasting marriages, partners tend to balance self-disclosure with some degree of secrecy. It is perhaps this element of secrecy or mystery that maintains the excitement within friendships and romantic relationships.

One of the most important factors for romantic chemistry is sexual attraction. Many of my study participants described a strong sexual magnetism as the basis for their romantic connections. Surprisingly, my research indicated that attraction is relevant to friendships as well, but to a lesser extent. Taken together, the core components of both friendship and romantic chemistry included non-judgment, similarity, mystery, attraction, mutual trust, and effortless communication.

So are some people more prone to experiencing instant chemistry? I originally suspected that extroverted people would encounter instant chemistry most often. Extroverts tend to thrive on positive interactions and seek out such exchanges. They are additionally at ease in social situations, which makes other people comfortable in their presence. Surprisingly, my prediction was not supported by the research. Instead, I found that people were more likely to experience friendship chemistry if their personalities were open (e.g., adventurous, imaginative, and emotionally in-tune), conscientious (e.g., competent, disciplined, hard-working), and agreeable (e.g., friendly, cooperative, and considerate). Openness and conscientiousness were key determinants of romantic chemistry as well, but agreeableness was less important.

My studies also revealed that not everyone experiences instant chemistry. I asked individuals why they did not think it had happened to them. Most of these people did not know, but some identified specific reasons including not having the personalityfor it (e.g., being too shy); lacking trust in other people, which made them closed off; not having the opportunity to meet people; and not meeting people with similar interests.

In the end, my journey to understand instant chemistry afforded many answers. But even after the personal reflections, discussions with friends, and research studies, I still question whether chemistry involves something that cannot be explained by science. Part of me thinks so. Maybe it is caused by a spiritual connection, remembering the future, or destiny, I don’t know. I do know that when I first meet someone and experience that feeling, it puts me into the flow of life. I am rejuvenated and eager to learn more. Whatever causes that experience, I hope it continues because in getting to know others, I have been able to discover new parts of myself.


© Copyright 2013 Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Dr Campbell is an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia specialising in human development and interpersonal relationships. Her research interests are broadly focused on interpersonal relationships and ethnic minority families. Within interpersonal relationships, Dr Campbell is interested in how chemistry operates in friendships and romantic relationships, and how being in love helps and/or hinders performance across domains (e.g., academics, athletics, creativity).She also has other lines of research in the areas of couple rituals, infidelity, and the meaning of marriage. For ethnic minority families, She is interested in health disparities and has recently examined the Latino paradox, which is that Latinos tend to fare better than European Americans in terms of health outcomes, despite being over-represented among low income groups. Dr Campbell also teaches courses on intimate relationships (HD 550), race and racism (SSCI 316), personality (PSYC 385), parenting (PSYC 303 and HD 690), and advanced human development (HD 480). Grants, Honors, and Awards Outstanding Teaching Award, International Association for Relationship Research, 2012 Faculty Professional Development Mini-Grant – Love and Functioning Across Domains: An Examination of Academics and Athletics. California State University, San Bernardino, May, 2011 Innovative Course Development Grant – Student Learning and Racial Understanding: How Technology Can Help. California State University, San Bernardino, April, 2011 Faculty Fellow: Research Infrastructure in Minority Institution Program 1P20MD002722, National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Period of Funding: September, 2010 – August, 2012 Outstanding Teaching Award, Department of Psychology, California State University, San Bernardino, Spring 2011 Action Teaching Award, Honorable Mention, Social Psychology Network, February 2011 Representative Publications Campbell, K., Garcia, D., Granillo, C., & Chavez, D. V. (in press). Exploring the Latino paradox: How socioeconomic and immigration status impact health. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. Silva, L., Campbell, K., & Wright, D. W. (in press). Intercultural relationships: Entry, adjustment, and cultural negotiation. Journal of Comparative Family Studies. Campbell, K., Wright, D. W., & * Flores, C. (2012). Newlywed women’s marital expectations: Lifelong monogamy? Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 53 (2), 108-125. Nazarinia-Roy, R., & Campbell, K. (2012). Feminist perspectives and diversity teaching. Family Science Review, special issue Teaching about Families: Current Reflections on Our Journeys in Family Science Educators, 17 (1), 44-53. Campbell, K., Silva, L., & Wright, D. W. (2011). Rituals in unmarried couple relationships: An exploratory study. Family and Consumer Science Research Journal, 40 (1), 45-57. Campbell, K., & Wright, D. W. (2010). Marriage today: Exploring the incongruence between Americans’ beliefs and practices. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 41 (3), 329-345. Futris, T., G., Campbell, K., Nielsen, R. B., & Burwell, S. (2010). The Communication Patterns Questionnaire-Short Form: A review and assessment. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 18 (3), 275-287. Parker, M. L., Berger, A. T., & Campbell, K. (2010). Deconstructing infidelity: A narrative approach for couples in therapy. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 9, 66-82. Kafetsios, K. & Campbell, K. (2009). Measuring non-verbal communication of emotion in personal relationships: The Affect Communication Accuracy Procedure. Scientific Annals of the Psychology Society of Northern Greece, 7, 00-30. Futris, T. G., Van Epp, M., Van Epp, J., & Campbell, K. (2008). The impact of a relationship educational program on single army soldiers. Journal of Family and Consumer Science Research, 36, 328-349. Campbell, K., & Ponzetti, J. J. (2007). The moderating effects of rituals on commitment in premarital involvements. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 22, 1-14. Wright, D. W., Simmons, L., & Campbell, K. (2007). Does a marriage ideal exist? Using Q-Sort methodology to compare young adults’ and therapists’ views on healthy marriages. Contemporary Family Therapy, 29, 223-236. Research in the Media A variety of media outlets have featured Dr campbell’s research including an NBC affiliate television station (KVOA), CBS radio, TMZ radio, Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines, Cosmopolitan magazine, SELF magazine, and Inland Empire magazine.