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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Editorials > February 2009

Initial Attraction Versus Long Term Compatibility

by James Houran, Ph.D.

(February 2009) Many industry commentators consistently confuse two important things – initial attraction and long-term compatibility. If supposedly well informed insiders are confused, so are actual online daters. Physical “chemistry” between two people is not the same as socio-psychological “compatibility.”   The ingredients that attract a couple in the early stages of a relationship are not what feed their ability to sustain and nurture the relationship.

Someone recently claimed that, “The brain is the finest matching machine. It knows in three minutes if the other person is worth pursuing.”  This type of simplistic and undisciplined rhetoric harms online daters by giving them unrealistic expectations. In fact, this notion of “love at first sight” and “happily ever after without effort” that dominates Hollywood depictions of falling – and staying- in love has been a disservice to couples everywhere. The brain is really good at determining initial interest and attraction with another person…and it can do this in less than three minutes…but it’s not an effective matching machine for the long-term without training and coaching on the bonds that really hold a couple together over time. That bond is more of a cognitive phenomenon – a mindset that convinces us that staying with a person will bring a better outcome that leaving the relationship. Such a mindset must be consciously nurtured, since it doesn’t always happen naturally.


Initial attraction involves passionate love -- the head spinning, heart pumping, physical and emotional roller coaster ride of euphoria that comes early in a relationship. Fortunately, or not, passionate love is typically short-lived, lasting approximately 12-30 months into a relationship (5,6,7). After this phase in a romance comes the test of whether a couple can mature into the next stage of loving for the long-term. This is when passionate love becomes more of a companionate love, with two lovers having feelings of deep attachment and commitment to one another. Companionate love is characterized by emotional intimacy, affection, tenderness and two lovers being deeply intertwined (3). This quiet, stead, soothing state of loving is contributed to by a chemical in our brains called Phenylethylamine (PEA). Chemical endorphins released in a lover’s presence further contribute to the sense of peace, calm, and security one feels for a beloved, basically the warm feelings of companionate love (4). Oxytocin, another brain chemical, is also believed to contribute to long-term relationships, being stimulated by touch, including sexual touch, resulting in pleasure and satisfaction (2). During sex play, oxytocin is released, fostering our attachment even more. The attachment process, in turn, further shapes our sexual motives, experiences, and behaviors. People who are securely attached are more motivated to show love during sex, are more open to sexual exploration, likelier to have positive sexual self-schema, and are less likely to experience negative emotions during sexual encounters. So, chemistry literally helps foster love and attachment across all phases of a relationship, but that’s a far cry from crediting long-term happiness to natural brain chemistry. Anyone who has maintained a healthy long-term relationship will tell you that it took a lot of hard work.

This all said, no one should expect long-term loving is as passionate throughout the life of the relationship as it was in the early stages. That’s a myth pure and simple. However, long-term loving doesn’t have to be devoid of passion either. Some people believe, and claim, that passionate and companionate love can both be present in a relationship, with research on married people describing their relationship as one of passion, friendship, and self-giving love (1). In fact, one study found that passionate love was the strongest predictor of relationship satisfaction for couples who had been married for as long as forty years. A good deal of other research doesn’t necessarily support that conclusion, but the main point remains valid -- namely that attraction and emotional attachment-stability seem to be two separate phenomena but which  can both be maintained in a relationship over time.

Maintaining your relationship should not be left to chance or to a belief that “once in love, always in love.” When it comes to love, I urge people to use their brains rather than be controlled by their brains. Chemistry is important, but it’s only a part of a broader process that couples use to find and nurture love. Our brains will tell us who we find physically attractive, but those chemicals in our brains don’t tell us how to hold onto to our loved ones. For that we need to educate ourselves about and establish healthy relationship behaviors. An important part of that learning can comes from parents, coaches, mentors and legitimate books and other materials. Don’t leave that education to what your brain does or doesn’t tell you in the span of three minutes or less -- that’s a recipe for pleasure in the short-term but almost certainly headache and heartache in the long-term.


1 Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. New York:
Henry Hold and Company.

2 Fisher, H.E., Aron, A., & Brown, L. (2006). Romantic love: A mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 361, 2173-2186. 

3 Francoeur, R.T. (1991). Becoming a sexual person, (2nd ed). New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company.

4 Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R.L. (1993). Historical and cross-cultural perspectives on passionate love and
sexual desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 4, 67-98.

5 Lawrence, R.J. (1989). The poisoning of eros: Sexual values in conflict. New York: Augustine Moore

6 Money, J. (1985). The destroying angel: Sex, fitness & food in the legacy of degeneracy theory, Graham
Crackers, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes & American health history. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press. 

7 Singer, I. (1987). The nature of love: Vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

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