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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Chemistry, Attraction, and Romantic Love | From Bad to Good?

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Chemistry and Attraction
Can a Person go from Bad to Good?

I’m curious to know when one feels "chemistry" or a strong physical attraction towards someone is the feeling of chemistry because it’s also reciprocated. Or is it just that you are so attracted that you are only imagining (or hoping) that the other person is feeling the same way. Not sure if I'm making this question clear or not. I'm interested in the science of the question I guess...can chemistry be one-sided or is it physically happening simultaneously? Like an energetic flow back and forth?



I think that “chemistry” is best described as a subjective interpretation we give to emotional and physical feelings towards someone. On the physical side, we can feel strong attraction (sex drive) to a person without that being desire being reciprocated – which explains why marketers use models to help sell consumers different products and services and why the best looking celebrities are usually among the most popular.

The sex drive part of our selves is a bit different than feelings scientists put under the rubric of romantic love. Romantic love is driven in part by neurochemistry and in part by psychology. The euphoria and obsession we feel about a person when we are in a state of romantic love also involves a longing for that person to reciprocate the feelings. If this happens and a relationship develops, then couples tell themselves “stories,” outright invent reasons or view information around them in biased ways to support the idea why the relationship is wonderful. This is not necessarily a “bad” thing; it is just how couples maintain their satisfaction in a relationship over time. If romantic love is not reciprocated, then the disappointed person can still create a story in his/her mind to explain away the response – thereby producing false hope.

However, a very strong bond occurs when we feel physical attraction and affection towards someone and that person reciprocates the feelings. In fact, the “go” signals a person receives is a more powerful motivator than how physically attractive the object of desire is. People are simply attracted to others (platonically and romantically) more when they know the other person likes them. I hope my reply has not muddied the waters for you – I guess it can get a bit complicated. The bottom line is that “chemistry” can be one-sided, but it is strongest and more easily maintained when it is two-sided.

Can “bad” people suddenly go “nice”?

Many people are attracted to the idea of “bad boys” and “naughty girls.” It’s a tremendously powerful archetype in our sexual psyches, and themes like this dominate sexual role-playing and fantasies. Take for instance those we consider playboys and playgirls like George Clooney, Madonna, Paris Hilton or Jack Nicholson. And then there are people who seem “good” but then occasionally act “bad” – such as Lindsey Lohan, Christina Aguilera, the Olson Twins and Britney Spears. Usually with people, what you see is what you get. Actual behavior is almost always a more accurate window into peoples’ minds and future intentions than is what they say.

As a result, I tend to be skeptical when “bad boys and girls” seem to go on a “nice” streak. It can happen with celebrities who often do things for publicity stunts, to improve their public images or to achieve something else for personal gain. But for everyday people dramatic changes in behavior tend to reflect personal stress, the beginning of negative habits like drug addictions or just plain manipulation. Don’t allow yourself to be treated terribly most of the week and then take a person back because s/he apologizes and suddenly treats you well and “swears to change” on the weekend. This is an abusive cycle.

Related Links:
» Chemistry 101
» Chemistry in the 21st Century

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