What Is Sexual Chemistry, Really?

“We’ve got great chemistry.” “They were really nice, but there was no chemistry.” We gossip about it all the time – but what does chemistry mean? 

Sexual chemistry between people is one of those holistic, hard-to-define concepts that gets more complicated the more you think about it. When we experience intense chemistry signs, they’re unmissable – but afterward we might wonder “what the heck just happened”?

Just as mysterious is when you don’t have chemistry with someone, even if they tick all your other boxes. If you’ve ever forced yourself into a relationship with a partner who didn’t give you that magical buzz, you’ll know how important chemistry is.

So… what is chemistry in a relationship? Like many other complex, juicy topics, it’s a combination of established science AND very personal, subjective factors.  

And it does involve actual chemicals.

The Science of Attraction

Feeling hormonal? We may not realize it, but humans are walking around in a stew of hormones all the time. And different combos of hormones are partly responsible for lust, love and longterm attachment – all of which converge in the definition of “chemistry”.

Let’s do it. The “lust” phase of connecting with someone – when you can’t think of anything but getting them naked – is associated with elevated levels of both estrogen and testosterone. No matter what your gender and biological sex, you have both hormones in your body. The presence of someone who feels special can make them stand up and start paying attention.

Let’s fall in love. Beyond pure libido, the deepening phase of chemistry in a relationship is associated with elevated levels of feel-good chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Your body and brain release these love potions when, well, you fall in love – when your partner’s presence is a reward in itself. 

Let’s stay together. Attachment between any combination of people is fed by oxytocin and vasopressin. They’re released with all kinds of touch – hugging, cuddling, and so forth – and they make us want to get close and stay close. Secure, lasting human bonds of all kinds benefit from this kind of chemical intimacy.

What Does Chemistry Mean?

Put bluntly, it means survival. Survival of the species via reproduction, survival of communities that support all their members, survival via family bonds. When we feel amazing chemistry with someone, a very old part of our brain may be saying “We could totally survive the Ice Age together” – which is pretty romantic when you think about it.

How to know if you have chemistry.

Although the connection between hormone levels and lust, love and attachment is pretty cut-and-dried, individual people are very different. We may experience those feelings at different levels at different times, and, most critically, in a different order.

Some people need to feel safe and securely attached in order to feel lust at all. Others can’t feel love without first experiencing intense physical desire. Some people’s sex and relationship drives prioritize one function over another. It’s not unlike the difference between spontaneous and responsive desire. And that is all perfectly okay!

A key component of chemistry in a relationship is having your needs align. If you’re not feeling it consistently and your partner very much is – or vice versa – that may be a sign you don’t have the kind of chemistry that results in great sex or lasting bonds. It’s nobody’s fault… but it may be a reason to look elsewhere.

Hurry up and wait.

Sometimes it’s a thunderclap moment, eyes meeting across a crowded room – but sometimes chemistry can develop over time. If you’re not sure whether you and your partner (or potential) have good chemistry, you may just need to be patient!

Be patient with them, and be patient with yourself. Get to know your own erotic responses, and what you need in your life to feel comfortable, lusty and loving in your body and mind. Consider getting rid of that mental checklist of romantic must-haves you wrote in your diary as a teenager; people who “tick the boxes” aren’t always same the ones who make for hot sex or lasting partnerships.

And in the end, if you look at them and see a great person who would make SOMEONE’s body and brain very happy, but you know for sure that person isn’t you – let ‘em go. Your chemicals would love to survive the Ice Age with somebody, and sniffing them out can be a pleasure in itself.

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