In the past, my romantic life was defined by a pattern of short-lived romances that ended in disaster. Why? I habitually fell head over heels for guys who were emotionally unavailable, and I ran for the hills when an available guy wanted to be serious. It became apparent that if I wanted to be in a long-term, committed relationship, I needed to look deep within and make a serious change.
So, as a highly analytical person, I set out to discover the patterns and defense mechanisms that I had built around my heart.
Quickly, it became quite clear that I had a type. The men I was drawn to were all busy entrepreneurs, all married to their work. I developed a warped sense of attraction, equating unavailability and inconsistency with excitement, and excitement with love. It wasn't hard to identify the source of this learned behavior. It was evident that these men resembled my father, a workaholic businessman who put his family low on the totem pole. I had to earn the attention and love from my father. So I sought men who made me feel the same way. Crazy, right?
Once I realized this, I was determined to rewire my chemistry and develop an attraction toward available men who could connect with me. So here's what I did.
I opened up my mind.
I began by conducting an experiment. Could I rewire my chemistry and build attraction toward men who were good for me? Could I be open to different types of men?
So I made the decision to be receptive to dating people outside my particular type. And the moment I did this, I suddenly started to notice men that I completely overlooked before. Freshly open-minded, I decided to give them a chance. And so I went on dates. I went in with no expectations; my only intention was to be curious, to have fun.
I started to ‘catch feelings.’
Even though the dates were fun and the men were lovely, I just wasn’t developing any feelings. But then something unexpected happened.
I was having dinner with a guy named Chris—who I had seen several times—but with whom I felt zero chemistry. Early on, I was upfront that I didn’t have a romantic interest, but was open to still meet up as friends. He expressed he had no expectations and just wanted to have me in his life.
When we met up for dinner one day, it was our seventh time hanging out. I didn’t think much of—until it happened. I remember a distinct moment when I looked at him and noticed how handsome he was. Something changed. I saw him differently.
And just like that, the elusive spark sprang to life. I found I was attracted to his character and his soul. This type of intimacy was something I had not experienced before. It was slow and steady, it was calm and peaceful. It didn’t have the extreme highs and lows that I felt before with the guys that gave me that instant rush.
Perhaps chemistry was always there and I just didn’t recognize it. Perhaps my platonic admiration turned romantic. Whatever the reason, my experiment worked. I didn't just learn that you can rewire your chemistry–I learned it takes time to build a healthy connection because it’s based on getting to really know someone, versus deciding immediately if you're attracted to his superficial qualities.
What made me feel happy about the outcome with Chris (asides from Chris himself!) was that I learned my power in choosing a mate. I was no longer a slave to chemistry with an archetype of man that was bad for me. My options of who could be a suitable and compatible partner expanded, once I was open to the possibility of dating someone outside the type that made me anxious.
Our Brains on Love
Turns out, there was actual science behind my experiment.
If a researcher were to study and scan my brain, they would be able to provide a scientific explanation of what unfolded with Chris. You see, the part of my brain responsible for romantic attraction and attachment was activated before the part of my brain responsible for sexual attraction, and this made all the difference.
According to American anthropologist and human behavior researcher Helen Fisher, there are three different starting places for your romance, or "mating drives," in the brain, and all three intertwine to create romantic love. Each is associated with different neurochemicals, and each produces a different set of feelings and behaviors.
The first mating drive is lust (driven by testosterone), which is characterized by the craving for sexual gratification.
The second mating drive is attraction (driven by dopamine, known as the pleasure chemical), which is characterized by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection. This can result in focused attention and can cause one to concentrate relentlessly on positive qualities of their mate and overlook negative traits. The elevated levels of dopamine are also associated with craving and addiction—a blissful dependency when love is returned, but a painful, sorrowful craving when one’s love is spurned.
The third drive is attachment (driven by vasopressin and oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone”), which is responsible for bonding and commitment. Attachment is characterized by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union. This is where I began my romantic relationship with Chris.
You might have known that love and sexual attraction were two separate entities, but science confirms it. In fact, lust and romantic love are associated with different constellations of brain regions entirely. You can feel lust or attraction for someone, but that does not necessarily lead to attachment and bonding. If, like me, the first or second mating drives are what keeps landing you in trouble, consider starting from the third drive, by building intimacy and deeper attachment.
Understanding the science behind your feelings can help shift your perspective when it comes to falling in love. For instance, you may not want to write off that person you are compatible with because you don’t feel initial “sparks” (ie: sexual attraction), because those sparks can grow over time, and research confirms this.
Familiarity Increases Likability
Psychologists argue that the more you interact with a person you like (even if it’s only mild interest), the more attractive they become. That clearly was true with Chris.
But keep in mind, repeated exposure only amplifies something that’s already there. This is why regardless of how many times you see that annoying person at work, you don’t fall in love with them. Repeated exposure merely intensifies the dominant emotion in the relationship. Thus, when the dominant emotion is anger, repeated exposure enhances the anger. However, when the dominant emotion is an attraction, repeated exposure enhances the attraction.
It’s easy to feel chemistry with someone who fulfills the superficial qualities you are drawn toward—be it looks, ambition, or charisma. However, chemistry alone does not create compatibility. If you are looking for a long-lasting partnership, it’s crucial to look at the values that make up someone’s character. That spark, no matter how powerful, comes and goes—but character, values, and a sense of teamwork will be the glue that will hold two people together in a relationship worth holding on to.
And if you're like me, naturally attracted to men who are terrible for you, consider opening up your mind to guys outside this type and giving that spark a little patience. After all, the science is in your favor.