There are few better feelings in the world than experiencing that newfound chemistry with someone you care about. In the early stages of a relationship, even the smallest touch or briefest eye contact is enough to send shockwaves through your body. This is what we usually call chemistry between people, or "the spark"—a twinkle in the eye, a skipped heartbeat, or flushed cheeks that indicate two people are connecting. But is there a scientific explanation for what we assume to be the chemistry between people? According to Kelly Campbell, Ph.D, yes. Chemistry has also been used to describe lust, but for the purpose of this article, chemistry in this context refers to mutual romantic interest, and compatibility.
Meet the Expert
Kelly Campbell, Ph.D, is an associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino.
What Is Romantic Chemistry?
"People with open, agreeable, and conscientious personalities are more likely to experience chemistry," Campbell says. The main qualities of chemistry include reciprocal candor, mutual interest, personableness, similarity, and physical attraction. "The more these characteristics are present, the more likely individuals are to perceive of chemistry in the interaction."
Traits That Create Romantic Chemistry
In romantic relationships, specifically, the most salient characteristics for the chemistry between two people are believed to be linked to mutual interest, similarity, and intimacy. "Chemistry happens when various factors converge at the right time," Campbell explains. "For example, chemistry is more likely when people are both open to the experience. It won’t be as "magnetic" or easy to foster a connection if they are in a rush, angry, or already involved in a great romantic relationship—people who are happily committed tend not to pay attention to potential alternative partners (a premise known as 'derogation of alternatives')."
If you and your partner share humor and find one another interesting, you probably have mutual interest. "Humor goes a long way toward building connections," Campbell says. "This factor also leads to excitement about future interactions. When you are not in the person's presence, you are thinking about and looking forward to seeing them again."
Reciprocal candor means you have easy communication, a sense of trust, and feel understood in the relationship. "When this is present, people feel as though they can say anything to one another and not be judged," Campbell says.
Personableness refers to demeanor. Chemistry can grow if both people are genuine, down to earth, caring, and kind. "Personableness, or the expression of warmth, kindness, consideration, and understanding, is shown to elicit interpersonal attraction for both genders across relationship types," explains Campbell in a study published in The Social Science Journal.
Intimacy in romantic chemistry is a blend of reciprocal candor and personableness. "When intimacy is present, people feel like they can talk to one another about anything, that they can trust their partner, and that their partner is a sincere and down to earth person," Campbell says.
Not to be confused with physical similarity, this trait refers to "matching each other on core attributes such as values, morals, beliefs, and life goals," explains Campbell. "These similarities are relatively stable and reflect who the person really is. People who are mismatched on values likely won't last long in a relationship together because these attributes are unlikely to change and dictate how people live their lives."
Core values speak to how you want to live your life. Examples of core values might include: Honesty, curiosity, empathy, transparency, and humor. Religious views and family structure (wanting kids vs. preferring to live child-free) are also considered core values.
Last, but certainly not least, physical attraction refers to perceiving one another as sexually desirable. "This characteristic is interestingly found to impact even friendship chemistry possibly because subconsciously, people are assessing the extent to which this person will help attract prospective mates," explains Campbell. "Friends facilitate romantic pairing (many people meet their spouse through friends), and so having attractive friends can also enhance the attractiveness of prospective romantic partners."
Campbell K, Holderness N, Riggs M. Friendship chemistry: An examination of underlying factors. Soc Sci J. 2015;52(2):239-247. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2015.01.005