There are few better feelings in the world than experiencing that newfound chemistry with another person. In the early stages of a relationship, even the smallest touch or briefest eye contact is enough to send tingling shockwaves all over your body. This feeling 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 truly connecting. But is there a scientific explanation for what we assume to be the chemistry between two people?
What Is Romantic Chemistry?
Romantic chemistry focuses on characteristics present between two people, including mutual interests, similarity, and intimacy. According to Kelly Campbell, P.h.D., the more present these characteristics are, the more likely two individuals will perceive chemistry between each other.
According to Kelly Campbell, Ph.D, there certainly is. 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—two potentially very important components of a lasting relationship.
"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')."
Meet the Expert
Kelly Campbell, Ph.D, is a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. Campbell's research focuses on couple relationships and friendships.
Read on to learn more about the chemistry between people and the seven characteristics that may increase that romantic chemistry.
Think about how you feel when someone can truly make you laugh. 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." Building that desire of wanting to see and spend time with a person again is certainly a helpful base to forming a relationship.
Reciprocal candor refers to when you can just talk to someone so easily about any topic. It 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. Especially looking toward the future of a relationship, this may be an incredibly important trait.
Responsiveness is a direct reflection of attentiveness, both of which are important in building a positive rapport. These traits contribute to an enticing flow to communication and support the building of a shared connection. These attributes can also impact connection outside of communication, like increasing feelings of emotional awareness and support which lead to the perception of both security and care.
Personableness refers to a person's 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 and others in a study published in the Social Science Journal.
When it comes to intimacy, it doesn't necessarily refer to physical attraction. 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. It's an intimate, trusting connection you feel with nobody else.
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 may 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) may also be 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."
Reis, H. T., Regan, A., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2021). Interpersonal chemistry: What is it, how does it emerge, and how does it operate? Perspectives on Psychological Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691621994241
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
Campbell K, Nelson J, Parker ML, Johnston S. Interpersonal chemistry in friendships and romantic relationships. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships. 2018;12(1):34-50. doi:10.5964/ijpr.v12i1.289