I hear it frequently. From clients, from friends…and, a few years ago before I met my husband, I was experiencing the same confusing thoughts and feelings:
Why do I continue to maintain a romantic relationship with this person when they treat me like crap? This person treated me better/understood me better/was more attractive to me (insert whatever explanation applies to you here) in the beginning of our relationship – where did that go and who the hell is this person that I’m dating now? Are the issues I’m experiencing with this person deal breakers? Or just part of being in a relationship with another imperfect human being?
Let me tell you about a book that changed my life. Okay, maybe not my life. But definitely my approach to dating. Which led me to meet the awesome, complete-opposite-of-a-jerk man I married. So, I guess, it did change my life!
I first heard Dr. John Van Epp teach a workshop at a counseling conference I attended a few years back. His theory on how to avoid falling in love with a “jerk” or “jerkette” is based on over a decade’s worth of research, and forms the basis of his Relational Attachment Model, which he uses to teach participants in his groups how to build healthy relationships. I highly recommend his book, “How to Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk,” as it fully outlines his model (which is quite extensive). You can purchase it here.
Dr. Van Epp begins his book by stressing the importance of TIME. By that, he means taking ample amount of time to really get to know the person you’re dating before placing your trust in, committing to, and developing other levels of intimacy with this person.
The question is: how do you really get to know someone? And further, how do you assess if that someone is right for you?
Dr. Van Epp outlines several different categories of knowledge to obtain when dating someone, but I’ll let you check those out in more detail in his book (I promise, I’m not being paid to push his book, nor do I get any kind of kickback or benefit by writing this review! I just really love his book!). But I thought I’d take my next few blog posts and review three of the areas of knowledge he recommends gaining about your partner, as well as some of the brain science behind why we sometimes attach to romantic partners, even when we have reservations up front.
Three areas to assess regarding your compatibility with your partner:
There is a lot to be said about these three areas, but I thought I’d begin with the area that I find the most subjective and mysterious: chemistry.
Ahh chemistry… Isn’t that one of the greatest parts of falling in love?! Thinking non-stop about the person, butterflies when you’re with them, the first time you hold hands or kiss? We make fun and roll our eyes at people newly in love, but then when we experience it…yeah, then we don’t care that others are rolling their eyes at us because what we’re experiencing is just so darn fun!
In some circles, chemistry may be downplayed or seen as less important in establishing a healthy, long-term relationship. It can be seen as “all physical” and not substantial enough to maintain the longevity of a relationship. And while more than chemistry is certainly needed to keep a healthy relationship going, chemistry is crucial for several reasons.
- Chemistry provides information. Writer Allison Fallon writes that chemistry can inform us of ourselves and of opportunities to grow. Chemistry tells us if we’re attracted to a person in the first place. This does not mean that chemistry can’t develop over time if it’s not there at the outset. Dr. Van Epp uses the example of the movie, “When Harry Met Sally.” Harry and Sally were friends for years before they formed romantic chemistry. At the beginning of some relationships, romantic chemistry may not be immediately present, but one or both partners may recognize the potential for it to be present later on, which helps maintain interest and keep them invested.
- Chemistry is an indicator of emotional intensity, and can have implications for a physical relationship. New York Times Best Selling Author Mark Manson reflects on a lack of chemistry meaning “boring, emotionless sex” and the relationship feeling “kind of dead and boring when you are together.” And really – who wants to stay in a relationship that feels dead and boring?
- Chemistry can be a motivator. Dr. Neil Clark Warren, of eHarmony fame, describes chemistry as “a strong bond [that] helps two people want to fight through the problems between them. It gives the relationship passion and drive in a way nothing else can.” And when the newness and excitement of a relationship wears off, sometimes you need a motivator to summon up the effort and energy to work through those rough patches.
What exactly happens in your brain when you experience chemistry? The phenomenon that occurs can actually help explain why we sometimes stay in relationships that we wouldn’t normally stay in.
Dr. Van Epp references brain-imaging studies conducted by researchers at University College London. These studies showed that feelings of love suppress activity in the areas of the brain that control critical thought. The area that controls critical thought is also “associated with your ability to judge correctly a partner whom you have negative feelings about. In addition, massive releases of oxytocin, dopamine, and other hormones and neuropeptides in the brain create euphoric feelings that further cloud analytic judgments, masking those repeating offenses that should be obvious warning signals of problems to come.”
So, if we know that chemistry is important in relationships, and that the feelings related to chemistry can sometimes cloud our judgment, then how do we enjoy and nurture that chemistry in a healthy way without operating under cloudy judgment?
Dr. Van Epp recommends following your heart while using your head. By all means, enjoy those positive love chemicals flowing through your brain! Use them to your benefit, as outlined above. But keep your head in the game and take your time. Be aware of the effects of the love chemicals, and stay engaged in critically thinking through your attraction to your partner. You can start by considering some of the questions Dr. Van Epp outlines in his book:
- How strong is your attraction?
- What attracts you to your partner, both in terms of their body and their personality?
- What are your partner’s turnoffs and can you live with them?
- What are you most strongly attracted to in your partner, and what are you least attracted to in your partner?
- Are you attracted to ALL of your partner or just a part?
One final note: as important as chemistry is in a relationship, it doesn’t always last forever and quite often, will need to be nurtured over time during the course of a long-term relationship. We’ve all heard of couples breaking up because they are no longer “in love” with each other. While this may be true for some couples, I wonder if some of these folks mistake no longer feeling in love to a lack of nurturing their chemistry with each other?
Dr. Van Epp names two other areas of compatibility: complementarity and comparability. I’ll explore these two areas in blog posts over the next two weeks and how they can help to nurture chemistry over time. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out this book!
Van Epp, J. (2007). How to avoid falling in love with a jerk: The foolproof way to follow your heart without losing your mind. United States of America: The McGraw-Hill Companies.