Most people will tell you they don’t believe in love at first sight.
But they will tell you they believe in the “spark.”
“It’s either there or it’s not,” said Miranda Olson-Okonkwo, 24. “If it’s not clicking on date one, it’s time to walk away.”
The “spark” is a way of describing instant romantic chemistry, feeling naturally drawn to another person. It just clicks.
It’s like that iconic scene in the 2009 movie “500 Days of Summer,” when Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in an elevator, and they connect over moody ’80s rock band The Smiths. Their eyes light up.
Olson-Okonkwo felt that spark the first time she ever met her husband.
“When my husband walked into the room I could feel his presence and knew he was the one I was going to marry,” she said. “I never felt that way before.”
Everyone describes the feeling differently.
“It can be an initial physical attraction, personalities that gel, an uncanny sense that someone has met ‘the one,’” said Krista Bronisas, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
But chemically, it’s probably a mix of lust and attraction — rising production of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone, and higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, “feel-good” hormones.
“These chemicals make us giddy, energetic and euphoric, even leading to decreased appetite and insomnia,” Katherine Wu wrote for Harvard University. “Which means you actually can be so ‘in love’ that you can’t eat and can’t sleep.”
But what if you don’t feel an instant connection? Does that mean you never will — that your romantic connection is doomed?
Not necessarily, licensed marriage and family therapist David Strah says. It might be worth giving it another shot.
“Chemistry might be totally absent,” Strah said. “And then hit us like a ton of bricks and show up when we least expect it.”
For examples of this, you can point to friendships that turn into lifelong partnerships. In many cases, the attraction grows over time.
That same philosophy can work when you’re hitting the dating apps, too.
Alexa, 25, used to have a three-date minimum with each new person she met. It was a rule her mom had been practicing when she met her dad.
“I think three is sometimes too many if I’m being honest,” Alexa said. “But I kind of liked the sentiment behind it and the idea that feelings can grow over time, so I don’t want to close myself off right away.”
Strah, too, recommends two or three dates to clients who are unsure about a new person they’ve met. That’s because it can take some time to get comfortable and let your guard down.
That might sound like a slog. But it doesn’t mean you need to give everyone three dates.
People you outright don’t like or aren’t attracted to don’t need another chance. It’s easy to tell when you’re repulsed by someone. Listen to your gut in those cases.
Strah’s talking about the dates that leave you with a neutral feeling. You have a nice time, but it’s not electricity-level attraction.
He tells his clients that if a date looks good on paper, treats you well and is reasonably attractive to you, try getting to know them a bit more before moving on.
There’s still a breaking point.
If you’ve been on three dates and it still feels like an awkward job interview, it’s probably safe to cut things off.
Some people do need more time to warm up. But some personalities just don’t, and won’t, gel. If you don’t have something to say this early on, you probably never will.
We’re certainly talking about a “romantic spark” way more than we used to (the graph below shows how much it’s been mentioned in books over time). But while rom coms might make you think that the instant connection makes for a better love story, it doesn’t determine whether the relationship will last.
In other words, an attraction that “sparks” instantly isn’t stronger than one that builds over time, necessarily.
While romantic chemistry is associated with sex hormones and dopamine, love and attachment are associated with different hormones altogether — oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” and vasopressin. The same hormones we produce around friends and family.
Long-term love is distinctly, and chemically, different than that initial spark.
Bronisas said she’s worked with couples who had the instant connection right away and those who built it over time. Anecdotally, she says, one type isn’t more successful than the other.
“What matters most in successful relationships (and) relationship repair is the ability for both partners to own their part in relationship difficulties,” she said. “Be willing to see their partners’ point of view, step back from defensive stances and willingness to ‘make it work.’”
After all, even though Summer and Tom had that instant attraction in “500 Days of Summer” — spoiler alert — it didn’t last.
Gretchen is an editor for Rewire. With past stints in public radio and at a rural daily newspaper, she’s passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.