The Truth Behind “The Spark”


Guys, I think we need to have a come to Jesus meeting.

Do you ever have your world rocked? Sometimes it’s by the thoughtful words of a friend or the lyrics of a song that you finally hear or even by one of those highly-circulated quotes that are imposed on some sort of sunset image, with words that strike you in just the right place at just the right moment. Or, you know, maybe a cat meme?

Today, my world was rocked by cold, hard science.

As I’m doing research for a new article I’m writing, I decided to look a little more deeply into the idea of instant chemistry or “the spark.”

All I know and believe to be true about “the spark” comes from He’s Just Not That Into You, my manual for dating and love (that’s not entirely true—no, okay, yes it is).

As Alex and Gigi are sitting in a bar, shamelessly people watching, Alex offers up another gold nugget, a little piece of insight into the mysteries of the male mind:

Alex: This guy’s going to be buying her drinks all night, and she’s going to insist that there’s no “spark.”

Gigi: Maybe there’s not. You need a spark.

Alex: No, the “spark” thing is sh-t.

Gigi: Really?

Alex: Bull sh-t.

Gigi: Enlighten me.

Alex: Guys invented the “spark” so that they could not call, and treat you kind of bad, and keep you guessing, and they convince you that that anxiety and that fear that they’re throwing at you is actually, just a “spark”. And you guys all buy it. You eat it up.

Now, I need to confess that I side with Gigi here. I myself have been the helpless victim of some pretty potent pheromones and just the right amount of stubble, and that kind of attraction is powerful, y’all. But, our friend Alex makes a lot of sense too.

Making Sense of Chemistry

While I don’t think that men “generated” the spark as a mating tool, I do agree that chemistry can never be an accurate measure of compatibility. And what if that chemistry, that very literal chemical response to another person, was a little less random and little more engineered than we always believed?

Haven’t we all been taught that men (and women) love “the chase”? There are certain people that you just hit it off with, and there’s this constant tug-of-war for power and control, and all the while the attraction just builds and builds. It’s in those other relationships, the ones that are a little too easy, where we’re discontent. Sparks can only come from friction, right? I mean, it’s kind of boring to be loved with undeserved abandon (a few watchings of Twilight will prove this—this said as an avid Twilight fan). Suddenly, that attention becomes unwanted, uncomfortable even.

But, unfortunately, this kind of chase mentality makes for great stories about butterflies and Friday nights but pretty poor long-term choices. Our chase after having to “earn” the attention and affection of our partners stems from feeding a pattern of similar behavior.

This phenomenon is actually called the “familiarity principle,” and according to a Psychology Today article:

Studies have shown that we are all attracted to what is familiar to us, and that repeated exposure to certain people will increase our attraction toward them. . . . This doesn’t just apply to people we’ve actually seen before or to people who look familiar, but also to people who behave in ways that are familiar to us. For example, if you are a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father you will tend to be attracted to men who are alcoholics, not because you find them attractive but because you find their behavior familiar. Even when someone’s behavior or personality is hurtful, on a subconscious level, some part of us finds comfort in the familiarity of that behavior. . . . [W]e are tethered to bad relationships as much as we are tethered to the past by our subconscious minds.

And we’ve seen this all before, yes? The girl who somehow always goes back to the jerk of a guy. The guy who falls, repeatedly, for the beautiful but distant girl. These patterns aren’t anything new. But today, two of my soapboxes collided as I thought through the implications of this.

Chemistry and… Kids?

Track with me now, friends. We, as adults, demand much from children. While we bask in the grace bestowed to us, we expect perfect behavior, good grades, utmost respect, and kind words from our children. While we relish the idea that God doesn’t demand for us to be perfect, we hold our kids to a slightly higher, and much more unattainable, standard. This pattern has bothered me since my beautiful niece has come into the world. Suddenly, I began to critique all of the compliments I was giving her.

And as she ages, the tendency to praise her for her behavior (“You are being such a big helper today!”) and performance (“Look who got all A’s!”) will only increase. While there is a time and place for such accolades, I’d hate to think that Abby doesn’t deserve praise just for being who she is, beautifully and wonderfully made.

All of that to say this, we are conditioned as children that to earn affection, attention, and (seemingly) love as we perform or behave in a certain way. Every gold star I’ve ever received attests to this. So, subconsciously, we bring this same mentality into beginning a relationship.

I must earn your approval. I must do something or say something or look some way in order to gain your attraction. Those who are attracted to me without me having to valiantly prove myself—those guys are just creepy. Who could love me wholeheartedly, unreservedly, without cause or provocation?

So, really, it’s not so much that we accept the love we think we deserve, but rather that we accept the love we feel we’ve earned.

But the truth is that sometimes you don’t have to earn love. In my mind, it’s that love that’s freely and liberally given that makes for a happy (less combustible) life. Though, no doubt I will miss the pheromones and stubble if it comes down to this kind of choice.

Now, I know there are lots of caveats to this argument and little side amendments that I should make, but I just want you to think for a second if this truth could possibly, in just the slightest way, apply to you. Maybe it’s the friend who accepts you a little too freely or the guy who you put off because he was just a little too chummy. Or maybe you just keep falling for those douchebags over and over again, and you wonder why you rebuff the attention of the nice guy? (Hint: that’s me.)

But, glorious news, there’s grace even in this. That spark means so little in the long run, and that instant chemistry for a marriage is about as important as geometry is in real life. So, push through the pain? Rub a little dirt on it? I’m not too good at the advice portion, but I do like this: “Take heart.” (and maybe don’t make life-altering decisions based on the abnormal beatings of that little organ?)

Author: Joy Beth Smith

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  • The spark may be needed to start the fire, but like all fires, there’s constant attention to administer. For some, it’s that requirement to feed the fire that causes the flame to go out. For others, they can never get enough fuel to keep burning brightly for their partner, no matter what he/she does. Definitely a give and take for the long-term warmth and comfort that a good fire — and a good marriage — will deliver. (married 15 years and counting)

  • Great article. Married 15 years too. My aunt gave me great advice. Always think you are dating your boyfriend. That mindset has helped me keep the spark going.

  • I think the reason I find it creepy when a guy likes me with unreserved abandon is because he doesn’t even know me that well. That love that he has for me seems more like infatuation and that “love” didn’t devlop in a relationship where he got to know me and I him. It also feels creepy because I don’t “love” him the same way. It is one sided. I do think it’s important to pay attention to your feelings. If you don’t feel something for a guy that likes you, let it be. There will come a guy that likes you for who are and you like him for who he is as well!

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