Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chemistry Lesson

Tonight's installment of "On the Couch" reminded me of the very fist advice column I wrote back in Pittsburgh. I warn you, this blows.

Originally published Aug, 2002.

By special request, this week's column is about chemistry. Not really my strong point, but I've taken a few courses so here goes nothing. First, we need to understand that all matter in the universe is comprised of molecules that are themselves comprised of smaller pieces called atoms. There are at least 118 different atoms that we categorize in a periodic table according to the number of positively-charged particles they contain. Because the laws of nature dictate that electrically charged atoms are unstable, these particles must be balanced by an equal number of negatively-charged ones. Okay, this column is turning into a major snoozer. Let me re-think this…

Romantic Chemistry 101

Questions typically fall into one of three categories: 1) Is there such a thing; 2) Is it constant; and 3) Is it important. Obviously questions 2 and 3 depend on the answer to the first, so I will begin with that one.

Is there such a thing as romantic chemistry? The answer really depends on what is meant by such a phrase. There are chemical components to love, as emotions are brain functions and everything that occurs in our brain is dependent on special chemicals called neurotransmitters. There are also chemicals exchanged between individuals in most species called pheromones which can influence the emotional state of others. Although their existence in humans is debatable, at the very least we know that humans exchange molecules of a substance called MHC that helps us subconsciously determine if our immune systems are compatible with one another.

Most people use the term "chemistry" as a metaphor of how individuals seem to randomly find one another in a vast pool of dating partners. Actually, science would suggest that much of this metaphorical chemistry is dependent on the actual chemical processes I've briefly mentioned. For example, couples with compatible MHC molecules are more successful than others. Also, any experience that we interpret as pleasurable (including good conversations, good food, and good sex) is associated with a surge of a brain chemical called dopamine. Lucky for us this substance is also important to learning and memory so that such experiences are likely to be repeated (we are rarely motivated to repeat things that do not result in such a surge, unless we're just bored on a Friday night and that lame girl with the boring stories is the only one who answers the phone). So yes, on a basic level chemistry exists.

Is it constant? Nope, and you should be thanking whomever you hold responsible for the human existence that it is not. We are a highly adaptable species, and sometimes we need to un-learn old things so that we can learn new things. Falling in love with someone who betrays our trust is a good example, being able to move on after the untimely death of a spouse is another. Both of these are extreme but important examples of reasons why our system needs flexibility. Another is reproduction, or the lack of successful reproduction. Try to forget that we live in a time period that includes birth control, family planning, fertility treatments, and societal advantages for postponing reproduction. I know this is hard to do because we are surrounded by these things, but our genes, or rather the inherited instincts that our genes create, don't have a clue. Genes don't know that we are purposely avoiding pregnancy by using contraceptives and that we will be able to reproduce when we are ready. In nature, failure to conceive means something is wrong with the plumbing and continued effort with the same partner is not going to help achieve our primary goal of coupling in the first place: someone to do our chores for free.

There is a phenomenon called the "2-4 year itch" that refers to the fact that most divorce occurs within 2-4 years of marriage if no rug-rats or crumb-catchers are produced. Unfortunately, in this case an instinct that was once beneficial to our species is now inconsistent with other aspects of our lives. This doesn't mean that childless couples are doomed to break up. Knowing this information, and the way in which chemical surges occur, can help us to avoid this outcome (or at least prolong the chemistry). Dopamine is a drug produced in the brain. Actually, it is chemically similar to cocaine. Like any drug, if we regularly use it we develop a tolerance and no longer feel the effects we once experienced from its use without changing the dose. Drug addicts must constantly be increasing their amount of consumption in order to maintain the desired effects, or perhaps change the method of delivery. A person that fills our head with surges of dopamine is an addictive substance that we will eventually develop a tolerance for. This could result in taking him or her for granted and getting into a behavioral routine that we will eventually no longer find pleasurable. It is crucial then, for childless couples who wish to maintain their "chemistry" to grow with each other, explore and regularly engage in new activities that both can enjoy, and keep the sex life interesting. There is no guarantee that chemistry can be prolonged indefinitely but anything worth having is worth working for.

On another note, keep in mind that like any other physical detail (height, weight, shoe size) these processes vary between individuals. Chemical levels and the rate of tolerance are highly variable. Some may experience extremely heavy and powerful initial emotions, require more effort to maintain them, and lose them much quicker than others. Definitely compatibility on these issues can also be a factor in ultimate relationship success.

Is it important? HELL YES! However people couple for tons of reasons and many successful marriages have had nothing to do with chemistry or were initiated by other forces (finances, religious beliefs, societal arrangements, etc..). Personally, I prefer to feel the chemistry. But then again, no wealthy woman has ever asked me to be her trophy husband either. Any millionaires out there want to help with an experiment? I assure you that it's all in the name of science.