Chemistry lessons: staff writer Carlin Flora spoke with eight couples about why they think they’re compatible. Pictured here are Dina and Bob Bomgardner

Carlin Flora


Who has not felt that they are the happiest, the luckiest and the only human to fall so completely in love? The physical and emotional fanfare that heralds love’s arrival is hard to forget–and more difficult still to sustain. If the romance goes well, the heart-stopping phone calls you once anticipated with fervor become a familiar ring; that furtively glimpsed visage may be the first and last face you see each day. Enduring love inevitably progresses to this stage: an attachment that is deeper, but far less exciting, than initial infatuation.

Indeed, the experience of love may best be viewed as a biological drive that comprises lust, romantic love and attachment. These three states are experientially different, but share the goal of successful reproduction. Lust gets us on the hunt for potential mates, and romantic love narrows our focus and energy to just one person, while attachment encourages us to stick with this partner long enough to raise children.

These three systems are expertly choreographed at the neurochemical level, each with attendant neurohormones, contends Helen Fisher, a research anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It’s the neurochemical dopamine in particular that allows us to maintain romantic love’s unique, intoxicating properties, even as we tread water in the tranquil sea of long-term attachment.

Dopamine and norepinephrine levels surge when a person is confronted by the unknown. In the initial phase of romantic love, they engender such exhilaration that we lose the desire to eat or sleep. The French refer to this as le coup de foudre (“lightning bolt”). Less romantic Anglophones call it lovesickness. Fisher, for her part, equates romantic love with addiction. She argues that whether the motivator is cocaine or Cindy in apartment 4B, elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine electrify the reward system in the brain. “Romantic love is an urge, a craving, a homeostatic imbalance that drives you to pursue a particular partner, and to [experience] emotions like elation and hope, or despair and rage,” explains Fisher.

The awe of dopamine eventually subsides, followed by love’s rear guard, vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that lead to long-lasting attachment. Researchers hypothesize that these “cuddle chemicals,” released during sex, facilitate the bond needed to raise children. Warm and fuzzy though they make us feel, these hormones can’t match dopamine’s edgy high. Oxytocin, in particular, may subdue levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

It may be wise to invoke the thrill and power of dopamine by embracing new adventures, since novelty prompts the brain to pump out this chemical. “Novelty drives up dopamine levels and probably lowers the threshold for your ability to feel romantic love,” Fisher explains. In other words, new and varied stimuli can be sufficiently arousing to recapture what was initially so exciting about your mate. “When you do novel things, you’re not ingesting any substance; you’re just creating an internal reaction–just as romantic love creates an internal reaction,” says Fisher.

Indeed, several studies have shown that couples who share exciting experiences report more relationship satisfaction, as well as more romance, than do couples “Love’s First Blush” by Kaja Perina; “Sensationally Out of Step” by Hara Estoff Marano; “Does Love Make Scents” by Carlin Flora.

with more mundane habits.

Novelty may be so critical to romantic love that it helps account for the success of arranged marriages. Many Westerners roll their eyes at the practice, trampling as it does on our notions of courtship and the soul mate. But Fisher suggests that an arranged union offers suspense about one’s partner-to-be, the fulfillment of a long-anticipated promise and the thrill of wedding pageantry–experiences that can drive up dopamine levels to such a degree that romantic love may thrive.

Novelty-generating forces are available to most relationships. Prime among them are humor (never underestimate the power of the unexpected quip) and sex. Sex elevates testosterone levels, which in turn rev up dopamine, allowing partners to recapture the thrill of romantic love, if only temporarily.

The simplest way to shake up your relationship is well documented by the likes of Homer or Tennessee Williams: enforced separation and knock-down, drag-out fights. Arguments trigger a rush of adrenaline, which kicks in during risky, dangerous or new situations. This may explain the high-voltage couple who dramatically splits only to reconcile with still more gusto. Separation from a beloved moves dopamine and norepinephrine production into high gear by activating goal-driven pathways associated with these neurotransmitters. “When a reward is delayed, these brain circuits sustain their activity, which is probably what gives you the feeling of frustration attraction–wanting the person more when barriers are increased,” explains Fisher.

There’s just one catch in Fisher’s prescription for novelty: A couple’s conception of behavior that is comfortable or challenging must be in sync for fresh experiences to have the desired effect.

Unfortunately, not everyone is in sensory agreement.


Let’s face it: We live in a fast-paced world. Gone is the serenity of Victorian idylls that still infuse our vision of romance, complete with slow-motion Sundays in the park and picnics by pristine lakes.

While the recesses of our brain reserved for romance marinate in some melange of fiction and hope, our nerve endings snap to attention against a shortage of time. Communication is often curt as couples juggle bills, office deadlines and babysitters who don’t show.

This is the nature of life in the 21st century. Elegant and gracious it is not.

Against this backdrop, relation ships struggle to survive once the exhilaration of courtship gives way to the routines of partnership. And couples struggle to achieve a congruence that is generally out of the reach of awareness–but that exerts a powerful centripetal pull nonetheless.

One factor that may prove unifying–or divisive–is the degree to which two nervous systems are naturally inclined to pursue novel and stimulating experiences. We are not talking about conjoint bungee-jumping, rather about the openness each person has toward change and his or her appreciation of variety and intensity of experience, as well as each one’s strong positive emotional reactivity to new situations.

People normally differ in the degree to which they seek stimulation. But the most enduring couples, it turns out, are those whose natural levels of sensation seeking, whether high, low or in between, are very closely aligned.

People who strongly possess the capacity for sensation seeking are tuned in to an internal thrum and choose environments that augment internal sensations. They are usually very social, seeing others as a source of stimulation, although they answer more to their own needs than to social conventions. And the company they prefer is interesting, going on exotic.

The degree of sensation seeking is usually well-correlated between happily married partners. In studies at the University of Delaware, psychologist Marvin Zuckerman has found a large discrepancy in the sensation-seeking scores of husbands and wives undergoing marital therapy. Usually, he reports, it is the low-level sensation seeker who drags in the high-level sensation seeker for marital counseling.

The best combination is two people low in sensation seeking. “They’re happy with each other and don’t become habituated to each other,” explains Zuckerman. “Two high [-level] sensation seekers are OK for a while, but even though their partner might be exciting, they are looking for variety everywhere.” Still, the worst combination is high-low, because they just don’t understand each other’s interests.

A person’s inherent need for sensation is not necessarily obvious in the early stages of a relationship, when love itself is a novelty and carries its own thrills. And you don’t have to be a high-level sensation seeker to enjoy sex, says Zuckerman. “It’s when the sex becomes routine that problems occur. Initially there can be a great attraction between a high [-level] and a low [-level]. And only later may they realize how fundamentally different they are.”

As with all behavior, there is some flexibility built into the system. Up to a point, some low-levels can learn to do things they might not ordinarily choose. And high-levels can modify their sensation needs. But even if they reach agreement on how to spend their time together, and what to do on vacation, the tempo is always going to be somewhat unrewarding for one of them. The activities that most satisfy, the kinds of people they like, their interest in socializing at all–the balance points between routine and spontaneity, between stability and variety–are bound to differ and can drive a wedge between them.

The high-sensation seekers and the lows also have different brain responses to activity. At the highest end of sensation seeking stand the risk takers of the world–people who are impelled to explore unknown territory, experiment with drugs or engage in dangerous activities. “High-sensation seekers don’t need an explanation. Lows want an explanation about why people do such things,” Zuckerman reports.

The highs know. They get an all-around rush, probably brought to them by a surge in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Among sensation seekers, Zuckerman has found, dopamine levels are low and very reactive to stimulation. He believes that high-sensation seekers have reduced dopamine levels because they have low levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO), a brain-active enzyme that regulates dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Serotonin levels are also low among sensation seekers. Low serotonin levels are associated with impulsive behavior. And so the combination of tendencies might be due to the balance between serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

In general, women have higher MAO levels than men, while sensation seeking tends to be greater among men than among women.

Nevertheless, happy husbands and wives can be found–and by extension, ought to he looking for each other–at roughly the same spot on the sensation-seeking scale. “Most personality traits do not show what’s called ‘assortative mating,'” that is, they do not gravitate toward their own level in a partner. But sensation seeking does. And that, says Zuckerman, is a clear sign of its biological importance.


Dripping candles, perfume-doused letters, red roses–so much of romance leads us by the nose. It turns out that one of the most subtle but important forces steering love is the body’s own unadulterated scent. If a couple’s odor-prints don’t match, they won’t make sense together.

Scent is a driving force at all stages of a relationship, argues Rachel Herz, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Brown University. She has found that scent is the second most important criterion for women (after a pleasant disposition). Women are more interested in scent than in appearance, voice or muscle tone. While men also rank scent highly, Herz argues that women are the more aromatically susceptible sex. Because women bear the brunt of reproduction, they have evolved to regard smell as a more significant signal.

People know which cologne drives them crazy, but their preference for one person’s smell over another’s is at the mercy of biological processes that generally operate below the level of conscious awareness.

The source of each person’s one-of-a-kind odor is, in fact, his or her unique immune system. The segment of our DNA called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) controls proteins involved in immunity–and in producing our own singular smell. Immunity is inherited from both parents, and because the human species is best protected by the broadest array of disease resistance, we are designed to mate with a partner whose MHC profile differs from our own. As such, studies suggest that we like the scent of people with immune systems unlike ours. Couples with similar immune systems have a higher risk of spontaneous miscarriages and have more trouble conceiving. A classic set of experiments reveals the degree to which MHC-driven scents silently engineer mate preferences. Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern in Switzerland asked women to sniff and select cotton clothes that were worn by various men. The women not only favored the shirts of men whose MHC profiles differed from theirs but also said these aromas reminded them of current or ex-lovers–proof that MHC profiles influenced their romantic choices in the past. T-shirts worn by men who had similar immune systems to the women conjured up fathers or brothers instead.

Women taking oral contraceptives, however, were dangerously misled in partner preference: They found the dad-and-brother-like smells most attractive. The pill tricks a woman’s body into acting as if she’s pregnant. One theory holds that the olfactory system knows it is advantageous for a woman to be around kin when she is in such a vulnerable state.

Perhaps, Herz suggests, the wide spread use of the pill is a factor in our sky-high divorce rates: “Marriage counselors say that a [top] complaint from women who want to end a relationship is, ‘I can’t stand his smell.'”

A few years into marriage, a woman may stop using birth control only to find herself less interested in her mate without knowing why. Herz now advises women who use the pill to try alternate means of birth control before settling down with a partner.

But a change in scent perception will not necessarily make a woman turn up her nose for good. Once two people are emotionally attached, they are disposed to see–and smell–each other in a positive light.

Shared Passions Dina and Bob Bomgardner

Bob, 42, a photographer, and Dina, 40, a singer and legal secretary, enjoy life’s pleasures. “We love food, wine, travel, music,” says Dina. Childless by choice, the Bomgardners have been together for 10 years, married for eight, and have created a life filled with art and adventure.

But things weren’t always so sweet. Dina’s hot temper flared on occasion; her fear that it would sabotage her relationship with Bob prompted her to see a therapist, “I would credit the fact that we’re married to [my therapist],” she says.

They’ve now mastered the technique of “fair” fighting–sticking to the issue at hand without bringing up past hurts, listening to each other’s point of view–and they avoid bickering over minor matters. And they both point to one ritual as the pillar of their marriage: formal dinners together a few times a week. “We light candles, and one of us will make the meal,” says Bob. “We’re not parked in front of the TV.” Adds Dina, “That’s when we do most of our talking. We’ll share a bottle of wine and gab for two hours.”

Common interests are of great value to this pair. “I know couples who aren’t well matched, but who work well together,” says Dina. “But I think they have less fun. That’s the bottom lineal enjoy his company.”

Bob and Dina’s quiet knowledge that they love each other has replaced the passion that fueled the more volatile early stages of their relationship. “I didn’t know if I would be happy and in love in eight years. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. That is a surprise,” says Bob.

Balancing Act Kathleen and Ollie Johnson

Kathleen, 44, and Ollie, 62, met on a New York City paddleball court and have been married for 20 years. Despite the palpable affection and respect they share for each other and their three teenage children, the Johnsons are quick to admit that happiness didn’t come without a fight.” The first 10 years were very hard,” says Kathleen. “It was a real power struggle.”

Kathleen, whose parents were divorced when she was young, was drawn to Ollie’s strong family ties and his flamboyant style. (He was a graphic designer and is now the cocreator of a line of hair-care products.) But once they married, she felt herself casting a critical eye his way. “The things that first attracted me to him–the fact that he is so laid-back and easygoing–started to drive me crazy,” she says. “I’d think, God, he’s so slow! But If I’m attracted to another man, I realize it is because he exhibits the same qualities that Ollie has.”

One such attribute is Ollie’s work ethic. And yet money is a hot-button issue for the Johnsons. While Kathleen is a homemaker who homeschools their children, Ollie has embarked on several entrepreneurial ventures, which have led the family both to flush times and to the brink of ruin. “We trust each other more with money now,” says Kathleen.

Ollie’s initial frustration with the relationship was a consequence of their age difference: He was less tolerant than she, and resisted taking suggestions from someone who hadn’t “been around” the way he had. But Kathleen’s religious opposition to divorce and her desire to forge the stable family she never had formed a force field that holds the couple together. “Sometimes in a relationship, one person is more fervent about being loyal and faithful. In ours I’m that person. He’s a kite; he’s a dreamer,” she says.

“I gave up at one point,” admits Ollie. But Kathleen made it clear that no one was going anywhere. “It helped, because I realized that she wasn’t going to give up. It forced me to take a look at the bigger picture, at the fact that we have lovely kids who are doing great. In the beginning, I was selfish. But love is unconditional. It is just give, give, give, and then you keep giving.”

Doppelgangers Rick and Joel Stoeker

Rick and Joel were both weary of the dating scene when they met in 1996. “I’ve always wanted to be in a long-term relationship” says Rick, 39, owner of a graphic design firm. “And I’ve never been a big player,” agrees Joel, 35, a buyer for an apparel Web site. The Stoekers (the moniker is a combination of their family names), together for nearly nine years, adopted Violet, who is now 2 years old.

Joel shook his head when he saw friends dropping their dates in hopes that something better was around the corner. “If you want to make a life with someone, you have to compromise,” he says. “I was looking for core things like honesty and faithfulness,” qualities he detected in Rick early on. “We’re both realistic and willing to work on things. That’s probably why we’re together” Much of that labor now consists of hammering out parenting strategies, as Violet learns to manipulate her dads as well as delight them.

Instead of needing to reconcile incompatibilities, the Stoekers have to contend with a degree of hypersimilarity. “What we face is competitiveness,” says Rick. “But it’s over petty matters. And a potential problem in our relationship is that we kind of become each other. But we both thrive on togetherness and being in close contact with each other.”

The Collaborators Jeannie Noth and Jim Gaffigan

Jim, 38, is a comedian and actor; and Jeannie, 34, is an actor and comedian. Being funny may come naturally to them. but, as with a good marriage, comic success is ultimately the result of hard work. Husband and wife for more than a year, they’re tackling their most ambitious project yet: 2-month-old Mari.

Shortly after the couple met at their neighborhood deli, Jim landed a part on a TV sitcom, Welcome to New York. Jim had worked the comedy club circuit for years but lacked acting experience, so he turned to Jeannie, who studied theater and led a children’s drama troupe. “He asked me for help practicing his lines,” she says. “I started to coach him on timing and delivery. That was when we realized we were a great team.” They’ve cowritten comedy for the past four years and just completed scripts for a new animated TV series.

“We have the same sensibilities,” says Jim. After a gig on the David Letterman Show, for example, Jim will come home and immediately review a tape of his performance with Jeannie; they analyze what went well and what could have been better. “That is invaluable. I’m married to my friend, writing partner and acting coach–it’s a pretty great deal.”

Peripatetic Partners Mieczyslaw and Ewa Bak

In a wedding between a young girl and the boy next door, compatibility is often assumed, thanks to shared perspectives and backgrounds. The Baks were elementary school classmates in Szczecin, Poland, and married at age 19. But while their union was one marked by ease and predictability, their marriage became an unforeseeable journey, laced with hardships and, ultimately, triumphs.

“We didn’t have any expectations for what marriage would be like,” says Ewa. “We had a lot of fun together and we were very young. We lust learned as we went through it.” Mieczyslaw was a merchant sailor who occasionally took Ewa and their daughter, Patryce, with him on trips. In 1980, while Poland was embroiled in political turmoil, they were on such a voyage when their families told them not to return because of safety concerns. Stranded in Spain, the Baks struggled to survive for two years.

“To leave our house and country with one suitcase and one child, it was very tough” says Ewa. “Mieczyslaw would help me when I was discouraged, when I thought we couldn’t make it, and I would do the same for him.” Returning to Poland was not an option as Mieczyslaw was considered a traitor and would have been imprisoned. A few years later, the family was given an opportunity to go to California, where again, they started from scratch.

But by the time Patryce was 13, the couple had bought their own house in a middle-class neighborhood. Now Ewa does automotive research, and Mieczyslaw is a shipyard superintendent in Oakland.

“When we were poor, we had tougher times–and more arguments,” says Ewa. “But it made us stronger. And we’ve never had silence between us. When there is a problem we talk about it right away.”

A Well-Tempered Match Rick Marin and Ilene Rosenzweig

When he met Ilene, Rick was busy seducing impressionable young women with a sob story about his failed first marriage–and subsequently kicking them out of his apartment after sex, antics he eventually chronicled in a memoir, Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor. Like all good romantic comedies, his ends with a wedding (last year), and this year the cad becomes a dad.

In 1996 Rick and Ilene, who were “just friends” were part of a group renting a summer beach house together, where their relationship simmered. “I had some designs,” says Rick, “but even if she wasn’t romantically inclined toward me, it was still worth it to spend time together.”

Disinclined she was. Rick was the “anticad” to Ilene, making her laugh and agreeing with her “radical centrist” politics and movie interpretations, but not fitting her ideal. “He was too sane and reliable.” says Ilene, a writer and designer who now has a line of home furnishings, called Swell, at Target.

“She’s always been a novelty seeker, and I’ve always been a creature of habit,” Rick concedes. His dogged pursuit was fueled by the realization that while Ilene was his opposite, she was also his equal. By the fall of 1996, he convinced her that she could be happy with someone who wasn’t likely to hurt her. “I had a bad-boy complex,” she admits.

Although Rick, 42, heads up the logistics of home life–tending to the bills and the laundry–Ilene, 39, is in charge of spontaneity–exotic vacation planning. Still. they’ve rubbed off on each other. Says Ilene, “He went cliff-diving on our honeymoon, and I keep my taxi receipts now.”

Photographs by Patryce Bak

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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