A Relationship Therapist Weighs In On the 'Spark' vs. 'Checking Boxes' Debate
"You fit so many boxes for me, and it makes me really happy, and I feel so comfortable with you, but there is this spark that I've been looking for and I'm not sure if it's there yet."
Ever hear those dreaded words from a potential partner? On Monday's installment of Bachelor In Paradise, viewers watched as contestant Jessenia Cruz said those words to romantic prospect Ivan Hall. "So what's more important to you, the spark or the boxes?" Hall asked Cruz in return. Her response: "A spark isn't something that can be forced." (See: The 6 Relationship Lessons You Can Learn from 'Bachelor In Paradise')
Beyond the bubble that is Paradise, however, you may indeed be wondering: which is more important when looking for a partner, "checking the boxes" or "the spark?" It's a question many have come across in their dating journeys, and it might not be as binary as it seems. As a sex, relationship, and mental health therapist — not to mention Bachelor aficionado — here's my take on the matter.
First, let's talk about those boxes. They can be symbolic of a variety of different factors that affect you and your relationships. For example, on Monday's episode of Bachelor In Paradise, contestant Joe Amabile shared with his romantic interest, Serena Pitt, that he and his girlfriend of two years, Kendall Long, had broken up because he wanted to live near loved ones in Chicago whereas she wanted the same but in Los Angeles. Having a shared understanding about larger life choices, like where to put down roots, is an important box to check, as it's vital for a happy and healthy relationship.
Other boxes folks typically want to check off align with religion, political views, finances, sex, lifestyle, and children, among others. These are the things some may often refer to as "being great on paper." They're fundamental values and ways of seeing and operating in the world. For example, if someone yearns for an ambitious partner and are currently crushing on a person who is comfortable working at the same job their whole life, that could be a box unchecked. Each of these boxes is part of the "whole package" you're looking for. No mathematical formula tells you what those boxes are, what qualifies a box to be checked, or even how many boxes need to be checked in order for you to consider someone a good match — you need to decide all that for yourself. (Related: How Important Is Perceived Attractiveness In a Relationship?)
And what about the "spark?" That, essentially, is another way of saying "chemistry" — specifically sexual or romantic chemistry. FYI, there are different types of chemistry you can experience with people. For example, you may have excellent creative chemistry with one person and steamy sexual chemistry with someone else. The word chemistry is really just explaining the chemical reaction in the brain that tells you: "Let's spend more time with this person."
There's some science behind these feelings, too. Romantic love and sexual attraction can actually be observed chemically in the brain. Romantic love can be broken down into three phases: lust, attraction, and attachment, and each of those categories has its own set of hormones that are released from the brain to make that "phase" happen, according to a study from Rutgers University.
The lust phase is characterized by sex and reproductive hormones estrogen and testosterone. This phase is largely driven by the desire for sexual gratification, as well as the evolutionary drive to reproduce, according to the study. In essence, yeah, lust is just about wanting sex.
The attraction phase (think of it as the "honeymoon phase"), is filled with dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure), norepinephrine (a fellow neurotransmitter that typically helps the body respond to stress), and serotonin (another neurotransmitter known for regulating your mood). This is the phase most folks are likely in once they "pick" a partner on Bachelor In Paradise.
The attachment phase involves different chemicals in your brain than attraction, notably oxytocin (a hormone and neurotransmitter known as the "bonding hormone" that's produced by the hypothalamus can be released in large doses during sex) and vasopressin (a hormone that can also increase during an intense stage of love).
So, the chemicals that actually keep you in a long-term relationship have nothing to do with the chemicals that attract you to your partner initially. That's the simplest way to say it. You can recreate the feelings of lust and attraction for a specific person later on in a relationship — but it's almost impossible to create them if they're not there. And that's the spark that these Bachelor In Paradise contestants seem to be talking about. (Related: The Bachelorette Is Schooling the Masses In Gaslighting 101)
So, yeah, Cruz was right when she said that chemistry can't be forced. The thing is, humans are complex animals, so chemistry gets even more complicated: It's not possible to force chemistry, but it is possible to feel chemistry grow naturally where it wasn't before. Have you ever fallen in love with a friend? It's not unheard of.
And on the flip side, chemistry alone is not enough for a supportive and long-lasting partnership. In order to have a healthy and secure relationship, you need a sound "relationship home," according to a theory from The Gottman Institute, an organization that does relationship research. There are seven "floors" (building love maps or getting to know one another, share fondness and admiration, turn towards or offering support to a partner, the positive perspective, manage conflict, making life dreams come true, and creating shared meaning), and two "walls" (commitment and trust). Chemistry might make you feel strongly connected to someone, but without a solid relationship foundation, that spark can might not be enough to last for the long term, or might veer into toxic territory.
The thing is, all of this is difficult to factor in when choosing a partner in Paradise. In this context specifically, it seems that passion will almost always dominate over a less fiery connection that has the potential to build. How come? Well, on the show, contestants need to make quick decisions about who they want to be with. They can potentially get wrapped up in a whirlwind romance, veering more towards the fireworks than a connection that may deepen over time. (Related: What It Really Means to Have Sexual Chemistry with Someone)
So did Cruz make the right choice on Monday? If there's one thing you can take away from watching Bachelor In Paradise, it's that you can't decide for anyone else what the best or right decision is.
It may take some time to see how you connect with someone. Whether it takes three seconds (as some research has pointed out) or three years, listen to your intuition and do what feels best to you.
One thing to be cautious of when attempting to tap into your instinct, though, is unprocessed trauma. Unprocessed trauma (aka unresolved psychological wounds from your past) can masquerade as "gut feelings" or intuition. Your brain is wired to keep you safe, and sometimes that goes against what you consciously want. For instance, if you experienced a traumatic event in your last relationship, your brain is going to try to prevent you from reentering a similar scenario — which may end up as your brain sabotaging any chance of a relationship in an effort to keep you safe. Once the trauma has been processed, you can take on new experiences with a conscious and present mind. (See: How to Work Through Trauma, According to a Therapist)
So what's more important for a relationship: checking boxes, or the spark? There's no one answer. It comes down to you knowing yourself well enough to understand what lust and attraction feel like in your body — not to mention, the qualities and traits you desire most in a partner. It should feel good, and it should feel right, but it can also be a collection of emotions ranging from exciting to downright scary all at the same time. The more you know yourself and what you want, the easier it is to identify when your boxes are checked, when you're feeling that spark, and to know exactly how much you need of each to feel satisfied with a connection.
Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.FT., (she/her) is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator and relationship expert based in New York City. She's an experienced speaker, group facilitator, and writer. She's worked with thousands of humans worldwide to help them scream less and screw more.