During her 20s, Sharon’s Dating M.O. was to say, "Sorry Tom, Dick, Harry" after the first evening — sometimes after the first 10 minutes! — if there was no immediate spark. Following the breakup of her tumultuous 20-year marriage, the 49-year-old New York elementary school teacher tried a different tack. "Having four-star chemistry led me to marry the wrong man," she explained. "My ex never treated me well. Now I prize someone with other characteristics — kindness, integrity, dependability." She had found such a paragon. Alas, five months into the relationship there remained a major wrinkle: On her part at least, the lust-o-meter remained stuck on zero. Still, Sharon held firm: "I don’t want to give up too soon. Tim’s a great guy."
Along with the wisdom age brings typically comes the awareness that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be swept away by chemistry. But does this mean that a fledgling relationship can withstand the kryptonite of nada physical desire?
Lynn Melville, author of Breaking Free from Boomerang Love: Getting Unhooked from Abusive Borderline Relationships, states flatly, "Chemistry is important. Without it there’s no zing."
Dr. Pepper Schwartz, author of PRIME: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years agrees: "As you age, passion isn’t a remote memory. When I started dating at 55 after a divorce, sex remained very important."
But chemistry can spring from different sources than when you were 22 and hormones ruled. Robin Gorman Newman, founder of www.lovecoach.com, explains, "You may click with someone’s sense of humor, have common interests, and these shared bonds can slowly lead to a connection, versus devaluing anything but an overwhelming physical attraction." The relationship expert continues, "A lot of women [who are] 40-plus feel they know what they’re looking for and don’t want to waste their time. So they dismiss someone they don’t have chemistry with immediately."
Dr. Schwartz, also the sexuality expert for www.perfectmatch.com, points out, "Someone you start out [feeling] attracted to can, as you get to know him, turn around 180 degrees and become unappealing, while a man who you’re not initially drawn to might start looking very sexy to you."
The burning question then: Is it possible to deliberately nurture chemistry with Mr. Potentially Wonderful Partner? Amy started out as friends with Jim, a fellow attorney at a California law firm. A never-married 44-year-old, Amy laughs, "To me, he was someone who listened to my dating war stories and shared his." As the two became closer, Amy saw a different side to her "buddy," a side that unexpectedly caused a warm glow to sneak inside her bones. One day as they left a restaurant after a lazy Sunday brunch, Amy followed a spontaneous urge to stand on her tiptoes and plant a kiss. In half an hour they were snaked together on her bed, oblivious to the outside world. Two months later, they’re an official "couple."
What happened? Dr. Schwartz says, "When you start seeing him in different situations — with friends, at business functions, across a tennis court, helping a lost child in the street — you see sides to his personality you hadn’t known existed, and feelings can develop." The relationship expert laughs, "People can even look more attractive on certain days."
When the Spark’s Not There
While patience and opportunity might transform a platonic relationship, it’s not fair to lead someone on with the hope that you’ll one day return his ardor. Knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of an ego blow can help teach you to be frank but not brusque: "I really enjoy our friendship. It’s possible that I’ll want something more in time, but that also might never happen." This honest appraisal gives him dignity and grants him the deciding vote on whether to continue or to break off the friendship.
Honesty and caution are well and good, but don’t let the fear of following your libido into an unhealthy liaison keep you in a relationship that will never catch fire. Dr. Schwartz says, "If this guy who has the hots for you is great but will never be an exciting partner, and down deep you have the awareness that you’re settling…well, that’s not fair to you or to him."
After five months of mostly platonic dating (there were a few passionless kisses), Sharon held on to "great guy" Tim with the ferociousness of a Titanic passenger clutching a life raft. Until one night she went solo to a party and, a few margaritas in, found herself necking in the corner with a bartender 20 years her junior. "It was wildly inappropriate and crazy and Scott wasn’t anyone I’d want to see again — there’s nothing in common besides, well, you know. But it woke me up. I’m not dead, and I’m tired of being scared. I know enough not to get involved with the wrong man. And I’m obviously willing to give a good guy a fair shot. But when the fair shot is done, it’s time to move on. I’m ready for new adventures."
Sharon may not have found chemistry with Tim but she’s recaptured something more important — the discovery of a zest for passion, a lust for life. And that’s something to hold onto, whether or not there is a man in the picture.
Originally published on MORE.com, June 2007.
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