They’re great. Intelligent, funny, kind, reliable. Objectively you can’t see anything wrong with this person. And yet, you’re either finding yourself in a situation where you’re not really feeling the way you think you should, the spark has quickly died, or you’re questioning if it was ever really there to begin with.
The words that come to mind for all who’ve experienced this are: “There’s just something missing.” Often times we can’t even pin point or describe what it is.
Today, we’re doing another deep dive about the spark, romantic feelings, passion, excitement, butterflies, or whatever you like to call it.
But first, I want to be very clear about something: this post isn’t intended to convince you to have “feelings for someone” when you don’t.
Rather, it’s an open discussion around a common experience and the hope would be two fold:
- That you can become much clearer in knowing specifically why certain people seem to bring this magical experience and others do not.
- And, this may provide a portal to dive deeper into your inner world, patterns, and conditioning.
“Some people believe that understanding romantic love kills it. This is tantamount to saying that consciousness kills. The exact opposite is true. Unconsciousness kills. Ignorance kills. Blindness kills. If we cannot deepen our grasp of at least some of the essentials needed for the success of romantic love, then there is nothing waiting ahead but more centuries of the same suffering we have behind us.”
What Is The Spark?
It’s our body’s biochemistry that drives our thoughts and actions — and our biochemistry is driven by the state of our nervous system, which was set in childhood.
So it’s very important to understand that who we’re attracted to in our life, how healthy our relationships are, who we chase, who we run from all depends on the state of our nervous system. And the nervous system is what dictates the baseline of our hormones and how safe we feel in our relationships.
The spark is what we feel when we encounter a person who matches our internal map of what love “should” feel like (which is what we learned in childhood btw). The brain uses all the hundreds & thousands of data points from your interactions with that person to check if they “match”; your brain processes faster than you could ever be consciously aware of.
The spark is really the body’s stress and excitement response all in one. Your brain makes a cocktail of chemicals (like norepinephrine, adrenaline, and dopamine) that pumps through your bloodstream and makes the situation, and by association the person, feel amazing.
It’s exactly this cocktail that drives us to repeat behavior (aka you feel a desire to see them again, the giddy excitement, etc.), to get those dopamine hits (which come just from the anticipation of seeing the person) — it’s really like a drug addiction.
And this is why, in part, there are so many spark (feeling) chasers.
We are searching for those good feelings, chasing that high, living out the conditioning of what we learned love looks and feels like from childhood. We, however, think it’s something we can’t quite articulate, but something that just feels good and right.
If the baseline for our nervous system is dysregulated, we can’t handle the lack of stress and excitement – it feels unbearable and boring, like something is missing.
I know, I know that consciously this may seem ludicrous. You may find yourself thinking, “There is no way I’m attracted to unavailability, chaos, drama, someone like my parent, or the like.”
Which is exactly why we’re going to dive into the two frames that hold the elements and answers to the mystery of “the spark”: authentic development of self and false development of self.
What we can say so far is that the spark is a physical manifestation of our psychology.
The Experience of The Spark with Authentic Development of Self
When we speak about an authentic self this is marked by an internal map of self which includes the beliefs of being worthy, deserving, lovable, and capable.
These individuals have better interpersonal and relational skills (eg communicating vulnerabilities, asking for needs to be met, self-regulation/ self-soothing, etc.), proper self-development (eg healthy self-esteem, self-trust, resilience/tolerance of discomfort, autonomy, self-acceptance, accurate self-concept, etc.), and a strong connection to self (eg having a better regulated nervous system, hearing their intuition, understanding their inner world, ability to self-disclose, etc.).
If there’s been a healthier development of self, then we are able to come from a place that is unencumbered by old patterns and coping strategies. There’s no playing out unresolved childhood traumas. We don’t even need a person to be any way or do any thing in order to be happy with them. Plainly put: there isn’t old baggage getting in the way of our current experiences.
We are free to be in the moment. To be fully, truly present with a person. To experience her/him as she/he is.
And the spark, when operating from this place is one that author and psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, describes as a recognition of self — an odd sense of familiarity, a sense of encountering a person already known on some level and in some mysterious, seemingly inexplicable way.
Of course, as he points out, our trauma can be attracted to another’s trauma so it isn’t solely the recognition of self that means it’s a healthy attraction. Healthy attraction comes from a healthy self.
But it is the recognition of self that is so enticing to us because it offers the promise to respond to some of our most basic human needs. This is when the brain will kick off the feel-good cocktail, so you will engage and open the possibility to get those needs met.
For that spark to stay we need to to avoid the common pitfalls (as Dr. Gottman lays out), and for it to grow we need the following to be present (as discussed in detail in the last posts about The Psychology of Romantic Love):
- Significant mutuality of intellect, basic premises & values, and fundamental attitude toward life
- Affinity in ‘sense of life’ and ‘rhythm & energy’
- Most of the differences are viewed as complimentary (aka valuable, desirable, & enriching, vs. antagonistic)
- The differences the pair does have are in the realm of that which is optional (like cognitive style or personality) vs. fundamentals (eg self-esteem, values like honesty, or ways of being that is desired)
- Our most basic fundamental needs are being met through interaction with this person like psychological visibility (aka truly seen, known, understood, and validated)
- To experience the person as a source of joy; and you to them
- Admiration for them
- Shared meaning & purpose
- Trust & Trustworthiness
- Continued growth and development of self
These are foundational things, combined with maturity, to feel connected to someone and for love to grow. These are what makes someone compatible with you. These are the things that create a passionate spiritual-emotional-sexual attachment, a sense of being “soul mates”.
Missing pieces in this list can create the feeling of something missing.
While not all things on this list can be rectified, some can when the couple has maturity, wisdom, and art.
Further, knowing these things intellectually does not negate the need for actually experiencing them with a partner. In other words, it’s not as simple as checking things off of a list — rather, the knowledge of it helps you bring awareness into the experience.
For example, knowing about ‘rhythm and energy’ can shed light on why a “faster” partner feels chronically impatient, and the “slower” partner feels chronically rushed. Just like how knowing someone who never wants to get married / have kids isn’t (or is) the right fit for you because there is either misalignment or alignment in life goals (purpose & meaning).
But as we’ve already seen, we can sometimes unknowingly get in our own way — unintentionally keeping ourselves from experiencing all the richness that deep love has to offer us.
The Experience of The Spark with a False Development of Self
We’ve already pointed out how our childhood can have a tremendous impact on the spark — hell, it has a tremendous impact on our lives.
Most of it being stored in the subconscious and the person unaware how the drama from childhood continues. The nervous system was trained in childhood, and this is what will continue on repeat (for those who operate unconsciously). The thing about our subconscious mind is that there is “safety” in what is familiar, even if it’s not objectively safe.
Many of the unaware are chasing the intoxicating effects of the dopamine hits coming from the push pull dynamics of unavailable partners, of having to chase and win someone over, the tumultuous dynamics which often mimics the dynamics they had with their caregiver(s) in childhood — all of these are likely not things that our conscious mind says we want. And yet, if you look back over the course of your relationships what do you see?
Go, on. Take a look.
Were the spark, passion-driven relationships rife with breakups? Intense fights resulting in passionate makeup sex? Were there some elements of “danger” (cue “bad-boy” attraction or rescuing the damsel in distress)?
Or even the other side of this, where it’s less intense, but where there’s a constant level of anxiety because deep down you aren’t really sure of the person’s staying-power. Did you have to over-function, adopt the caretaker role, prove yourself, or earn the person’s love?
And what happens when you’ve experience someone as calm? When they are always there for you and you’re not constantly wondering about their love and commitment? They are often experienced as boring, there’s no spark, or as if “something” is missing.
Relationships that feel like an emotional rollercoaster often evoke anxiety and uncertainty about what will happen in the future or when the next relationship high will occur and consequently, these feelings may be misinterpreted as excitement, passion, and strong chemistry.
When this has been your experience, and you’ve been conditioned in this way, when you meet someone who is stable and does not elicit the same type of anxiety (which you do not interpret as anxiety btw), you may erroneously assume there is no chemistry or perceive the relationship as boring.
“The romantic spark they are actually subconsciously looking for is the anxiety of an activated attachment system. Not having to second guess someone means their attachment alarm system is not triggered, and they will mistakenly believe that the secure person is too boring.”
Dr. Amir Levine
So let us go through five of the main reasons that make it seem like the spark is missing when there’s been a less authentic development of self.
#1 Over-importance of Feelings
Often times it is incredibly difficult to see our patterns and programming. We can only see our experience and that it feels real to us. And again, this post isn’t aimed at discrediting your current experience or perception of reality. But hopefully you can be open and brave enough to consider having a peek behind the curtain of your mind and its programs.
What needs to be understood is that feelings can change.
They change from minute to minute. You can feel very strongly about something, and then an hour later you may feel completely different. Many feelings are temporary. Most aren’t even based on the present moment. It would be unwise to allow something so fickle drive your choices and behaviors.
And yet, this is what many of us learned to place so much value in.
Allowing feelings to direct your behavior is the result of emotional reactivity, hostile communication, resentment, defensiveness, etc.
This doesn’t mean that feelings are invalid, but rather, it means that we must learn to allow feelings to flow through the body rather than reacting to them or taking them as absolute truths.
I’m sure the value and wisdom of this can be seen for processing negative emotions, but can you see the value in this for positive emotions? It’s much harder to do.
You can feel so good about a person who really isn’t good for you, and not feel that same way (at first) about someone who would be. And I know that’s scary business.
If you let feelings rule your life you will always be chasing. You will always be a victim to the programmed thought-feeling loops.
Again, be careful of the pendulum swing, just because feelings are fickle doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed.
Rather, feelings are meant to be messages about what’s going on inside of you, but it requires wisdom, maturity, and discernment for proper interpretation and how we should respond to those messages.
#2 Ability to Tune to Peace
A friend gave a beautiful description of this concept to me about only being able to experience/notice the highs and the lows. Whenever the experience was in the middle zone it felt as if nothing was happening. He realized it was like an old-school radio and he only knew how to tune to a few stations. But as soon as he learned there were more stations that he could tune to, he began the hard work of learning how.
If you can see that the experience of feelings is really a spectrum, with highs, a middle, and lows, where do you spend most of your time? Is the middle experienced in a positive way? Or does it feel more like nothing, apathy, or numbness?
With self-development you can begin to hone your ability to feel the depth and rich complexities of that middle zone — where calm, peace, and loving feelings run deep just like a rushing river current under a frozen, still sheet of ice.
But it’s something that requires you to drop your shields, be open to new information, and a willingness to operate from a different place completely.
#3 Overvaluing Chemistry
Chemistry is a strong, addictive chemical reaction/response. Of course that’s why it feels absolutely amazing.
That doesn’t mean it’s special, unique, or even healthy (aka good for you) – in fact, it can manifest from the wrong circumstances. So we really have to stop putting chemistry on a pedestal. In healthy relationships, chemistry is not the end-all, be-all; a relationship cannot survive on chemistry. It is also not the determining factor for a successful (happy long-lasting) relationship, yet it can be a common denominator for destruction of a relationship.
The issue is that the spark and even chemistry can fade (this is typically what happens when you move out of the honeymoon phase), so as soon as it goes you may be left with the realization that the compatibility just isn’t there.
If chemistry exists in a healthy relationship it isn’t running the show. It’s only a small part of it. This isn’t to say that chemistry isn’t important, the crux is when it is placed in importance above compatibility.
#4 Society Has Contributed to A Fantasy
There is this idea that “When you meet her/him you’ll feel if she’s/he’s the one you’re meant to be with”. That there is a specific feeling as if the sky has opened where angels sing and the light shines down (I’m exaggerating for effect). Perhaps we can blame Disney, Rom-coms, and all the ways in which we have been erroneously taught about what love should be like.
This fantasy is one that unfortunately keeps people from that heavenly feeling with someone who would compliment them immensely, because they could’ve acquired a spark with time. Romantic love requires knowledge, and knowledge takes time.
When you learn someone’s inner world, when they offer you psychological visibility, when you experience significant mutuality and complimentary differences then the spark comes, and that type of spark starts a raging fire because romantic love is a passionate spiritual-emotional-sexual attachment that reflects a high regard for the value of each other’s person.
#5 Attachment Styles: A Poor Definition of Love
Love might not be or feel the way you think it should.
Again, how love feels is something that we learned in childhood and unlearning these things are quite challenging — not to mention scary since it can feel threatening to our identity.
Accurate self-concept can be trickier than one realizes. For example, If we’ve been programmed to experience love as chaos it would be hard to imagine or believe it could be any other way.
In a relationship where you’re actually experiencing peace, it will resemble and equate to a slow burn, not an intense, dramatized explosion or rabid wildfire right out of the gate.
But this may not be the definition you know or even want. Why? The attachment to your caregiver(s) is what your romantic relationships will most closely mimic. This is how you learned what love is and what it feels like.
Attachment theory has demonstrated that people vary in the ways in which people relate to significant others in their lives, and the insecurely attached often experience various levels of difficulty when it comes to love relationships; typically because they didn’t receive unconditional love that children need and/or weren’t modeled healthy love (not to be confused with “perfect” love).
Love For The Dismissive Avoidants
The promise/potential of emotional depth from a partner is often a guise for the excitement that novelty and shallow relationships bring for the dismissive avoidant (aka DA).
They, of course, are likely unaware of this because they are operating from a comfort zone deep in the subconscious which is terrified of enmeshment and even deeper still, often buried from themselves, a fear of abandonment.
Childhood taught them that they can’t trust others to meet any of their emotional needs. That relationships require them to wear a mask, to appease and to perform. It’s exhausting constantly monitoring the state of someone else, shaping yourself to appease them. Thus, solitude is often the best repose.
But when the inevitable human need for connection and closeness makes its way into their consciousness and the desire for a relationship is born, they perhaps feel a glimpse of bravery to step into the truthfully terrifying territory: a relationship.
It’s a tragedy that the subconscious is still there unbeknownst to them sabotaging their chance at deep love and connection.
Because even when someone is able to hold space for them, their deeply buried fear of not being good enough is there — the narrative is, “If this person sees me for who and all that I truly am they wouldn’t love me.” A person who neutralizes the DA’s fear of enmeshment and helps them be able to go inward, to look at the shadowy places that have been buried for years, is terrifying to face when there is so much shame present.
So we can see that the dilemma for the DA is two fold: 1. A lack of depth/ the novelty/ winning over a new person gives the dopamine hits often associated with a spark. 2. If someone is able to offer them actual depth and visibility, it is terrifying, so this dynamic will be unconsciously sabotaged.
In other words, the safety zone becomes one of keeping people at a distance and their nervous system is going to light up in a “good” feeling way whenever this is promised. The spark, in this case, is leading the person down the wrong path — and unfortunately, this is how the drama from childhood continues to play out.
When there’s a chance for real depth and connection, subconscious strategies will kick in as an attempt to “keep them safe”. They often take these forms:
- The partner is measured against “perfection” aka standards that are so high no one would actually be able to meet them. So the internal narrative is often one where there is nit picking going on about the partner (like the way they chew their food, their laugh, etc.).
- The partner is measured against a fantasy, usually an ex and termed, “The Phantom Ex”; but again, it’s just another strategy to discredit the partner around how they don’t exactly stack up when compared to “a real person” (aka the ex who is now being seen through rosy colored glasses).
- Because of shame wounds there is often a lot of self-induced pressure about making the wrong decision; about choosing the wrong partner – they are terrified of this. There may be thoughts like, “I should feel differently by now” or “I should miss this person more when they are away from me”. There are a lot of internal “shoulds”. These of course “confirm” that they must not really love this person, or deeply enough, or in the “right way”, so the only option is to terminate the relationship.
- There is a very real fear around “wasting someone’s time”; being out of touch with yourself makes knowing your true feelings, desires, preferences, etc. really difficult. This can cause hasty decisions because, again, they erroneously assume that uncertainty means it’s a mismatch.
- There’s also a fear around letting the person down or disappointing them, so making a decision just includes that much more pressure (aka due to learning to appease people to such a strong degree), but pressure keeps you from experiencing the person as she/he is.
Clearly, there is a lot to navigate here for a DA.
True intimacy doesn’t feel safe, because there is nervous system dysregulation when there shouldn’t be. There is a real fear around vulnerability and transparency, but that is needed for romantic love to grow. And there is usually such disconnection from self, and so much hyper-vigilance around the other person, that it’s no wonder how disorienting and stressful a relationship can be.
If attempts at intimacy don’t drive a DA into reclusion, then the hunt for the “perfect” partner will continue.
We can see that partners who are actually unavailable are attractive, spark-enducing. Whereas, available partners, well, a DA’s subconscious will crucify that partner or pound away on their own shame wound until they quit the person or relationship.
Love For The Anxious Preoccupied
Much like the DAs the unavailable partner is going to give the anxious preoccupied (aka AP) the feeling of a spark. Somewhere deep in the AP’s subconscious there is the belief that they must earn love and affection. The mystery of uncertainty is what speaks to the AP’s nervous system and calls out, “This person is the one”.
Since their caretaker(s) were consistently inconsistent with unconditional love, the AP believes they must DO something so that they can finally get the love they needed, and perhaps most importantly, so it doesn’t leave — abandonment is terrifying.
This is why APs will fight for the relationship, people-please, and self-sacrifice — it feels natural to have to convince another of their worth, attempt to manage a partner’s mood by walking on eggshells, or adopt a caretaker role. Love in childhood for them looked like inconsistency, anxiety, and people-pleasing.
Even if things are not so great with the partner, there’s more lows than highs, the promise of the dopamine hit for those rare occasions where the AP does succeed and earn some affection, just feels oh so good.
If this has been your experience in previous relationships and you meet someone who is stable and does not elicit the same type of anxiety, you may erroneously assume there is no chemistry or perceive the relationship as boring. Secure partners often get ruled out too early because the AP thinks they do not feel a romantic spark.
There is an interesting paradox for APs which is that they are: 1. Drawn to having to earn someone’s love while also, 2. hoping someone will come and save them.
The strategies that typically keep this childhood dynamic playing out are:
- If there’s no chase, there’s no interest. Someone who is available and expresses a direct interest in you, where there is no guessing, can give a feeling of ‘meh’ or even an ‘ick’.
- A person who love-bombs you can really create some electricity since an undercurrent for the AP is codependency; when a person shows up and is giving you the right dose of inconsistency combined with “doing things you’ve always dreamed of” then the promise is mistakenly assumed that you have finally found a person who will fulfill your needs. You may be skeptical of the love-bombing at first, but if they do it just long enough you believe you’ve finally found the person who is going to give you what you’ve been desperately needing.
- Having to earn and fight for being chosen can really light up the AP’s nervous system, it’s the anticipation of getting that “reward” that makes the person so desirable.
- Knight in shinning armor? Yes, please. This may be a less obvious form of love-bombing, but again, the promise of having their needs completely fulfilled by another will induce the feeling of a spark.
We again see that partners who are actually unavailable are attractive, spark-enducing. Whereas, available partners, are more likely to feel as if something is missing.
Love For The Fearful Avoidant
The last insecure attachment style, is also going to feel that spark by the unavailability of a partner. Chaos and extreme inconsistency can create butterflies for the fearful avoidant (FA) because this is what they know from childhood. Attachment styles are on a spectrum and depending how far you are will dictate the “extremeness” of what feels good (aka really what feels familiar).
FAs tend to lean either a bit DA or AP, and can swing from one to the other depending on the situation or even the events of the day.
So, generally speaking, the FA may experience what has already been described for the other insecure attachment styles. They might be like the DA who is searching for a “perfect” partner, or the AP who is searching for “the knight in shining armor” or “the triumph of love”. Additionally, for the FA there is a search for a fairytale, a story, a special way that it all plays out — there’s a desire for it to be like a scene right out of a romantic movie or book.
They may try to accept a “less appealing” story, but inevitably the voice inside will convince them that something is missing. So the chase for the magic continues.
So, Now What?
I know from personal experience that challenging your feelings and ways of seeing things can be incredibly tough and frightening.
But if you’re on-board and thinking, “Ok, maybe I have been unconsciously chasing familiar feelings from programs that were established in childhood from the way that I received love. Maybe looking for the spark is not the healthiest, or even the best strategy to finding a truly deep and fulfilling relationship. But now what? What can I do if I can’t trust my feelings? Are you telling me that I should just enter into a relationship with someone who I do not have romantic feelings for even if they objectively fit me?”
I believe that everyone deserves to experience a love that runs deep, is fulfilling, exciting, passionate, happy, good for you, and lasting. One in which you can be all that you are, and puts you in-touch with new dimensions of yourself.
It’s a tragedy when old programs, patterns, wounds, and old beliefs block us.
This isn’t about making you “wrong” or “bad” or “deficient”. But rather, I simply wish you can see it is an opportunity to develop yourself further.
With new understanding, comes new dimensions.
Development of self opens the door to possibilities that couldn’t have even been imagined — it is as if you could only see a few colors, but then you’re able to see a million more. Or as if you could only hear a few notes, but then are able to hear the symphony.
Growth opens you up to an indescribable vibrancy and depth. One of which may not be for everyone, and that’s ok.
But if you want that, then bringing in awareness is the first step.
So, that doesn’t mean that you force yourself to be with people who you don’t have feelings for. Nor does it mean that you can’t trust your feelings.
It means start taking steps down a path to acquiring more wisdom about your inner world. As you do, you become more conscious.
I know the idea of consciousness can freak some people out — thinking that it means they will know too much, that the magic & wonder will disappear, and/or that they will over-analyze things. But the opposite is true.
Consciousness separates you from the thinking mind.
It brings all of us to a place where we can experience the present moment more fully & purely. And you don’t have to be perfect or some kind of mystic to have that experience.
To Sum It All Up
The spark can be something that leads to a fulfilling relationship when it’s rooted in a recognition of an authentic self to authentic self.
We can indeed feel that something is missing when there are too big of differences in the fundamentals of compatibility.
However, the spark can also be misleading, guiding us down a path of repeated cycles and patterns.
The reason for this is because what we learned in childhood has many times created a “false-safe” baseline with our nervous system and our model/ideal of what love should look & feel like (by way of over-importance of feelings, ability to tune to peace, over-valuing chemistry, chasing society’s fantasy, and attachment style).
Thus we must learn the art of discernment and gain wisdom.
Looking at patterns and programs isn’t about shame (making one bad/wrong), but rather an opening and opportunity to become more conscious.
Consciousness ultimately helps us be more present in the now, without bringing the past with us — being able to fully experience the person as they truly are, without our own projections and misconceptions blocking us from deep love & connection.
And that’s what I want for you, a spark that leads to deep love & connection. Not a fleeting, surface-level spark but one that will create a raging fire — keeping you warm for a lifetime.
If you learned something and found value in this post, please share it! Questions? Ask in the comments below!