It all starts with making a good first impression, which happens (or doesn't) pretty quickly. Research shows we’re able to get a relatively accurate take on a person within about a minute, and that we often draw conclusions about attractiveness almost unconsciously, through micro-traits that we might not even be able to pinpoint right away. All of that forms our human tendency to size up a person super-fast, particularly in the high-stakes context of dating.
But that first impression alone doesn't necessarily translate to a spark. The main difference between a romantic spark and a good first impression is that an impression springs from an individual feeling, whereas a spark is undeniably mutual, says Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble. “With a spark, there’s a degree of reciprocity that you can feel, and it’s more akin to chemistry,” she says.
“With a spark, there’s a degree of reciprocity that you can feel, and it’s more akin to chemistry.” —sociologist Jess Carbino, PhD
That said, by adjusting the way you make a first impression, you may be able to up your chances of experiencing a relationship spark. “We often meet people for the first time with our walls up,” says Laurel House, a relationship expert at eharmony. “We tend not to trust them unless they prove that they can be trusted—but this can create a first impression of doubt and defensiveness.” And that can, in turn, put a damper on what may have otherwise been a spark. Instead, approach the first interaction by “being interested to see if you’re interested in them, and assuming they’re interested to see if they’re interested in you,” she says.
How to identify what a relationship spark feels like
According to relationship therapist Jaime Bronstein, LCSW, a spark is often something you feel physically. Clichéd as it sounds, you might feel a rush of butterflies in your stomach or even a sense of lightheadedness, thanks to the release of feel-good neurotransmitters, like oxytocin and serotonin, in the brain, she says.
Beyond physical sensations, House identifies a ‘sixth sense’ for pinpointing a spark that can arise from a combination of emotional feelings, expressions, and movements, all of which can influence the perception of someone at a subconscious level. She cites continued eye contact, an open posture, and variation in a person’s vocal tone as they speak as a few of the factors that could ignite feelings of emotional connection almost instantly.
Once the match is lit, so to speak, the spark tends to brighten quickly with mutual verbal and nonverbal cues, says Dr. Carbino. “Leaning in, becoming more physically close to you, being vulnerable, sharing information about themselves, and being curious about you are all signals from another person that you could intuit as a spark,” she says.
Once someone consensually “breaks the touch barrier,” says House, you can also get a physical sense of whether a relationship spark has truly flickered to life. “Touching someone’s hair or brushing their hand are sexual micro-movements typically reflecting attraction,” she says.
How a sense of connection—if not a spark—can build over time
All the experts agree that a spark is typically an indicator of relationship compatibility, and you can actually trust it whenever you feel it. “Perhaps it doesn’t come on the first date for one person in the couple, but then there’s a scenario in the second or third where the other person says or does something that can still ignite it,” says Bronstein.
Even so, the spark is usually something that happens relatively early in a relationship, distinguishing it from overall connection and intimacy, which both grow with time spent together and shared experiences. But even so, these components of a long-lasting bond don't so much replace the initial romantic spark as they do supplement it—and keep it burning ad infinitum.
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