On Romantic Chemistry

new hil pic


While leading a workshop for married couples the other day, I introduced a concept that turned out to be, at least for some participants, provocative. What I said was, “Romantic chemistry is comprised as much by being attracted to a partner who will re-open our unhealed psychic wounds, as it is by sexual attraction.  This isn’t conscious, but I am sure that a driving force in the human mating dance is seeking out a partner who will re-wound our primal wounds.”

Wha’ … ???  Am I saying we are masochistic? Why on earth would we want someone to re-wound us? On a regular basis?

Sexual attraction—in addition to the primal desire to hop in the sack with someone—has an evolutionary function. It is the method by which we propagate the species. But re-wounding each other is also adaptive.  By seeking out someone who will re-open our unhealed wounds, we are allowing this person to do us a service. They are surfacing what needs to be healed, bringing it into the light of day—so that we can heal. This is psychologically, spiritually, emotionally (and, it could be argued physically—since all layers of our experience take place in our body) evolutionarily apt.  The more we heal, the more we evolve.

Let me make this more specific.  I’ll use a personal example, selecting one from a menu of unhealed wounds my husband and I have managed to surface in each other during our twenty-seven years of marriage (we could say twenty-nine, since the high voltage chemistry of not only sexual attraction but of re-wounding started in our courtship).  

My husband grew up with a dramatic, emotionally volatile French father, who often ranted around the house, causing my husband as a little boy to sequester himself under his sheets in what he pretended was his helicopter. While on the surface, my father-in-law and I bear no resemblance to each other, lo and behold, Pierre happened to marry a woman (me) who in certain hormonal or otherwise reactive states can become a volatile run-around-the-house freak-show. Meanwhile, I grew up with a mother who had a massive case of undiagnosed A.D.D. and was, in addition to being our mom, a real estate agent and graduate student becoming a psycho-therapist. Let’s just say she was over-extended, preoccupied, often forgetting what she was doing or saying at any given moment, which could translate into not hearing (or literally forgetting about) me. My laid-back husband in no way possesses the zip-around hummingbird energy of my mom. But as an introverted deeply creative soul, he is often lost in his own thoughts, “vers la lune” as his teachers and parents said about him as a child, and when he does not respond to me in person, or to my texts in absentia, I re-live the wound of having felt overlooked, forgotten.

So here we’ve got a his-and-hers set of unhealed wounds, me surfacing what is unhealed in my partner from having a volatile (read, when he was little and his dad was big: scary) dad, and he surfacing in me the wound of having felt overlooked (which to a kid, who needs her mommy, is also scary).  So we trigger each other into states where our nervous systems are in fight-or-flight-or-freeze. Is this pretty? Do our kids love to be around us when this two-way enactment is happening? No, and No.

But is it adaptive? Do we slowly over time unpack and heal our unresolved childhood wounds via this marital dynamic? Yes, and Yes.

The trick, as I tell couples often, is “staying in the ring.” Not running for the hills when the wound re-opens (or, if you do run for the hills, coming back for a Take Two—or Three, or Forty-Five, or Four-Hundred). Describing the wound, what is going on inside of you in this dynamic, allows your partner to see beneath your reactivity into your vulnerability. And allows you to stay with your own wound as a nurturing witness. This can be grueling, filled with pitfalls.  But when it works, the effort creates intimacy and healing, as a couple and an individual.

25 thoughts on “On Romantic Chemistry”

    1. Thank you Diana! Speaking of do-over, a comment I love to bring into relationships, particularly intense and intimate ones, is “can we start over?” Rarely, if ever, in my experience (in my own relationships and in those that I work with as a coach) is the answer: “NO.”


  1. I love when you give personal examples. So helpful in illustrating a point we’re probably in but can’t see.
    Thank you for writing. Love hearing your wisdom and perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And thanks for letting me know how helpful you find personal examples. It’s interesting to consider, because every post is personal to me. I decide on the topic in the moment, based on whatever’s coming up for me. And I always mean to include a personal example, but occasionally I may not for wont of space in a particular blog post. I hereby commit to getting in a personal example no matter what! And maybe shortening the brain science research or whatever else I am including to make my point—in order to make room for personal example.


  2. Haven’t read this yet, but this concept is oh, oh, so true for me!!! Carl opened wounds that I had from my mother. You are so on point!!!!! >


  3. I absolutely love ‘staying in the ring’. And thanks for continuing to bring the best combination of humor and wisdom. I look forward to your posts so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so beautifully thought out and written! Indeed “in the ring” is the only place these old wounds have a prayer of being exposed and transforming me into the person I long to be. And my marriage is turning out to be one powerful crucible! (I love the definition of that word….”a situation of severe trial in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new”.)
    Thanks Hils…..


  5. Very helpful to read this right now as I’m absolutely feeling mega-wounded tonight by my husband of many years. I really recognise the paradox you are describing. It is so damn familiar. I love him and I am hurt by him. He loves me and he is hurt by me. We’ve been in the ring for 34 years (married 24). We ar very happy. We are very unhappy. The ring encompasses it all. Thank you Hilary for all your observations. They help keep things in perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Samira! I really appreciate your comment AND that you are healing. Every time any of us heals, even a little bit, we incrementally help humankind: I really believe that. If instead of spreading toxicity we emanate peace (even a modicum more of peace), that has an impact on all of us….. Love, Hilary


  6. Very interesting concept, Hil. What if one has a partner that doesn’t open up the wounds that need healing? Does that mean you don’t have wounds that need healing or that you’re with the wrong partner? Or you’re hiding your wounds from your partner to prevent them from exposure?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an incredible question. I just read it a few times in a row to make sure I let it sink in. I understand your question to be: if my partner doesn’t re-open my wounds, does that mean I have no wounds, I’m hiding my wounds, or it’s the wrong partner? I don’t know the answer, without the specific context. But it does make me re-examine my theory: what about partnerships that don’t re-open wounds? I have never seen one. When both parties are happy and fulfilled all the time with each other? (Operative aspect of question: all the time? Without being triggered now and again?) I am open to the possibility that maybe there are partnerships that do not open wounds and are for that very reason healing and soothing…


    1. Yes, one does. I think it’s okay, too, to take “a break” from the ring when necessary, for water, powder, and a shoulder rub before going back in…

      And it bears noting that there are some “rings” best vacated. We all need to discern for ourselves when running away is “flight” in an unhealthy sense, and when it in fact is healthier to vacate the ring. This, a topic for another post altogether…



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