The Alchemy of Finding Love

Ones and zeros: this is how dating sites claim they’ll help you find love.

Ones and zeros. We’ve perfected the algorithm to find you the right match, they say.

The looks. The interests. The personality. The background. The profile. Ones and zeros.

It’s not Cupid’s arrow in your back, not God’s pen on the paper, not destiny’s gravitational pull-- it’s programmers at a desk, faces lit with the blue light from their computer screens, armed with data analysis and coding skills and a 5-hour Energy. We have the formula, they’ll tell you. Ones and zeros. 

I don’t buy it.

Don't get me wrong--you may find love through a dating site (I know several people who have), but don't give the algorithm credit. The ones and zeros didn’t do it.

Algorithms can’t account for the intricacy and complexity involved in how a stranger transforms into a partner, how a friend grows into a lover. That's more in the realm of alchemy.

The alchemy of finding love is part science, part mystery. Part pragmatic scheme, part unpredictable wilderness.

For as much as an algorithm can mix and match data ingredients, life is a little too wild to mass produce the recipe to find love. There’s no Chef Boyardee of love. There’s no Rachel Ray cookbook to guarantee a great relationship. There is only the strange--maybe mystical, maybe magical--alchemy of finding love.

As best as I can figure out, there are three main components to this alchemy.

The first part is the measurables.

Is her hair brown or blonde? Is he tall or short? Is she a prim and proper perfectionist or a chaotic free spirit? Is he his own man, or does he live at home? Is she LOL funny, or is she hehe funny? Is he sports smart, or actually smart? Are her friends cool, or are they the Jersey Shore cast reincarnated? Does he kiss the way he eats wings, or does he kiss the way sun kisses the horizon on a summer evening? The list of measurables--if she wants kids or not, how he treats people--goes on and on.

Some of these ingredients are less crucial than others, like when one bakes cookies.

Some are the difference between peanut butter chips or chocolate chips; you could live with either one. Some are the difference between an oven and a microwave oven; you’re either going to have delicious cookies or a sad disaster. As we spend more time with someone, as we discover more about them and/or ourselves, we start to figure out what variations and flaws we can live with. We also figure out what's going to ruin the whole batch for us.

Algorithms can handle most of these measurables. This is the realm in which they work and compute and mix and match. These traits can fit into profiles and survey questions and photographs. 

But algorithms can't help with the next component: timing.

Timing is crucial.

You may have lined up the perfect measurables on paper. You found a guy who’s tall but not too tall, dark and not artificially so, and handsome but more like a lovable, Chris-Pratt handsome than a little-too-perfect, Ryan-Gosling handsome. Or hey, maybe Ryan Gosling is your thing. Maybe you found Ryan Gosling. He’s smart, can do your taxes, listens without telling you what to do, and always somehow has tickets for the next Beyoncé show in town. The two of you just "click," just "get each other," just "know all of the words to *NSYNC's No Strings Attached album."

He could be perfectly perfect.

But if the timing is off...all bets are off.

You might be in a stretch of insanity at work that has you preoccupied, distracted, and stressed. His company might have assigned him to another city. You might have a serious illness in the family that reroutes your priorities. He might have just started to date another girl before you worked up the courage to say something to him.

At the moment, you might be in different places--physical places, emotional or mental places-- or different rhythms, and it's just enough to keep you out of sync. The compatibility with someone can be almost flawless, but the timing can derail an otherwise perfect match.

It's not all bad news, though. As often as it chops down a potential relationship, timing can grow one, too.

The smallest window of opportunity might be all that's necessary. Like the one time you happen to sit near the girl drinking her iced coffee, reading your favorite book, with the exact right amount of hair that's fallen over her face, and you decide to start a conversation. Or the one night your friend's brother comes along to dinner with the stars in his eyes and the ocean in his voice, and he asks you for your number at the end of the night. Where timing had worked against you for so long, all of the gears seem to lock in, and the door opens.

Some of that’s in our control. Some of it’s not. Some of it is predictable. Some of it is unpredictable. This is alchemy, not algorithm.

The third component of this alchemy is the trickiest.

The third part is what we’ll call the mystery.

You might call it fate. You might call it God. You might call it the It factor, the X factor, the spark, the magic, the mojo. It could be one thing; it could be several things.

It’s in this mystery where the real alchemy happens. It’s in this mystery where the measurables and timing and algorithms spin and swirl together, and somewhere in the process, this guy at work who was just a guy becomes more than a guy. He is the guy. It's in this mystery where, after maybe years of looking at her like a friend, the scales fall from your eyes, and suddenly something about her or about you has changed--she's not "just pretty okay or whatever" anymore. She's the girl for whom you’ll give up the world.

Whatever’s in that mystery, whatever’s in that special sauce, if it's not there, it might not matter how many of the measurables someone has or if the timing is right on. Maybe more importantly, if you have it, however that happens--by accident or effort or prayer or rain dance--it has the power to fill in the gaps where someone's measurables fall short and to overcome the challenges that timing presents.

I see the mystery in the stories of so many people I know. It's the reason why you may always have pictured yourself with someone who's tall but you marry someone who's short. It's why I hear over and over again, "He's not what I expected" or "I didn't see her coming." It's why a relationship works long-term, even as you discover more and more about the person that don't fit your ideal match.

The mystery is what can make the alchemy of love scary. It’s also what makes the promises of a dating site’s algorithms so appealing. Algorithms imply that someone has this figured out, has some control over the situation. With this particular type of alchemy, we have some control but not all of the control. We have some say, but we can't write the story the way it is in our heads. It's enough to cause us to overthink or overcompensate. It's the source of anxiety or frustration for a lot of people.

I think it's a source of hope.

It's the reason you don't have to get everything right. It's the reason you shouldn't worry so much about your nose or hair or biceps or hips or legs. It's why your past doesn't disqualify you from your future.

You don't need to have an impeccable résumé to find love. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t need all of the right qualifying measurables according to anyone’s algorithm. That's the hope of the mystery.

If you can brave the mystery, I think it might be worth it.

Somewhere in that mystery is where you become more than the sum of checked-off desirable traits. It’s not an algorithm of perfectly matched interests. The mystery is where two unique, different individuals start to blend together a bit, and the gaps in compatibility are filled with the desire to make each other better, to give each other the best of what you have and what life has, to take in the view when life takes you to the top, and grip the other’s hand when you’ve been flung to the bottom.

Somewhere in that mystery is where the alchemy gives you new eyes. You see more than the face and hair, more than contours and symmetry. You see heart and soul. That mystery is what makes someone see you the same with makeup or without, whether you’ve been to the gym every day or not since a Bush was in the White House or ever. It's what makes them more attracted to you over time, no matter how much you may stretch or shrink.

Somewhere in that mystery is someone who’s going to be just as happy sitting across from you, an open bottle of wine on the table, the sun setting behind you, as they are sitting with you on the couch, all sweats and snacks and sitcoms on Netflix. The ebb and flow of everyday life, the gauntlet of places you’ll find yourselves, both exotic and mundane--the algorithms can’t account for all of it. The mystery can.

Somewhere in that mystery is someone who is more than a collection of adventure photos on Instagram. There’s someone who understands the whole spectrum of adventure--the big trip to Italy is an adventure, the random run to Dairy Queen at nine at night is an adventure, the flooded basement is an adventure, and most importantly, you--you are the adventure.

The algorithm doesn't give you all of that. The mystery does. The alchemy does: the scary, perplexing, worthwhile, beautiful alchemy of finding love.