Tennesha Wood is a professional matchmaker but admits she can’t perfectly predict when a couple will hit it off. “People give me really specific descriptions,” Wood says. “They might say, ‘I want a 6-foot-tall Black man with nice teeth and a bald head.’”
Wood is the owner of The Broomlist, a matchmaker agency for Black professionals, and her clients will often tell her exactly whom they’re looking for. She’ll set up a date with someone who fits the description. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, I just didn’t like that 6-foot-tall Black man,’” she says, laughing.
Matchmaking involves a lot of skills you might find in a therapist — sharp questions, active listening, steady coaching — but it is not a perfect science. “I guarantee I’ll introduce them to somebody that does fit the things that they’re looking for,” Wood says. “One thing I cannot predict and make happen is that initial chemistry.”
This is one of the great mysteries of life, and there’s a scientific sub-discipline devoted to it: relationship psychology. I started reporting this week’s episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s science podcast on unanswered questions, by simply asking relationship researchers: What don’t you understand about love?
It turns out they grapple with the same question as matchmakers, romance authors, poets, and many others. “The big mystery is — do you really know who you want?” says Dan Conroy-Beam, a University of California Santa Barbara psychologist who studies relationship formation.
The question seems simple, but it’s not trivial. A lot of time, energy, and heartache goes into finding solid relationships. “In a lot of senses, who you choose as a partner is the most important decision you’ll ever make,” Conroy-Beam says. “That’s going to affect your happiness, your health, and your overall well-being.”
Scientists don’t have all the answers, and they often disagree on which answers are even possible. But I found that their hypotheses — along with some advice from matchmakers and relationship coaches — can help us think through how love starts and how to maintain it once it’s found.
Our preferences can’t always predict attraction