While a romantic lightning bolt has sparked many a relationship, GRACE WYNNE-JONES asks how authentic is this first rush of passion
Falling in love at first sight sounds wonderfully romantic. We enjoy it when it happens in films and books, but hearing real-life tales about instant attraction is even more intriguing - especially as we prepare for the lovefest that is St Valentine's Day.
Currently the showbiz world is abuzz with rumours about the impending nuptials between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie - with several claims that they're getting married in Ireland. The wedding will be a fitting confirmation of a relationship that began with instant chemistry.
The movie stars met on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith and the film's director claims they had an "immediate chemistry from the first day of filming", though the couple have strenuously insisted that they only became romantically involved when Pitt separated from Jennifer Aniston.
It seems that Jolie's and Pitt's first impressions of each other were indeed extremely favourable, though they have been guarded about sharing the details.
Tom Cruise, however, was happy to proclaim that he fell in love at first sight with ex-wife Nicole Kidman. And Tom Hanks often speaks adoringly of his wife Rita, who blew his socks off at first glance.
These sizzling encounters don't just happen in Hollywood. Researchers at Ohio State University have found participants in a study decided on the type of relationships they wanted with each other within minutes of meeting.
"Romantic relationships begin with people making judgments very quickly," says Professor Artemio Ramirez, the study's co-author. Yes, when it comes to romance first impressions can be crucial. Even listeners to the The Ray D'Arcy Show on Today FM sometimes ask Ray to help them track down gorgeous strangers they've seen and want to talk to.
Dr Glenn Wilson, of the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, has specialised in the study of instincts and says that, "Love at first sight does happen - more often to men than women. As humans we develop a blueprint idea of our ideal partner, and a large component of it is formed by the age of three."
Dr Wilson points out that, "when you look at someone you may see a passion in them that awakens your own interest". However in the male, attraction "is usually based on an imprinted image of the mother, and they will find physical resemblances to this imprint arousing in later life."
Apparently females "usually imprint information about their fathers and take on board more diffuse things. Women are concerned about bonding with an individual and want to see the idiosyncrasies of a potential provider".
Dublin-based family therapist, Dr Ed McHale, says that some experts believe we have a side that is well developed and one that is not as developed. "So we tend to seek out people who have developed aspects that we haven't for a mutual sense of completion. The selection of a partner occurs at an unconscious level.
"The research suggests physical aspects get the first attention, and personality and relationship dimensions come second. That gaze into the eyes is one of the most intimate ways of relating."
I was glad to hear this because eyes meeting across a crowded room is a crucial scene in my novel The Truth Club. The heroine, Sally, finds it so unsettling she flees the room, though thankfully she bumps into her beautiful stranger later.
Psychic healer Better Shine has a dramatic story to tell because she experienced an intense form of love at first sight herself. In her book Mind Waves she maintains that it is caused by "the recognition of someone that one has known in a previous life. "That recognition alters the brain chemistry - if you happen to meet someone with the same feelings and their mind wave vibrations are on your exact wavelength, the fusion can happen without you even needing to speak to or touch that person. The need to be with that person all of the time becomes obsessive."
She writes that the experience is never forgotten and "very rarely" regretted, but it is also "never easy unless, of course, it eventually calms down and leads to a more unselfish love - for the relationship to be happy, it is absolutely necessary that this should happen."
If love is to last it has to accommodate "the many mundane tasks of daily living," according to Henry Grunebaum, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. When he surveyed a number of people in long-term committed relationships, he found that more than half of them knew they had met a 'special someone' on the first or second meeting - and some said they knew immediately.
But whether love starts slowly or quickly it requires cares and commitment. Tom Hanks might have fell for his wife at first glance but he admits: "The work that went on after love at first sight was very substantial and it's neverending".
Grace Wynne-Jones's novel 'The Truth Club - Life, Love and Further Complications' is published by Tivoli (?9.99)
'I realised I was in love a year later'
Tracy and Peter got engaged three years after they met and married eight months later. They now live in Carlow with their 10-year-old son Tadhg.
"I first spoke to Peter when I rang a friend of his and he answered the phone," says novelist and holistic healer Tracy Culleton. "He asked a mutual friend about me and she invited me to a party where I met him. We were both living in London.
"I was 23 and I was enjoying being single. I was attracted to his looks - he's handsome and tall.
"Later on I was impressed by his warmth and kindness and humour. I said I didn't want the relationship to get serious because I was going back to Ireland."
It turns out that Peter and Tracy were more than friends, like the title of her latest novel. "I realised I was in love a year later. One day I looked and it was there and it felt right," says Tracy.
"I was more keen than Tracy at first," Peter admits. "I just wanted us to have fun together, but then it became much more than physical attraction. We grew close and she helped me to be more open.
"We moved in together a year after we met and by then I knew we would probably get married. I didn't want to settle in London anyway so I didn't mind moving to Ireland to be with her."
We e-mailed each other for three and a half years before we met
Janice and Julian Fogarty are now happily married, but only because Dubliner Julian decided to do a hotmail internet search one evening to see if anyone shared his name.
"I found a couple of Julian Fogartys and decided to reply to the first one on the list. For some reason, Janice's name was listed as a 'Julian'."
Janice, who is Canadian, was living in Nova Scotia. She e-mailed back to say she wasn't a Julian though she was a Fogarty and thought no more of it until Julian contacted her again and an e-mail friendship developed. They ending up e-mailing each other for three-and-a-half years without meeting. During this time, Janice broke up with her boyfriend and Julian parted from his girlfriend. They started to send each other postcards and photos and one evening Julian phoned and said, "Do you know who this is?"
Eventually Julian invited Janice to visit Ireland and, a month before she was due to arrive, suggested that she consider looking for work here. Janice wanted to see how she and Julian got on together so the 22-year-old left her job and travelled here in April 2001.
Julian found a flat for them both in Clontarf, Dublin. "I was under orders to get one with two bedrooms, which suited me. After a week, we could have been at each other's throats."
But Janice's airtrip was not exactly smooth. It arrived two-and-a-half hours late at Dublin airport. "I came out of arrivals and saw this guy sitting with his elbows on his knees. His head was hanging down and he had a bunch of roses in his hand. It was love at first sight. I felt I was home. I thought 'I am with him now'.
"My heart went out to him because he seemed so dejected. I looked at him and he looked away. I smiled and he looked away again. I thought 'why doesn't he recognise me from the photos?'
"Then he mouthed 'Is that you?' and came over and kissed me and gave me the flowers. He put his arms around me and said 'Let's go home'.
"I didn't know the flight was delayed and thought she hadn't arrived," Julian explains. "She hadn't worn glasses in the photos. But when I really looked, I knew straight away it was her. Her face felt so familiar. I had so many emotions but love was definitely one of them."
They married in September 2004 and hope to open a coffee house together.