Ionic and Covalent Relationships

Last week I talked about squishes and crushes to demonstrate how I have a hard time making a distinction between different types of potential relationships. Now I’d like to take a closer look at how I perceive relationships in general.

People are always talking about chemistry between two individuals, so I like to look at this in chemical terms. In chemistry there are two major types of chemical bonds that can occur between atoms: ionic bonds and covalent bonds.

Atoms are surrounded by layers of electron shells. Imagine a Russian matryoshka doll, the doll where you remove an outer shell of the doll to reveal a smaller version. Each of these doll layers represents a separate electron shell.

Atoms bond because they want to have a full outer shell of electrons. Just like the doll isn’t happy with only the top or bottom portion of its outermost layer, so too is an atom unhappy when its outer electron shell is not complete. The noble gases – the elements in the column to the far right of the periodic table, such as helium and neon – all have a full outer shell of electrons, and so they feel no need to bond with other elements. Essentially, all other elements are missing part of their outer doll layer and are on a quest to emulate the noble gases by achieving a full outer shell. In order to do this they need to interact with other elements.

The elements are comprised of metals such as sodium (Na) and potassium (K), and nonmetals such as oxygen (O) and chlorine (Cl). A metal and nonmetal generally form an ionic bond, while two nonmetals generally form a covalent bond. The difference between these two bonds is how the atoms involved go about obtaining a full outer shell of electrons.

First, let’s take a look at the ionic bond using sodium and chlorine. Sodium’s outer shell is incomplete, so that if it were a matryoshka doll, it would look like this, with a complete doll layer placed inside of a bottom layer without a top. Likewise, chlorine doesn’t have a complete outer shell of electrons, though in the case of chlorine we would have the top of the doll in place and the bottom portion missing.

Chlorine sees sodium’s bottom doll portion and takes it; now chlorine has a bottom and a top, and its outer shell is complete. Sodium lost its bottom portion, but that means that the doll that was sitting in the bottom portion of a different layer is now a stand-alone doll. Now its outermost layer of electrons is an intact layer, and both sodium and chlorine are content.

However, while both are content, sodium now has one less electron and chlorine one more electron, resulting in positively and negatively charged ions, respectively. Like magnets, the positive ion and the negative ion are attracted to each other; this attraction is an ionic bond, resulting in the ionic compound NaCl, otherwise known as table salt.

Now to translate this into interpersonal relationships. Ionic bonds between two people would be relationships in which two people need to give or get something from each other. Perhaps sodium really needs chlorine to love it, while chlorine feels a consuming desire to express love. Or sodium wants chlorine to bear financial responsibility for the relationship, while chlorine needs sodium to be a good listener. Either way, both individuals expect something from the other. Each becomes an ion in that they both feel an intense need to be a part of another person or to feel that another person is a part of them, and their attraction has that magnetic “you complete me” feel to it.

In contrast, covalent bonds are formed when two nonmetals share their electrons to complete their outer shells. If we go back to the doll example, then we see two oxygen dolls, one with a bottom portion for the next layer but no top, and one with a top portion but no bottom. Rather than one taking from the other, the first loans its extra portion to the other, which in turn lends its extra portion back. This time-share arrangement allows each doll to be complete without either having to completely give anything up.

Some people don’t really want to take anything from the other person; instead, they want to share – but not give up – parts of themselves. Their attraction is based not on a sacrifice but rather on the fact that they share interests without losing their individuality.

Perhaps the first oxygen wants to share the child rearing experience while still being free to have sex with other people, while the second oxygen wants companionship when it’s not travelling the world. Or oxygen one share its life with oxygen two and cuddles with other atoms while oxygen two enjoys home life with oxygen one but mixes with a different social crowd. There is still a sense of completeness, but in a much more “I now have what I need to complete myself” way; the focus is more on the two as individuals instead of on the two who become one.

Compounds with ionic bonds such as table salt are generally solid at room temperature; compounds with covalent bonds such as water (H2O) or air (O2) are generally liquid or gaseous at room temperature. Ionic relationships, then, are much more defined and rigid, whereas covalent relationships tend to be more fluid and malleable.

I am a covalent bond kind of guy. I neither need a partner to complete me nor desire that my partner needs me to complete them; I want only to share my life with others and share their lives with them. I feel my life is enriched through these interactions, but I am not willing to sacrifice my sense of self for them. Thus, I am not a noble gas, which is already complete in and of itself, but a nonmetal who likes to form relationships with other nonmetals. For me, this applies equally to friendships and partnerships.

For some, friendship bonds are covalent bonds, while partnership bonds should be ionic. For others, there is fluidity in the majority of our relationships. People in polyamorous relationships, for example, would in my opinion be covalent bonders while monogamous couples would be ionic bonders. This is because in the former you share your life but are not bound to one person and are thus free to explore the shared or other aspects of your life with people outside the primary relationship, whereas in the latter each respective partner wants the other to only get something from them.

In chemistry, you can’t really say that atoms are bound purely in ionic or covalent bonds; both bonds are generally present to a greater or lesser extent. Likewise, relationships can be a combination of the two. That being said, my friendships and relationships are very heavy on the covalent bonds and extremely light on the ionic bonds.

Though there are differences, neither type of bond is fundamentally better than the other. But the bonding that is characteristic of my life is definitely covalent, and I’m happy with it that way. I would, however, say that my one-night stands would fall under the (brief) ionic bond category in that there is not so much a need to share as a there is a desire to take and give sexual pleasure and a magnetic draw to the individual(s) giving me pleasure and receiving pleasure from me.

I think these covalent and ionic bonds help explain why I can’t seem to make heads or tails of squishes and crushes. I approach all relationships from a covalent point of view with the expectation that I can share any part of myself with any other person without it necessarily affecting established relationships; maybe it’s then more understandable why I can’t initially make a distinction between possible partners and potentially really good friends.

I am also of the opinion that the covalent bond helps explain my dating habits – or more to the point the lack thereof – but that’s a discussion for a different day.


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