Does—and should—passion matter for long-term relationship happiness?
Is passionate love a passing feeling? According to one writer, passionate love burns itself out after only a year or two, only to be replaced by calmer, if not stronger, bonds of companionship. Maybe this is a desirable situation, because if we spent our days in the throes of all-consuming love fires, we’d never get anything accomplished.
Studies that follow married couples over time repeatedly show that passion dies after the first two years, stays at a low level for about another 15 or so, and springs back to life after kids leave the home. Such studies are inherently flawed for the obvious reason the people who remain married are the ones who did not divorce. The divorced ones left the marriage, so the ones who are still standing were probably happier with each other in the first place. The fact that unhappy couples will stay together until the kids leave only accentuates this problem. As I pointed out in an earlier posting on long-term relationships, we have to be very careful about drawing interpretations from naturalistic studies on the rise and fall of marital satisfaction.
Setting aside the fate of passion in long-term relationships, relationship expert Elaine Hatfield and her associates wrote an outstanding article in which they put passionate love under the microscope. What is passionate love, and how do we measure it?
Psychologists and sociologists who’ve tackled the subject of passionate love have come up with a panoply of operational definitions. These range from what you might expect (“romanticism”) to the decidedly social science-y (“limerance,” “pair attraction” or “love schemas”). Some measure attitudes toward love, the intensity of reactions toward a partner, loving vs. liking, styles of loving, love mania, romantic “symptoms”, “desperate” love, and romantic attachment style.
Hatfield and her co-authors, after reviewing the evidence, concluded that social science is finally becoming passionate about passionate love, and that we’re actually making some progress in defining this ineffable state. They believe that scholars are increasingly viewing passionate love as a broad, integrative emotional, cognitive, and behavioral quality. With the broadening of its theoretical base, passionate love is now being measured in ways that are more reliable than ever.
The Passionate love scale that Hatfield and her collaborator Susan Sprecher developed in 1986 is consistent with this view of passionate love as a complex, integrative set of qualities. Looking at these specific qualities, see how your own relationship would rate:
Thinking about or being preoccupied with your partner
Idealizing your partner or the relationship
Wanting to know your partner and wanting your partner to know you
Being sexually attracted to and aroused by your partner
Feeling good when things go well
Feeling bad when things go badly
Loving and wanting to be loved in return
Wanting complete and permanent union
Trying to find out how your partner feels
Providing service to your partner
Being physically close to your partner
Passionate love clearly involves more than sexual attraction. The cognitive, other emotional and behavioral components balance out the urge to get physical with your loved one.
Of course, testing your feelings toward the object of your passions is only half the story. To make this an interesting and, perhaps, relationship-building exercise, try answering the questions as if you were your partner. Have you partner do the same thing. You can then compare notes and see how accurately you did or did not predict your partner’s responses.
Passionate love may be a broad and integrative quality, but according to other psychologists, it’s only one-third of the equation in characterizing a long-term relationship. Oklahoma State psychologist Robert Sternberg (1997) devised the “triangular” theory of love which, as the term implies, involves 3 basic components. Passion is but one of the three. The other two are intimacy and commitment. Intimacy is the feeling of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness. Commitment refers to the decision to maintain the relationship.
The triangular theory gives us a metric to evaluate the status of any relationship at one given point in time. Relationships high on all three qualities qualify for “consummate love,” where you both love and like your partner, and are in a committed relationship. Commitment without passion or intimacy is “empty love.” Passion alone is “infatuation.” Intimacy without passion or commitment is “liking.” In between these extremes on the three dimensions are various combinations.
Hatfield’s passionate love scale, while capturing the complexity of romantic love , primarily tells one side of the story (though commitment and intimacy are somewhat implied). Using the three relationship dimensions provides a more dynamic characterization of relationships. Your relationship with the same person may be passionate in one phase, intimate in another, and committed in another. Ideally, however, you eventually reach the point in your most significant relationships in which there’s a bit of all three. You don’t have to regret the decline of passion, if it in fact occurs, because it will be balanced by other equally (or more) rewarding components involving friendship and shared values to stay together over the long haul.
There’s no reason to bemoan the inevitable mellowing out of passion over time in your long-term relationships. Nor, on the other hand, do you have to resign yourself to a passionless relationship just because you’ve been together for a few (or more) years.
Some claim, mistakenly in my opinion, that we are “hard-wired” for novelty in relationships which is why passion (and happiness, according to this argument) diminish with the passing years of a relationship. These same social commentators argue that companionate love is the consolation prize for passion’s demise. However, as you can see from Hatfield’s and Sternberg’s models, pure passion hardly exists in the real world outside of romantic poetry, songs, and literature.
Seeking a balance, not a hedonistic peak, may be the key to long-term fulfillment in your relationships. Your love life may have fewer daily highs, but it will also have- more importantly- fewer lows.