Why The WRONG Kind Of Passion Can Kill Your Relationships…

Stephen Hussey

“I can’t live without you”

“You are always on my mind”

“You complete me”

 Nice song lyrics? Maybe. But if you hear yourself saying (or believing) these things regularly, you may be damaging your relationship.

According to recent work by social psychologist Robert J. Vallerand, “obsessive passion” i.e. the kind that makes you feel an out of control “desperate longing” for your partner, can be as damaging for sexual satisfaction as having no passion at all[1].

On the other hand, “harmonious passion”, experienced by those who love and value their partner but maintain a distinctly separate sense of self outside of the relationship, is more conducive to higher levels of happiness and stability in their relationships. In other words, having an ability to put the relationship aside and happily engage in other activities leads to greater satisfaction between two partners than it would if they were both obsessed with one another. Even more intriguingly, women who had “obsessively passionate” male partners were less likely to be sexually satisfied in a relationship (take that, Edward Cullen).

Maybe that seems obvious. Any level of over-attachment will begin to poison the relationship eventually. Yet our culture seems to scream from the rooftops that the only way to go about love is screaming from the rooftops, losing our minds and being completely wrapped up in our partner, as though we’re all fifteen year-old girls or characters in Twilight. Maybe I spend too much time on Tumblr, but it seems to me there is a never-ending glut of propaganda that romanticises that idea that love should always be crazy, drive us insane, and blind us to everything but the person in front of us – and if it doesn’t? Well, you’re just not very romantic, are you?

“Harmonious Passion” = More Mature Relationships

The cheering fact about the research is that it shows you can see a partner as unique, special, and infinitely enriching to your life, while still appreciating that love, maybe, just maybe, isn’t really “all you need” (sorry Beatles). And Vallerand seems to agree: when you have intimacy + your own separate identity (i.e. “harmonious passion”), then you’re able to choose a relationship from a healthier position, without subjugating your sense of self to your partner. So while it might sound romantic to get lost in love, sometimes it can mean we’re just lost.

For me, I know that whenever I’ve felt that all-consuming, world-distorting level of devoted passion, it’s usually because at the time my self-esteem was far too wrapped up in the idea of being with a girlfriend I considered “out of my league”, or perhaps because I was using a relationship to shelter from other worries in my life, or hell, just because I was young and naïve and couldn’t believe that I could feel so strongly about someone I had only known for a month.

Of course there is beauty to that feeling, but there’s also a madness to it. Falling for someone new will always open the valves on all those hypnotic chemicals that make us able to spend day after day together and still miss them when we finally separate for an hour to go home, eat some food, pay the bills, and actually see our friends and family. But mature people are able to feel these emotions and also see them for what they are: a form of passion that isn’t a sustainable way to live our lives for too long.


Maturity or Cynicism?

Some people lament the loss of that youthful naivety as they get older, but I think they mistake signs of maturity for cynicism. It’s more likely that as you get older, you realise there are other practical things to a relationship, like: “How much does this person let me be myself? How much do they value independence? How good a companion are they on a day-to-day basis? How supported do they make me feel in my career?” Basically, all the real stuff that actually makes us happy in a relationship. §When you’re young, you’re much too busy being stoked to actually be in love to worry about whether or not the damn relationship actually works on any level (at least, if you’re me).

As I’ve said in previous articles on the idea of losing ourselves in love, I don’t think the answer is to be timid and keep our guard up when we meet someone amazing. For me, it’s more about how long we spend in the manic period, rather than avoiding it altogether. I imagine part of the dissatisfaction of those who live in “obsessive passion” is that they chase down this feeling as much as possible until they squeeze every bit of fun and mystery out of the relationship.

Yes, it might be nice to fantasize about always those Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley, with their wild, all-consuming, desperately loved-up souls…those verses perfectly capture that heady moment when you realise you’re falling down the rabbit hole of love once again (and again and again and again). Just remember, science says it’s better for you (and your relationship) to remember that there’s a world that matters outside of it.

Discussion questions

  • Do you ever feel “addicted” to obsessive passion in relationships?
  • What do you do to keep your sense of self and develop “harmonious passion” with your partner?

[1] Source: Scientific American Mind (The Psychology Of Passion: A Dualistic Model. – Robert J. Vallerand; Oxford University 2015)

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33 Replies to “Why The WRONG Kind Of Passion Can Kill Your Relationships…”

  • This feels so smooth to read because of the way you put it all together, Stephen! I love the comparison of harmonious passion and the very clear demonstration of ways of being that are more sustainable! Feels good knowing that passionate people aren’t being asked to tone down that energy or think ” either/or”, but instead, being taught how transitioning and spreading that passion around in various life categories instead of funneling it all to one relationship could lead to a much better life and romantic experience. Feels so great to see you gift people with this awareness through your words. You are really good at that! Wow! Thanks for creating this for us. :)

  • Oooh, and science defeats love! I really, really loved this. This is the best thing I’ve ever read of yours – tons of personality, funny, and clever. Really great!

    I can be good at this to a fault actually. Recently I had to try to put a little more in to get more out. I wasn’t always this way – I used to be consumed by relationships, so having little time to bother with it is nice. I just do my thing, and he seems to ask me to do stuff all the time and plan. I am career obsessed, work obsessed, and super committed and loyal to family and friends. I like not having to worry about the relationship. I just let it happen. He took me to breakfast today and got me a little rosebush :) :) :) He sees my value more because I have a life outside of him that is rich and full.

    (Love the research – I’d have liked to know the year of publication in the reference. Two tiny things: second to last paragraph – I imagine part of the the dissatisfaction. Just get rid of one ‘the.’ The paragraph that begins “The cheering fact…” Smooth out the someone-a person part of the first sentence. I think you went back and forth but didn’t quite change the whole sentence so it makes sense.) Great job Stephen! It seems inspired ;)

  • A solid partnership that is based on respect, support, and love, can produce that euphoric passionate feeling of love. It is like when you are dating someone for a while, and you just look at them while they are talking about something (anything) and you feel a deep sense of satisfaction. It is the difference between a hot flame, and a smoldering ember, in my mind. An ember is much longer lasting, and often hotter than a flame. It is deeper… :) I understand how difficult it can be when you really want to be a part of a person’s gravity. That can literally throw off your balance… but I like how you bring it back to continuously being yourself, and differentiating from the relationship. We need balance, and we need love. But I agree that love is not all we need.

    Thanks Steve!


    1. What a great analogy, Arianna. I definitely experienced one of each this past week: hot flame and smoldering ember.

        1. Yep. I felt CRAZY hot passion for one of them due to physical attraction and chemistry, whereas with the other one I realized he wasn’t quite as good looking as I had him remembered him to be, but I absolutely adored our time together. We literally stared into each other’s eyes almost constantly and I just want to gaze into them a whole lot more!

  • As always, great advice.

    When you all doing a UK tour?

    P.s. Nice bit of Harvard Referencing Mr Hussey.

  • Great article! I love when hard science answers these types of questions. I definitely fall into the ‘romantically obsessive’ category but ad I’ve aged I’ve learned to handle it better. I was questioning this very idea recently and not sure how too frame and lable these feelings, so this article just answered that for me.

  • Interesting article. Must read the ‘losing ourselves in love’, as well. Another article ‘How to stop falling in love so quickly’by Matt was also an eye opener. Honest grown up advice.

  • Great points Steven and thanks for the Keats mention (love!) It’s true (and proven) long-term, mature relationships are more than “wild, all-consuming” love fests. Though could they be? My relationships are like this and it’s more my personality than a relationship phase. Perhaps it’s cultural.

    Latin, Caribbean and African descent people can be very romantic. It’s in our culture. We’re taught to nuture a relationship romantically, even as children and when we’ve been married many years. Example, in Madrid Spain, I once saw an 80 year old couple grab each other’s bony bum as they strolled through the park. So sweet.

    That’s the romantic, playful, mature relationship I’m gonna have. Not the boring, bland sensible one “science” speaks of lol.

  • Mmm, intriguing thinking!!

    It is true that we all have wounds, feelings and validations that we want to be met. However, as it is not possible to control external sources, we must be able to give a portion of the validation we need, back to ourselves.

    Being autonomous, flexible and having a sort of intrinsic motivation is related to life satisfaction. So providing a high level of autonomy support to our partner, avoiding interpersonal comparisons, instead focusing on self-comparing, seeing ourselves getting better with practice and choosing consciously to experience positive emotions and be enjoyable to be around, are ways of practicing harmonious passion.

    I recently finished reading a fascinating book saying that we cannot control how we feel, but we can control the response to our feeling!!!

  • Interesting article Steve!

    To answer your first question, I have felt like that before, particularly when I was a teen and in my early 20s. Now, it is not as intense as I have learned to identify it.

    This article reminds me a lot of the works of a colombian psychologist and writer called Walter Riso. He states that there are 3 types of love: Eros (the passionate love), Philia (the friendly love) and Agape (the motherly love). He covers many of your points when he explains Eros; however, he does say that Eros love is only temporary, otherwise we would not be able to survive! And that’s when the other two types of love come into play. Very interesting book. I’m not sure if there is an English version, but the name of the book is “Ama y no sufras” or Love without suffering. I highly recommend it.

  • I needed to read this today. I have a great boyfriend, but we are currently long distance pursuing our careers. I’m still generally happy despite this circumstance, as I have many other friends and activities in my life that are fulfilling. My friends however, who have boyfriends, seem to be in anguish as soon as they leave. I was wondering if I was the weird one for not being that way!

  • I think if you really love someone you’ll let them go. Not literally but feel so much passion and respect and bonding that to have them follow their ambitions, hobbies, interests, passions on their own with your support in the background is a natural way to go. A loving way, in that when you come together which you physically do it is passionate and not suffocating. And I think this leads into the sexual satisfaction findings. Great sex is very much a series of equal acts and if one person is obsessing more than the other there will be an imbalance in satisfaction.
    But obsessive passion is addictive for the rush of hormones puts you literally on a high and you can’t wait for the next hit. Literally craving it when there is separation.
    But I think this seperating to come together again is the only way to retain a sense of self and be more harmonious than obsessive. When you are really in love and tuned into someone is only then that you care so much for the persons welfare, you want them to retain their sense of self and they, if they feel the same way give this back to you. xx

  • It is always advisable to enter a relationship with your heart and your head. Too many of us enter with only our hearts and leave our heads with our families. My principle for life= love a human being with 30% of your heart and leave the remaining 70% for God because a human being will disappoint you somewhere along the line.

  • Brilliant post yet again Stephen. I think its really hard these days to have the confidence to actually go forward and have the courage of your convictions however when society, culture, media and family expect so much from you. I guess however that its the challenge of actually ignoring these external influences which is the biggest test of all. Blocking out expectations and re-connecting with yourself is key- but sustaining that connection once you find your partner is even more key and should be the ultimate goal as it leads to a happier you, him and therefore ‘us..’ I’ve personally realised this recently and concluded that this is why I’m still single at the ripe old age of 38! Perhaps there is a new calling now for more songs and poetry to be written to address the idea of self and importance of it…although there was the song, ‘ the greatest love of all….’ that good old Whitney classic! Hope to see you at the May retreat soon!

  • Stephen Hussey!! thanks for another bitchin’ article!!! The idea that media is constantly shoving down our throats of this obsessive type of love wherein exists a rescuer-rescuee type relationship,a you-complete-me bond if you like is just ridiculous! its crippling in every sense of the word..mentally,emotionally and yes,even physically(“i thought you loved me for who i am,not what i look like. why should i work out?”) You want to be loved? be love. love yourself enough to want to be the best version you can be and love your partner enough to want him to be the best version he can be. Period. No victims. No lazy love. No intermingled personas so entwined in this irrational chemically-driven delusion that leaves them unable to tell where they end and their partner begins.”we love the same food,go to the same parties,have the same friends,share the same underwear…” Bloody hell.You’re sleeping with yourself? Now i know i sound far from romantic but the strange thing is this-i enjoy the most passionate relationships. no bullshit. i am me. you are you. i love how different you are from me. i love how we enjoy some of the same things. i love how you make an effort to see me smile..like i do for you. i love how you love to see me grow like i do for you. i can live without you…but where’s the fun in that? i love you. That my friends,is a healthy relationship..(or more accurately,the beginnings of one)

  • I used to be obsessively passionate to a point where they would occupy my every thought. And yes, it took making the mistake many times over before I understood the lesson that was in front of me. Then one day I just woke up thinking “I don’t want someone to be ‘my other half’ or to complete me. I don’t want to stand in half a truth. I want to be a whole person in a relationship”.

    So, I made a decision that rather than risking losing my identity in the face of another, I wasn’t going to actively seek a relationship until I had completed some self exploration. I needed to know who I was, what mattered to me, that I could be happy in the company I kept when I was alone, and that the person staring back at me in the mirror was my friend. I needed to find that elusive presence where I could appreciate the difference between being lonely and alone… in short, the oh so important soul search.

    To me, it doesn’t seem fair to only share half a person with someone. There is no point in stepping into a relationship if you cannot wholly share yourself and your life with another person. Only then can you truly appreciate each other (e.g. be as happy and excited for the other persons achievements in life as you are about your own etc), and genuinely prevent the presence of an eventual irreconcilable rift. In my opinion, where two whole people come together to share lives, they end up creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts – as opposed to the two halves theory of ‘you complete me’.

    I watch my friends get caught up in the media-storm of “soulmates”, particularly where it is presented as two halves coming together to make a whole… and I can almost predict with accuracy how long it will be until they start to project the qualities a man wants in his perfect woman. Then I listen as a silent witness to them cry their hearts out about “why the relationship broke down”, and “how [they] don’t know who they are anymore” – afterall, they “were the most passionate girlfriend he’d ever had!”

    Keeping a sense of self? I find comfort in the thought that we are born by ourselves into this world with nothing, and we will leave in the same fashion. Everything that happens in between is, for the most part, of our own choosing. There is a certain level of self-empowerment to recognising you’re a captain of your own destiny.

    In terms of developing ‘harmonious passion’, I would have to say keeping the fun and spontaneity in a relationship is a key prerequisite. The most spontaneous and fun moments are nearly always the most passionate (raw passion too!). Keeping the curiosity alive through spontaneity ensures balance and fresh energy exist in a sustainable way.

    I’m not saying people should strap on a chastity belt and prevent the passion that flows in the first month to pass them by. No. But what is important during the first few months is noting down what triggers unbridled passion in a partner – it can be a look, a smile, an action. My former boyfriend (RIP) and I used to be able to trigger each other two years after we met – our life was sustainable because of fun, spontaneity and because we were two whole people sharing experiences and ourselves with one another.

    1. Lian
      Wow! I am now finally ok this same journey of taking a break from several of the wrong relationships so I can discover who I am and enjoy my own company. I’m going to take as long as I need to. I’m finally ready to make myself whole so I can find another whole person. Thank you for sharing!

  • I definitely feel this is something I find refreshing to read. I sometimes wonder if something is wrong with me in that I do value my individuality so much. Don’t get me wrong, I still would like to learn to be more considerate of others and learn to sacrifice for relationships’ sake (not just romantic, but friendships, too), but I agree that it isn’t healthy to have you sense of self dependent on another person. I would hope my future mate would have his own self confidence, sense of purpose, and worth aside from me (I find this attractive) because I believe then the harmonious passion you speak up will be more authentic and feel like a choice – kind of like us each knowing we would be perfectly fine without one another, but choosing to spend time with each other until we grow into a team… thanks for the post Stephen

    1. Forgive the many grammatical errors… i see them and they make me cringe, but this site has no editing function.. so readers beware!!

  • Steve,
    You nailed it with this article. It was all I needed this week :-)
    I am pretty nerdy and read a lot about the effects of passion on the brain as well as what happens with brain chemistry after a painful breakup.
    Luckily I saw myself falling in love again this week, pretty badly :-) butterflies on my stomach and the obsessive thoughts that I didn’t have in a loooong time (maybe 6 years ago). I’m 37, so yes.. Not afraid to fall in love, but also getting more and more skeptical and less naive as the years pass.
    Anyways… After a lovely Sunday together with my love, non-stop cuddling and feeling so great, I asked for a 4 day break… We will meet again just on Thursday night.
    I think asking for space right in the beginning of a relation helps A LOT. You gain your sense of self again and miss the person just enough to feel the same feelings again.
    I guess sometimes people like the idea of Falling in Love, regardless of who the partner is. Just to feel the sensation of being in love. And that’s not the way to go.
    Taking a step back, is a good idea to know if that guy is really THE GUY of your dreams or just a passionate guy.
    Anyways.. I hope you like my comment. Feel free to contact me (email/phone). I really liked this article and I will read the Scientific American one as well.

    Beijos beijos beijos !!

  • Excellent article, all though I find this is usually the male perspective. For a healthy relationship, every woman deep inside knows this is what is needed to maintain a healthy relationship with the guy and she will try to give him that freedom. Still this goes against her nature and she won’t be happy. It wouldnt hurt her at all to have a healthy bit of personal life on her own. These type of relationships sound perfect but seem unachievable. He might even be a tad jealous? The female isn’t wired like this, secretly we want to have him around, count on him, take care of us, protect us, treat us like a woman and these days he needs to have some nursing female quality to him as well. In other words: go to work, come home happy and sexy, get passionate, be interested in our thoughts and emotions, cook us an amazing dinner, shower the kids or stroke our hair while watching TV.

  • I’m 26 and I thought I was getting all cynical because intensity is not something I crave anymore. I’m more concerned about how a relationship would work in practical terms and what kind of interests, lifestyle choices and character traits we need to have in common to keep a relationship going. I’ll even opt out of dating men I feel something for if I don’t think the practical considerations match up. Your post reassures me that romance can still be on the cards for me without obsessive levels of passion for another person.

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