“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.
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.
- 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?
 Source: Scientific American Mind (The Psychology Of Passion: A Dualistic Model. – Robert J. Vallerand; Oxford University 2015)