The Power of Passion
5 Questions about Passion
Passionate love contributes to personal & relational fulfilment. It improves general wellbeing and happiness with life.
At the same time, passion is extremely fragile and difficult to maintain over time.
So while it’s hugely beneficial to experience passion, the whys, hows and whens of passion remain somewhat of a mystery.
More reasons to look a bit deeper into the Power of Passion.
Sexual desire and attraction are often used as proxies to measure romantic passion. But passion is not all about sex.
Romantic passion (or passionate love), is a psychological state characterised by strong emotions and “an intense longing for union with someone”(1).
That means, passion is first and foremost motivational. Feeling passionately in love with someone has been shown to activate brain regions associated with motivation and addiction.
Note that passion is not physical and emotional intimacy or closeness per se, but rather the desire for those states. Passion therefore also includes feelings of sadness when one is apart and missing the other when one can’t be close.
According to the dualistic model of passion, 2 forms of passion exist: harmonious and obsessive passion.
Harmonious passion is when you willingly choose to engage in a romantic relationship with your partner, without an internal pressure or obligation to do so. You feel that your partner reflects your self-worth, but your self-worth doesn’t rely on them.
This form of passion is in harmony with other life domains and is generally indicative of a healthy, high-quality relationship that lasts.
When someone enters or stays in a relationship because of an internal pressure or compulsion to do so, their passion for their partner becomes obsessive.
For instance, they feel they cannot manage anymore without their partner. They are highly emotionally dependent on them and their mood and life depends on the presence of their partner.
This form of passion comes to control the individual and takes over most of their identity, which can cause conflict with other life domains (that may be neglected).
Obsessive passion produces paradoxical outcomes: feelings of love and commitment for the other – however without satisfaction, intimacy or trust. Passion rather translates into a rigid persistence to stick with the partner even if the relationship is unsatisfying.
Whether passion is present or not plays an important role for the decision to commit to someone.
Commitment means having a long-term orientation towards the relationship. Highly committed individuals try to constructively solve conflicts in the relation. They are willing to sacrifice personal goals for the relationship. They also dismiss alternative partners.
Marriage is generally considered a strong form of commitment. In liberal societies, romantic passion is thus seen as a necessary precondition for marriage.
Unsurprisingly then, lack of passion (“marital boredom”) and commitment are associated both with divorce and with greater pursuit of romantic alternatives.
How does passion evolve over time in a relationship compared to other dimensions of relationship quality, such as emotional intimacy, companionship and security?
Passion has a unique trajectory. In fact, all major relationship theories agree that passion peaks relatively early in a relationship and slowly but steadily wanes after. As novelty wears off with increased duration of the relationship, passion is expected to decline.
This is not the case for emotional intimacy, companionship and security, which generally grow (or stay stable).
Although most people experience a drop in passion – and from a normative point of view, this is perfectly normal – some are able to maintain relatively high levels of passion over quite long periods of time.
In a study(2) among couples that had been in a relationship with their partner for at least 10 years, 40% reported still being “very intensely in love”. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains revealed that they had heightened activity in similar brain regions as couples in the beginning of their relationship.
People share different lay theories. Some believe that passion can revive, while others are convinced that it can’t recover once lost. Still others guess reality somewhere between the two.
Even leading relationship researchers disagree.
For instance, the American psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term “limerence”(3), by which she understood an intense, almost obsessive form of passion that develops involuntarily as you start to admire someone and are physically attracted to that person.
Heart palpitations, trembling and nervousness are physical correlates of limerence. Other indicators are intrusive thoughts, rumination about the person, romantic yearning and desire for reciprocation.
According to Tennov, the limerent feeling of passion is basically involuntary and inevitable – it’s a feeling that simply overcomes you. But, so are its decline and end, once love is reciprocated and uncertainty vanishes.
By contrast, The Self-expansion Model of passion offers a more optimistic, practical perspective. In this view, you “expand your self” in a relationship, as you take on your partner’s characteristics and perspectives.
Including the other in the self, i.e., sharing things with one another and growing together is the principal source of passion. Engaging in novel, exciting activities with one’s beloved partner is depicted as an avenue to increase passion and the experienced relationship quality.
What about personal growth? – that is: positive self-change and growth without the romantic partner – such as through a new job opportunity or job relocation?
On one hand, personal growth increases personal wellbeing and fulfilment, which creates positive emotions. So, in principle that brings a good vibe to the relationship.
On the other hand, growing more and more outside of the relationship reduces feelings of closeness, connection and eventually passion, because you ultimately risk growing apart.(4)
Another interesting study(5) looked into individual factors and found that highly creative personalities tend to report and experience greater passion. They are also able to delay passion declines as the relationship endures.
The underlying reason seems to be that creative people are more able to uphold positive illusions about their partner’s physical attractiveness. Creativity can thus strengthen passion in relationships.
A final word of caution
Some riskier practices, like flirting outside of the relationship, having an affair or trying to make your partner jealous can renew romantic passion in the short run. However, they are not recommended and often more harmful in the long run, as they undermine trust.
Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. Hemisphere Publishing Corp/Harper & Row Publishers.
(4)Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1996). Self and self‐expansion in relationships. In G. J. O. Fletcher & J. Fitness (Eds.), Knowledge structures in close relationships: A social psychological approach (pp. 325–344). Erlbaum.
Carswell, K. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2018). Can you get the magic back? The moderating effect of passion decay beliefs on relationship commitment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1002.
(5)Carswell, K. L., Finkel, E. J., & Kumashiro, M. (2019). Creativity and romantic passion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 116(6), 919.
Carswell, K. L., & Impett, E. A. (2021). What fuels passion? An integrative review of competing theories of romantic passion. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 15(8), e12629.
Carswell, K. L., Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Horne, R. M., Visserman, M. L., & Impett, E. A. (2021). Growing desire or growing apart? Consequences of personal self-expansion for romantic passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
(1)Hatfield, E., & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love (p.9). Addison‐Wesley.
(2)O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241–249.
Ratelle, C. F., Carbonneau, N., Vallerand, R. J., & Mageau, G. (2013). Passion in the romantic sphere: A look at relational outcomes. Motivation and Emotion, 37(1), 106-120.
(3)Tennov, D. (1998). Love and limerence: The experience of being in love. Scarborough House.
Vallerand, R. J. (2015). The psychology of passion: A dualistic model. Series in Positive Psychology.