Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Think Compassion More Than Passion for Lasting Love

Think compassion on this day

It's time for hot romance, right? Not so fast. Valentine's Day underscores a myth about successful relationships that should be addressed to avoid potential disappointment and upset.

Somehow our cultural myth is that successful intimate relationships are all about the hot romance. Eyes meet across a crowded room and you get love at first sight. Then, the romance begins...special gifts, infatuation, hot sex, more hot sex, even more hot sex, and so forth forevermore. The message is that intimate relationships are all about the passion. The person you are most sexually attracted to is the person you should spend the rest of your life with, right? Not quite. Quality empirical research as well as clinical practice indicates otherwise. The story is much more complicated than the notion that you should go for the one you are most sexually attracted to. Successful relationships certainly aren't just about romance and passion but the myths perpetrated by Valentine's Day images, Hollywood, and the like don't help. In fact, if you really want a long term intimate relationship to work and work well you might want to focus more on compassion rather than passion.

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As Prof. Kieran Sullivan and I discuss in our book, Getting Together and Staying Together: The Stanford University Course on Intimate Relationships (AuthorHouse), you're much more likely to have a successful relationship if you marry or partner with someone having similar interests, values, and perspective on life than someone who you think looks cute or hot across a crowded room. Obviously there are other predictors of relationship satisfaction as well but odds are high for most people that passion is fleeting while compassion is not.

Think about it...years ago when humans didn't live very long it made a lot of sense to mate with others who were sexually very attractive to you. These relationships weren't meant to last for decades since life was generally very short and harsh relative to today's standards. Our biological wiring needs to be thought through more carefully today to maximize long term relationship success.

The well-known psychologist and researcher Prof. Robert Sternberg has offered a thoughtful 3-point triangular theory of relationship satisfaction that includes a balance of passion, compassion, and commitment. Partners who are pretty equal in terms of their needs on these three dimensions are more likely to experience relationship satisfaction and relationship longevity. This also helps to explain the research findings that arranged marriages (focusing on commitment first) have just as high degree of marital satisfaction as non-arranged marriages (focusing more on passion or compassion).

So, celebrate Valentine's Day for sure. It is always nice to have a holiday that celebrates love in all forms. And besides, it is nice to have an excuse to express love to others (and eat quality chocolate to boot). I'll be getting my wife some delightful chocolates that I know she'll enjoy and plan to share a nice bottle of red wine over dinner with her. But we'll celebrate 30 years of loving each other more as best friends, soul mates, and partners in life.

Think compassion perhaps in addition to passion for relationship satisfaction. And celebrate love in all forms.

So, what do you think? 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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