The Underrated Skills That Keep Couples Together

Hot passionate love is the holy grail of relationships, but it's not what keeps us going day-to-day.

By Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D., published May 2, 2017 - last reviewed on March 13, 2018

Photo by Adam Voorhes

When it comes to romance, I want excess," says Vivian*, who is married and involved in a torrid affair. She wants emotional intensity, not compromise and restraint—tepid words that evoke the loss of hope and feelings of forfeit. To her, such seeming dispassion feels like the end of life. "I would willingly pay the high-priced ticket to the next ride on this emotional roller coaster," she admits.

Our ideal love is a steamy experience involving fiery, intense desire—a passion that's almost an obsession. This sort of infatuation can make you feel young, alive, and yearning. Yet, should it constitute the ideal for ongoing, long-term love? 

Mild love, on the other hand, is considered an outright offense, so much so that we cannot even admit its existence to our partners. Mild is defined as "not strong" or "not extreme." In some situations, mild has positive implications: Mild weather is warm and pleasant; a mild individual is viewed favorably. Those with mild behavior are considerate of others and often praised; those who are extreme are often insensitive to the people around them. 

When it comes to emotions, however, restraint might be viewed as less worthy than  great intensity. Low emotional intensity seems to express a neutral or indifferent state. In the domain of emotions, there is no such thing as a minor concern—if the concern is perceived as minor, it has no emotional value.

Indeed, a characteristic of emotions is their magnifying power: Everything looms larger when one is feeling great emotion. The fact that a colleague earns 2 percent more than you do is not a minor issue in your envious eyes. A woman who chooses to get breast implants may not see her slightly smaller endowment as a "mild" imperfection. When emotions take over, everything seems outsized.

While emotions are a significant guide for our behavior, they are not the only one. A person is often viewed negatively by virtue of pursuing excess. This does not mean that we should abandon our grand ambitions, but extreme and excessive behavior is typically viewed as unhealthy. Certainly, the excess that goes with intense emotions can be harmful to our survival; conversely, a deficit of emotions is just as damaging. The ideal, then, is balance. When we compromise, we consult reason to steady our emotions. For example, we count to 10 before expressing anger. In these 10 seconds, reason should, if necessary, control our emotional reactions.

Restraint and compromise are good, but they still play no part in the way we see romance. You do not tell your partner that you love him mildly or that she represents a compromise for you. That would be insulting. In fact, gentle romantic intensity can feel like an expression of inadequate love. Just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot be a little bit in love. When I ask my students about mild love, most of them confess that they have felt this type of love. But when I ask them whether they ever admitted this moderate love to their partners, not one said yes. Lovers would rather emphasize their extreme romantic enthusiasms. The common view of romantic love typically does not consider tame love to be at all romantic; it's no surprise that love in art and film focuses on intensity.

In reality, love comes in degrees and entails restraint. One reason for our less-than-ardent attitude toward tamer love is the assumption that in the conflicts of love and life, love is always expected to triumph; true lovers would never surrender to half-measures and tamer love when it comes to romance.

Photo by Adam Voorhes

Benign Happiness

To help us better understand how to look at love, let's examine the related topic of mild happiness.

People's moods shouldn't always be intensely positive, and of course, not always intensely negative either, argues psychologist Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. Although feeling intensely positive moods might be valuable on some occasions, it can have negative effects. For example, intensely aroused, positive moods might be detrimental to health and survival. Moreover, people with the highest levels of happiness tend to do less well in their work than moderately happy people do. With extreme and intense positive experiences, one tends to lose the larger perspective. Extreme reactions can be momentarily beneficial, and sometimes we should focus on specific urgent events. But in the long run, such attention can be harmful—as well as neglectful of factors relevant to personal flourishing. If infatuation were a permanent state, work would likely be neglected. Diener and colleagues also note that having intense positive moods can cut a person off from the potential rewards of mildly favorable events—like meeting a friend for coffee. As with most beneficial traits, there is likely to be an optimum level beyond which further increases would be harmful.

Positive moods exist at a more or less uniform level most of the time, Diener maintains. He and his colleagues refer to this as "positive mood offset," the tendency to feel good in the absence of significant negative events. They argue that while people have evolved to react to positive or negative events with intense affect, they are also wired to be in a mildly positive mood when they are in either positive or neutral circumstances. The fact that most  people usually feel happy does not mean that most people are intensely happy or always happy—they just happen to experience some benign positive affect almost all of the time.

None of us should be ashamed to say that we are moderately happy. On the contrary, saying that we are super-happy comes with negative undertones. When a journalist asked General Charles de Gaulle if he was happy, he replied, "What do you take me for, an idiot?"

But then, why are we ashamed to admit that we are mildly in love?

In light of the connection between love and happiness, there may be some similarity between the mechanisms that sustain long-term happiness and those that facilitate long-term romantic love.

Love is a major factor in happiness, and marital quality is one of the most important social factors linked to happiness (not to mention mental and physical health). According to research by David Myers of Hope College, those who report that their marriage is very happy are among the happiest of people in general—57 percent of such couples declared their lives, as a whole, to be "very happy." That's compared with 10 percent of those whose marriages are "pretty happy" and 3 percent of those in "not-too-happy" marriages. This study clearly manifests the tight connection between happiness in general and happiness in marriage. Since happiness in marriage is to a large extent based on loving experiences, it is plausible to assume that tame romantic experiences are central in romantic love as well.

Great happiness does not involve the complete elimination of both super-happy and super-unhappy experiences in our lives. Instead, it includes the constant presence of benign happiness and the absence of frequent intense peaks of super-happy or super-unhappy experiences. Similarly, deep love does not involve the complete elimination of passionate experiences from our lives, but rather the continued presence of gentle love and the absence of continuous intense peaks of super-passionate or super-dispassionate experiences.

Another aspect central to the nature of mild love is its given baseline position and the frequency of passionate peaks, which occur much less often when compared with the peaks found in torrid affairs, for example. These characteristics can determine whether a specific instance of gentle love is regarded as deep, romantic love, or whether it is too low and tempered to be considered romantic love. When partners are dissatisfied with their mutual love, they often experience a very low baseline of mild love and a low frequency of intense peaks. Such experiences do not invalidate the general value of mild love; they indicate only the very low value of a specific couple's mild love.

Photo by Adam Voorhes

Your Love Type

Romantic intensity is not the same as romantic depth. Romantic intensity is a snapshot of an emotional peak at a given moment; it refers to the momentary degree of passionate (often sexual) desire. Romantic depth goes beyond romantic intensity to include the dimension of time, as establishing depth requires time. Accordingly, an emotion cannot be seen as deep love if it lasts only five seconds; deep love has to be felt and shared again and again. In the same way that intense momentary experiences are not the cornerstone of profound happiness, intense romantic (often sexual) experiences are not the cornerstone of deep love. Like long-term great happiness, long-term deep love is focused on ongoing, meaningful, shared activities—activities engaged in for their own sake and not as a means for achieving some other goal. In such a deep love, the flourishing of each partner, as well as that of their togetherness, is most likely to emerge. Certainly, excitement declines with age, while characteristics such as serenity, caring, kindness, loyalty, and wisdom increase with age, along with the longevity of a couple's relationship.

Despite the significant role that passionate experiences play in romantic love, love can endure for many years even when passion has diminished. Great love, which involves a process of meaningful development over time, cannot be generated at first sight—it requires, among other things, the passing of time and time shared together. 

The distinction between romantic intensity and romantic depth is consistent with the distinction between passionate and companionate, or deeply committed, love. Psychologist Elaine Hatfield, of the University of Hawaii, argues that passionate love is strongly identified with intense positive and negative emotions, whereas companionate love is associated more with life satisfaction. Passionate love is a hot, intense emotion characterized as a state of powerful longing for another. It is a heightened state in which people experience a continual interplay between elation and despair, excitement and terror. Deeply committed, companionate love is much less intense—a warm fuzziness of affection and tenderness that people feel toward one another when their lives are deeply connected. This type of love develops over a long period, and it is accompanied by an increasing level of emotional trust. Although the two types of love are typically separate, there are various degrees of passion. Some couples retain the passion they felt in the early stages of their romance; over the long term these couples have learned to dip into that passion in a way that does not incapacitate their overall loving relation or the flourishing of each partner.

Photo by Adam Voorhes

The Simple Pleasures

"A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above your set-point [of happiness]. Find the small things that you know give you a little high—a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends—and sprinkle your life with them," noted the late David Lykken, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota. "In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while."

The advantages of long-term, deep love are clear: The ideal of forever love has value and is worth pursuing. Ideals are something we usually cannot fulfill entirely, but they are a beacon showing us where to go. However, this romantic ideal does not imply being on top of the world at all times. As Lykken noted, it is more a matter of regularly enjoying the small joys of life.

People might find a dilemma here: Is it better to pursue a brief but high-intensity romantic life or to opt for one that's longer but low in intensity? Such a dilemma can occur in other domains: For example, some people choose not to undergo medical treatments such as chemotherapy. Although such treatments might prolong life, they can considerably reduce the quality of life. In contrast, the romantic dilemma concerns choosing between a long-lasting, much deeper love with few peaks of excitement and a brief, more superficial love with intense and more frequent emotional peaks.

Although ideal romantic love is characterized by unique acts of sacrifice or intensity, it is the little, gentle things that mean so much more. As Anton Chekhov said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is the day-to-day living that wears you out." And the day-to-day loving is what counts most. Elvis Presley often crooned about passionate love: "One night with you would make my dreams come true." It sounds exciting, but his thinking isn't all that suitable for long-term, deep love.

Go ahead, tell your partner you feel a mild and calm love—one that will last. Although mild love consists of tempered positive attitudes that forgo frequent tempestuous peaks, it is stable and here to stay, not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.

Apart But Together

The unity of lovers may be an ideal, but it is a dangerous one. The desire to be with someone is sometimes taken to the extreme—becoming a desire for complete fusion. It's a joint identity: Two lovers form a union as if they were two faces of a coin.

This desired unity is a physical impossibility. Hence, we may say that the model refers to just the psychological realm and expresses, metaphorically, a prevailing wish to be each other's deep love. Is a mental and emotional fusion plausible or even recommended in love? No. Two lovers may resonate with each other, but they cannot fuse.

Truthfully, autonomy is valuable in romantic relationships. Lovers might give up a lot for their beloved, but they should not lose their unique identities. As the saying goes: "It takes a loose rein to keep a marriage tight."

The notion of total unity is dangerous to a loving relationship, as one lover's every small movement can have an exaggerated impact on the other, and on the relationship itself. However, when two lovers enjoy some distance, the relationship can absorb certain shocks. Look at living apart as cartilage, the connective tissue that provides support and protects bones from the friction that would otherwise result from bone rubbing against bone.

Similarly, distance acts as a kind of shock absorber: It protects lovers from the friction that excessive proximity causes. And there are various types of distance that people deploy to reduce friction in their close relationships—including lessened sensitivity toward their partner, infidelity, and getting absorbed in their work.

Being apart together can be a useful kind of romantic cartilage. Laura*, age 40, says that when she and her husband lived apart but remained married, "I felt good about having my own personal space, so I did not have extramarital affairs. After 11 years, we moved into a house together with our three girls. I stayed in the house every day, and I felt that my personal space and freedom were being violated by my husband, as if I were in captivity. At that time, I began to have affairs."

Love includes the desire to be as close as possible to the person you adore. Nevertheless, increasingly today, romantic couples live at greater geographical distances from each other. As in the commuter marriage that Laura and her husband had, autonomy is required because of job location, educational pursuits, or career choices—the couple lives apart but intends to remain married.

A large body of research indicates that couples who live apart—but stay together—often maintain and promote positive romantic connection. Compared with couples who live in close proximity, partners who live at a distance report higher levels of relationship satisfaction. And the commitment level among distant couples is similar to that of geographically close couples; therefore, relationships at a distance often boast a high rate of survival. These couples enjoy greater personal space, which enhances their personal flourishing as well as the health of their bond.

Commitment and trust, important in romantic relationships, have greater significance in long-distance relationships because there are more opportunities for events to occur that could threaten that commitment. Long-distance couples generally enjoy equal or even higher levels of stability, satisfaction, commitment, and trust than do comparable couples who are geographically closer. According to L. Crystal Jiang, of the City University of Hong Kong, and her colleagues, the percentage of extramarital affairs is similar, or even lower, than that found in standard marriages.

Spending too much time with a partner may actually decrease love. Some kind of distance, providing greater personal space, is important for all relationships. The space may focus the partners' attention on the profound aspects of the relationship and help them disregard superficial ones. Of course, significant distance can harm a relationship, but the right amount of distance can be beneficial. Determining the appropriate distance is not easy, but it is crucial. 

*name changed

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