- To intensify passion in long-term relationships, couples need to grow and expand as separate individuals.
- Personal growth ignites positive emotions, which spills over in to our relationships, a recent study suggests.
- Partners who grow and change too much or too quickly risk leaving each other behind, however.
The beginning of a new relationship is often intoxicating. Partners think about each other all the time and yearn for closeness and intimacy. Each partner projects onto the other an idealized image—a fantasy devoid of fault or shortcoming. Studies that have looked at the brains of people who are newly in love have found that this state of intense passion mimics that of drug addiction. The couple just can’t seem to get enough of one another.
Typically, passion tends to wane in relationships after a few months as the intensity evolves to a steady, albeit more reliable slow burn. As intimacy and trust develop, commitment is established. Both people feel secure enough in the relationship to stop being preoccupied and are able to broaden their focus.
Although passion may wane over time, most still view it as a critical component in any happy long-term relationship. “How to keep passion alive” is a highly sought-after relationship goal. So sought after, in fact, that as of the writing of this article, a quick search yields 71,400,000 Google hits.
Most relationship therapists will tell you that passion in long-term relationships requires the couple to focus on each other. To increase passion, therapists typically advise couples to spend more time together, to share experiences and goals, and to grow together, so as not to grow apart.
A New Way to Create Passion
A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests a fascinatingly different approach, however. The authors hypothesized that to intensify passion, couples need to grow and expand first as separate individuals. They need to experience excitement and develop competence and new perspectives individually. Then they need to bring these newly developed self-aspects back to their relationship. But only to an extent.
In the study, researchers recruited 122 couples who were about to embark on a new phase of life that naturally invites personal growth for many people—relocating for a job. All participants kept a daily diary over a period of 21 days. Each day, participants were asked to log information about:
- Their own self-expansion (“How much did you feel a greater awareness of things?”; “How much did you expand your sense of the kind of person you are?”; “How much did you feel a sense of excitement?”; “How much did you feel that you have a larger perspective on things?”)
- Their feelings of intimacy for their partner that day (“How connected did you feel today to your partner?”)
- Their positive emotions (how “happy/pleased/joyful," "interested/attentive,” and “amused," and "how much fun did you experience today?")
The results indicated that on days when participants experienced larger amounts of self-expansion, they also reported higher levels of intimacy in their relationship. This was in large part explained by corresponding increases in positive emotions—presumably the result of experiencing self-expansion.
This of course makes sense. A person who has a day where they experience personal growth—in this case, perhaps from an exciting new job in a brand-new city—is likely to feel newly invigorated. This person may feel they’ve gained increased insight into themselves as well as what they want out of life. They feel they’ve found the right "fit," and perhaps are now even more optimistic about the future. Naturally, this person then brings home this energy to their partner, who may, in turn, suddenly view them in a new (somewhat sexier?) light.
In a sense, this is no different than introducing other types of novelty into a relationship, as relationship experts often encourage people to do. Two partners who reunite after a day of self-growth are in fact coming back to their relationship as slightly different people. Therein lies the excitement and novelty.
Is It Ever Too Much?
The authors did note one important caveat though. Some participants reported experiencing very high levels of sustained personal growth almost every single day. Interestingly, this group reported lower levels of intimacy with their partners than most other participants.
This again makes sense. Sometimes people’s experiences, including their jobs, truly make them turn into completely different people. Their values and goals change, and they decide they want something bigger and different out of life. A person like this is expanding so quickly that their partner may essentially get left behind.
Together, the results of this study suggest the following: A bit of novelty via self-expansion injects passion into a relationship. However, coming home to an entirely new person may introduce the fear that your partner has outgrown you or that you are expected to “catch up” and change with them. One partner may fear that the other’s experiences outside of their relationship are more exciting than those in their relationship, or that they simply are not needed as much anymore. Likewise, lower intimacy may result from having one’s new self-aspects denied or resisted by their partner. This can lead to unhappiness and conflict.
The results of this study are important for understanding how to nurture healthy long-term relationships. Romantic passion in the context of marriage, for example, is associated with greater relationship satisfaction, commitment, and reduced rates of infidelity (Carswell & Finkel, 2018). Similarly, satisfaction with life, positive emotions, and health outcomes tend to be higher among those passionately in love.
A common misconception is that divorce arises primarily from conflictual and unhappy marriages. Research shows, however, that nearly half of all divorces arise from low-conflict, relatively happy marriages. Instead, studies show that the absence of especially positive experiences, and notably a lack of romantic passion, is an increasingly large reason for why relationships dissolve. Marital boredom, which can be thought of as a proxy for low passion, is one of the main reasons people cite for seeking a divorce. And divorces from low-conflict marriages are actually more likely to wreak emotional havoc on the individual well-being of both divorcees and their children than those from high-conflict marriages.
In short, the pursuit of passion in one’s relationship is more than a fairy tale. It’s an important goal that needs to be nurtured for a relationship to survive. Personal growth makes us more interesting people not only to ourselves but also to our partners. It creates positive feelings that spill over from ourselves to our partners and needs to be recognized, therefore, as an essential ingredient for a happy, long-term relationship.
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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. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000357