We All Want Passion. But Do We Need It?

What the research has to say about passion and long-term relationships.

Posted Oct 10, 2014

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What are the ingredients for a happy, self-sustaining relationship? If support and kindness are there, but passion is missing, can a dating relationship flourish into a healthy and satisfying long-term partnership?

In other words, is passion really necessary for relationship success?

Romantic passion encompasses that powerful inclination you might have to be close to a loved one, the strong attraction to, infatuation with, and desire to be with him or her. It is the force that compels you to be near your partner and the motivational pull responsible for the feeling of missing that comes from being away from him or her.

Passion includes sexual desire, but it’s more than that. Accordingly to Sternberg (1986), passion involves a longing for someone, which can be inclusive of sexual desire, but can also describe the emotions involved in the powerful connection between a parent and a child.

Do you need passion for long-term relationship happiness? Here’s what the scientific research has to say on the question:

  1. Is it really love or just friendship? Sternberg (1986) suggests that relationships can be mapped onto a triangle with its points defined as intimacy, commitment, and passion. Without passion, you might have a relationship high in intimacy and commitment—typically, what characterizes friendships rather than romantic couples. The ideal? A relationship characterized by the center of the triangle—consummate love—which includes intimacy, commitment, and passion.
  2. Passion might affect happiness, but not as much as love. Recent evidence shows that self-reported romantic passion corresponds with couple happiness (Gonzaga et al., 2006). Keep in mind, though, that companionate love (i.e., that warm intimacy between people) is a stronger predictor of relationship happiness than passion. This suggests that both passion and love encourage relationship well-being.
  3. Passion matters in sexual satisfaction. The kind of passion between two people that leads to sexual satisfaction is highly rewarding in romantic relationships, and sexual satisfaction is a strong predictor of overall relationship satisfaction, commitment, and love (Sprecher, 2002).
  4. Too much passion too early? Intensely passionate courtships might be dangerous. They can translate into marriages characterized by disillusionment. A recent study showed that the amount of affection experienced between married individuals who had highly-passionate courtships peaked right after marriage but then declined rapidly over the first two years (Niehuis, Reifman, Feng, & Huston, 2014). But, you shouldn’t feel safe if your courtship is or was marked by weak passion. Such couples also experienced a peak and then a decline in affection. The sweet spot? Couples who have a medium degree of passion during their courtship often are able to sustain affection throughout their relationship.
  5. Passion makes sex a positive factor in relationships. How do you feel about your relationship after having sex? It could depend on your reasons for having sex, which predict how much passion or sexual desire you feel for your partner (Muise, Impett, & Desmarais, 2013). When people engage in sex to increase intimacy, they experience an increase in sexual desire, which leads to greater relationship satisfaction. But, when people engage in sex out of a desire not to disappoint a partner, they don’t experience any increase in sexual desire and the outcome is less relationship satisfaction.
  6. Intense passion during courtship may not lead to marriage. Dating couples who have discussed making their relationships permanent (e.g., marriage) tend to report more “love” than “passion”—and passion tends to be higher in those who have not discussed marriage compared to those who have (Gonzaga et al., 2006). It seems that lots of love and a dose of passion, rather than the reverse, are central features in relationships that transition to long-term partnerships.
  7. People seek passion. A recent publication reviewed research that asked Americans if they would consider marrying someone with whom they were not in love (Hatfield & Rapson, 2006). It found that people today are quicker to say No, and not just in Western culture. It seems that mutual attraction is a key universal ingredient that people seek in their long-term romantic partnerships.

The passion experienced in any one relationship differs from that experienced by other couples, and even within a couple, passion tends to ebb and flow over the course the relationship. The above evidence suggests that passion is important in predicting relationship success, but that it’s not the only predictor. Love, intimacy, and commitment are just as, if not more, important to relationship well-being.

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References

Gonzaga, G. C., Turner, R. A., Keltner, D., Campos, B., & Altemus, M. (2006). Romantic love and sexual desire in close relationships. Emotion, 6(2), 163-179.

Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (2006). Passionate love, sexual desire, and mate selection: Cross-cultural and historical perspectives. Close relationships: Functions, forms and processes, 227-243.

Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Getting it on versus getting it over with: Sexual motivation, desire, and satisfaction in intimate bonds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167213490963.

Niehuis, S., Reifman, A., Feng, D., & Huston, T. L. (2014). Courtship progression rate and declines in expressed affection early in marriage: A test of the disillusionment model. Journal of Family Issues, 0192513X14540159.

Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. Journal of Sex Research, 39(3), 190-196.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93(2), 119-135.

Photo credit:  Pedro Ignacio Guridi

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