All of our lives we absorb messages about romantic relationships, like how they should look and how they should feel. While these messages come from different places (e.g., family observations, personal history, cultural forces like movies and media), their effect is the same: They set up expectations for our real-life relationships. The tension between relationship messages and reality is rarely clearer than when we consider the role of passion in relationships.
What's passion's place in love?
Passion is often described as an intense longing. One early model for love segmented aspects of relationships into the three points of a triangle labeled intimacy, commitment, and passion (Sternberg, 1986). Most people want all three of these in their romantic relationships, i.e., consummate love, which is represented by the center of the triangle. Not all relationships are best characterized by all three dimensions. For instance, fledgling relationships are often low on commitment, but high on intimacy and passion (which Sternberg called "romantic love"); other relationships are low on intimacy, but high on commitment and passion ("fatuous love"). The side of the triangle connecting intimacy and commitment, and representing low passion, is labeled companionate love.
Companionate love involves an emotional connection and a cognitive decision to be loyal. For many of our relationships, this is the kind of love we're looking for, such as for close friends, supportive mentors, or "work spouses." But for romantic relationships, people sometimes think companionate love is not enough. In these cases, people might emphasize sexual desire more than emotional longing when considering passion, and might use sexual behaviors as a metric for their relationship's passion.
Can a romantic relationship be healthy with low levels of passion?
Suppose you deeply care for your significant other, but you aren't attracted to him or her. Should you stay in a relationship low in passion, but good on so many other fronts, or leave? Alternatively, suppose you are attracted to your significant other, but you're more like roommates than like romantic partners. You divvy up housework and other responsibilities, check in with each other regularly and support each other, but you do not act on the passion that once was much more present in your relationship.
How do you evaluate these relationships? One approach would be to evaluate the temporal stability of the problem. In other words, if your passion needs are not being met within your relationship, is this a permanent problem or temporary?
Once passion is gone, is it lost forever?
New evidence suggests that beliefs about passion can shape the course of your relationship. The link between low passion and low commitment has considerable empirical backing, but new evidence suggests that when individuals believe that their relationship passion cannot be reignited, low passion leads to even lower commitment (Carswell & Finkel, 2018). In other words, if people believe that once passion is lost, it's gone for good, then lower passion can accentuate a decline in relationship health by driving lower rates of commitment.
Relationships, however, naturally experience ebbs and flows to sexual passion.
For example, dyadic analysis of daily diaries showed that day-to-day fluctuations in emotional intimacy might be tied to couples' experience of passion in their relationships (Rubin & Campbell, 2012). Couples feel more passion for each other, are more likely to have sex, and report more sexual satisfaction in their relationships after experiencing closeness. In other words, an emotional connection may facilitate passion. Meanwhile, relationship conflict or relationship-unrelated stress (e.g., work or family demands) might temporarily reduce the expression of sexual desire within a relationship.
Sustained low passion for a romantic partner could be a sign of other relationship problems; however, it should be viewed in light of the broader context of a couple. A lack of sexual intimacy can be weathered by couples for whom other relationship aspects are going strong; different relationship stages bring about different needs for sexual desire (Birnbaum & Finkel, 2015).
Birnbaum, G. E., & Finkel, E. J. (2015). The magnetism that holds us together: Sexuality and relationship maintenance across relationship development. Current Opinion in Psychology, 1, 29-33.
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, 1002-1032.
Rubin, H., & Campbell, L. (2012). Day-to-day changes in intimacy predict heightened relationship passion, sexual occurrence, and sexual satisfaction: A dyadic diary analysis. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 224-231.
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.