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The Power of Passion

I can't live
If living is without you
I can't live
I can't give anymore

—"Without You"

I remember the first time I heard these lyrics, sung by Mariah Carey—a cover of a desperately emotional ballad that equates intense longing with an ideal form of romantic passion.

From Billboard music charts to blockbuster films, popular culture perpetuates this notion that true love is an uncontrollable feeling of being “swept away.”

Though this kind of unbridled passion has an enormous appeal, both in popular culture and in life, “it can be harmful to our well-being and relationships,” says Robert (Bob) Vallerand, Ph.D., past president of the Canadian Psychological Association and the International Positive Psychology Association.

In his new book, The Psychology of Passion, the social psychologist reports an all-consuming or "obsessive passion" is associated with not trusting one's partner. Those who are obsessively passionate toward their lovers are insecure and preoccupied with protecting their egos rather than being attuned to their partners, he says. They tend to be defensive, controlling and have to win all the time.  

Not exactly the stuff of Prince Charming.

Obsessive passion is as detrimental to a relationship as having no passion at all. In fact, women in relationships with obsessively passionate men reported feeling less satisfied sexually and overall, Bob says, despite what popular culture would have you think. 

Of course, in the throes of early romance we may feel distracted and focus on our partners at the exclusion of everything else. We might while away time daydreaming at our desks instead of drafting those important memos, or mentally replaying every word from our most recent conversations. And we feel butterflies in our stomachs just thinking of our partners.

What would life be without these exhilarating experiences? It's healthy to savor these moments. However, problems arise when we are stuck at this stage and don't develop. Our relationship stagnates  and often falls apart, research finds.

Cultivating a healthy passion

Relationships with a "healthy," or what Bob calls a "harmonious passion," are those in which we are in control of our emotions. We retain our identity, maintain balance, experience greater intimacy, and handle conflict better—all of which leads to a more mature relationship, according to Bob’s research.

Fortunately, we can learn to cultivate harmonious passion. Instead of losing yourself in a new relationship, maintain the friends and interests you had before the relationship began. It’s tempting to dive into a new love and forget about everything else in your life, but certainly not healthy for your sense of identity. And when the intensity of an early love dissipates (or disappears), you’ll need the rest of your life to fall back on!

In order to maintain your identity, reflect upon your unique strengths and interests, Bob says. Find something you both enjoy and share it with your partner. Research shows that engaging in exciting activities together increases attraction. And of course, you should try to avoid serious competition, which may be destructive to the relationship, Bob says. The point is to have fun together, not to win.

So, if you’re a chess wizard or your partner is a competitive swimmer, you might want to avoid those activities. This is about connecting, not winning!

Finally, find time to share something good that you experience with your partner every day. This is another simple way to build a healthy passion, Bob says.

And when it comes to those dramatic love songs, perhaps you can look to them for entertainment, not emulation.

Suzann Pileggi Pawelski is a freelance writer specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on relationships and health. She and her husband James Pawelski will present their "Romance and Research" workshop at the 3rd Congress: Spaces of Thought and Action in Psychology in Graz, Austria, as well as at IPPA's 4th World Congress in Orlando, Florida.


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