Do you remember the first time you fell head-over-heels in love? I certainly have a vivid memory of my first experience. It was both emotionally ecstatic and draining at the same time. And it did not end well, either.
The experience of falling in love is formally referred to as romantic or passionate love within the psychological literature. It is characterized by intense sexual passion, raw excitement and arousal, obsessive needs to bond, and unrealistic or exaggerated stories and fantasies about your new partner.
This description of romantic love naturally leads to the key question of this post: Does romantic love fade with time? And if it does, can we do anything to prolong a healthy version of it, over the life of our relationship?
What does the triangular theory of love tell us about the nature of passion?
Perhaps Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love (1986, 2006) and the extensive cross-cultural research derived from it, have generated the most direct and targeted research focus on our passion question. While other theories of love (attachment models) have great value as well (Hazen & Shaver, 1987), they do not focus directly on the passion question and therefore will not be examined in this article.
Before we continue any further, let us take a few minutes and sketch the main ideas on Sternberg’s model and show how it can be applied to our passion question.
Sternberg’s theoretical and research-based model claims that all romantic relationships can be broken down into the absence or presence of three factors: passion, intimacy, and commitment.
- Passion refers to the physical, sexual, and emotional attraction toward your partner. The feelings can be both positive (e.g., sexual desire) or negative (e.g., jealousy).
- Intimacy refers to the warmth and caring toward the welfare of your partner. It includes mutual and open sharing back and forth between partners. At its core is a deep friendship type of love.
- Commitment refers to the preservation of the relationship despite obstacles and difficulties that inevitably come up in the course of any long-term relationship.
Our purpose here is to examine and compare romantic love and companionate love to see if these different types of love can throw some light on this important passion question.
If passion is the keyword for romantic love, then security and affection are the keywords for companionate love. Romantic love includes the passion and intimacy factors but not the commitment factor while companionate love has intimacy and commitment factors but not passion.
Romantic love predicts continued dating while companionate love predicts durable long-term relationships.
In everyday life, there are many possible combinations between these forms of love, but the weight and direction of the three factors do not change.
Passion has a short life, a quick onset and offset. However, it may evolve over time to a mixture of romantic and companionate love. If this evolution develops, then there are many forms of affection, and some levels of excitement that may ebb and flow over the life of the relationship (Sternberg, 2006).
Does passion fade or evolve over time?
To get a clearer picture of the passion question, I am going to examine it from a psychological and biological view, to see if there are some common overlaps about the fading of passion.
The psychological view: Sternberg’s triangular theory (2006) predicts a quick and intense rise and fall in passion while the intimacy and commitment factors develop slowly and gradually over time. The explanation for these different rates is that it takes time to know your partner and thus intimacy and commitment develop at different and slower rates from passion. Passion can be blind, and its rise and fall can be quick. We do not know the dating person well at this point; thus, fantasy and positive idealization tend to run high at the expense of reality.
This research also suggests that while passion is likely to drop quickly there are opportunities for the romantic phase to evolve into mixtures of romantic and companionate love.
In other words, a more blended mixture of moderate passion and affectionate touching and bonding are possible.
The biological view: There is biological evidence that supports Sternberg’s predictions and assertions. For example, cortisol and adrenaline, two of the most important hormones associated with the romantic phase, are also part of the stress response system.
Unfortunately, these stress hormones are unsustainable at high and prolonged levels without damage to the nervous system, as well as other systems of the body. However, over time the body corrects itself.
Once these toxic hormones are reduced in intensity and are more moderate and easier to regulate, other hormones, such as vasopressin and oxytocin levels begin to rise gradually. More modulated forms of passion can continue across the life span of the evolving relationship (Fisher, et.al., 2011).
Vasopressin and oxytocin play a role not only in regulating sexual attraction but also in forms of connecting and bonding found in the companionate type of love (Fisher, et.al., 2011). This complicates the passion question and may suggest that psychological factors may play some role in sustaining moderate levels of passion, even in long-term relationships.
Is there evidence that psychological factors may impact passion levels?
Acevedo & Aron (2009), found that if we can isolate and reduce the more obsessive features of romantic love, sexual attraction and bonding may continue to exist in some degree or form in long-term relationships.
While this finding is interesting, this study does not clearly define obsessive features and is in need of confirming evidence to back up this claim.
Further, the O’Leary et.al. (2012) survey of long-term married couples reports that over 50 percent of these respondents claim that they are still passionately in love with their spouse. These results raise the question of how much of the passion drop is attributed to biological factors and how much might be explained by psychological factors. Both may contribute to continued excitement and affection. These results are far from clear but encouraging at the same time.
However, while this large-scale survey is revealing and provocative, it leaves open several concerns, including whether the study’s participants were selectively biased and gave inflated answers. In addition, the researchers did not ask the respondents to define what they meant by the term “falling in love.” Also, the researchers gave no clear indication what, if any, psychological factors may be in operation. These factors are inferred, but not stated and defined.
A concluding thought to remember
This gap in understanding the interplay between inferred psychological factors and biological processes demands further culture-based empirical research. Present-day answers are conflicting, confusing, and unnecessarily complicated.
Sometimes the best answer is, we do not know at this point what role, if any, psychological factors may play in sustaining passion. We do know with confidence that moderate levels of passion can exist in long-term relationships.