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Passionate Love: What is the “spark” and how can we keep it alive?

Love is friendship set on fire. ~ Jeremy Taylor

Many of us say we’d like to be in love, but have we ever stopped to think what kind of love we’re imagining? Over the years, scientists have made efforts to classify different types of love. Recently, researcher Dr. Barbara Acevedo discovered some good news about one type in particular. “Romantic love,” the kind that is characterized by “intensity, engagement and sexual interest” can last a lifetime. Neuroscientists have even discovered that the brains of couples who experience this kind of love can keep firing for each other the same way they did when they first met even 20 or so years later. Romantic love is associated with marital satisfaction, well-being, high self-esteem and relationship longevity. And though it sounds like it has all the ideal qualities we associate with the thrill of falling in love, there is another category known as “passionate love” or “obsessive love” that many of us experience in the early stages of a sparkly union, but that may be a bit less conducive to lasting romance.

“Passionate love” has many of the same positive features as romantic love, however it also includes feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. According to scientists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson, passionate love describes “a state of intense longing for union with another.” Yet, as Acevedo points out, it also includes “an obsessive element, characterized by intrusive thinking, uncertainty, and mood swings.’” Long story short, this type of love can work well in the beginning of relationships, but can be hurtful in the long run.

Admittedly, it may not be that easy to label the kind of love we’re experiencing when we first fall for someone. That initial passion and excitement we have for another person is precious and often worthy of our willingness to go all in. It may seem arbitrary or unromantic to try to scientifically label or examine something as personal and abstract as love. However, seen as love is at the root of so many of our greatest joys and most crushing heartbreaks, understanding it from a psychological perspective could mean the difference between experiencing it long-term or sabotaging it over and over again. So, while the question of what kind of love am I in may present a challenge, exploring this subject may help us answer the more important question of how can I best maintain my feelings of love and passion over time.

So, what is passionate love?

Many years ago Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Walster suggested that there are two types of love, one that is based more on passion and another that is more about companionship. Over the years, it came to be accepted that passionate love would usually either erupt and fizzle out like a firework or quietly merge into a less fiery, more friendship-like form. This helped explain why couples move on from the honeymoon phase to more of a camaraderie. Along with her colleague Arthur Aron, Acevedo described how the latter form, known as companionate love, though marked by commitment, intimacy, and a sharing of interests tends to be less intense and can lack elements of sexual desire and attraction. Perhaps as a result, this type of love tends to be only moderately satisfying for individuals in relationships. However, the aforementioned third type of love, romantic love, seems to combine many key elements of passionate love but has the added benefit of keeping both partners happy and in love long-term.

Why does passionate love fade?

If real passion is possible in the form of romantic love, then the question arises of why does it so often fade? What are some of the ways we push love away, either by allowing it to drive us deeper into our own obsessions, insecurities, jealousies, etc. or by becoming more scared and distant, less energized, and more routinized in our relationships? We can find some of these answers by looking at three contributing factors that can limit our capacity for experiencing love in our relationships: our attachment patterns, psychological defenses, and the concept of the fantasy bond.

  • Attachment Patterns

Our attachment patterns are established in our early childhood relationships, and they continue to function as working models for relationships throughout our lives. Our early attachments shape how we expect other people to behave as well as how we go about relating and getting our wants and needs met by others. “Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone. “That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship… When there is a secure attachment pattern, a person is confident and self-possessed and is able to easily interact with others.  However, when there is an anxious or avoidant attachment pattern, and a person picks a partner who fits with that maladaptive pattern, they will most likely be choosing someone who isn’t the ideal choice to make them happy.” People sometimes feel a “spark” with someone who fits their early attachment pattern, but long-term, they may struggle to feel close to that person. They may feel flames of passion but lack a sense of security that will allow the relationship to be consistent and satisfying.

Learn more about attachment style in relationships.

  • Psychological Defenses

Our early experiences in relationships, starting with the ones we had with our parents or primary caretakers, heavily influence the psychological defenses we form and often face throughout our lives. These defenses may have been strategies we adopted to survive less than ideal conditions in our childhood. We may have become isolated or reclusive to avoid a needy or intrusive parent, or we may have learned to be emotive or clingy toward a parent who was absent or rejecting. We may have found ways to take care of or soothe ourselves, because we didn’t always feel nurtured, or we may have discovered that the way to get what we needed was to get upset and make a big fuss. These adaptations may have helped us as kids, but they can go on to hurt us in our adult relationships. Oftentimes, when we first fall in love, we are in an undefended state in which we are more open to another person. However, as we get closer, we may experience certain fears around intimacy and fall back to our old defenses. We may become more critical and guarded or become more anxious and controlling depending on our defense system.

In addition, we may even be attracted to people who are likely to hurt us in the very same ways we were hurt as children. For instance, we may be especially drawn to someone who’s more aloof or unavailable or someone who is highly aggressive or pursuing. Unfortunately, we often feel fireworks with people whose defenses fit with ours and who reaffirm old, familiar, often unpleasant ways of feeling about ourselves and others. While we may feel passion and excitement in the initial stages of these relationships, our defenses will often eventually get in the way, as we find ourselves either becoming more and more distant or increasingly pursuing our partner in ways that trigger their own defense system.

There are two ways that fantasy can undermine real love. For instance, if our attraction to someone is based on form or something superficial, we may be drawn to the fantasy of being with that person without having the feelings of deeper love for that person. Falling in love can feel like a dream come true, but it is not a fairy tale in the sense that it has to be based on reality: real affection, respect, and attraction toward another person. Sometimes, people fall in love with the form of being in love, so all the passion they initially feel eventually fades, because it’s not based on substance.

In another sense, fantasy can intrude on relationships even after we’ve truly fallen in love with someone. In fact, Dr. Robert Firestone developed the concept of the fantasy bond to describe an illusion of connection between a couple that is substituted for feelings of real love and intimacy. A fantasy bond forms when a couple replaces the personal relating involved in being in love with the form of being a “couple.” Couples in a fantasy bond tend to fall into routine and forgo their independence, often functioning as a “we” rather than a “you and me.” This bond tends to diminish feelings of attraction and reduce passion.

To learn more about why a fantasy bond develops, what it is and how to challenge it click here

How to sustain passion by engaging in romantic love

Dr. Lisa Firestone advises that we think of love as a verb. Love isn’t a passive state that happens to us, but an active force we have to nurture in order to thrive. If we want to stay in love for the long haul, we have to engage in loving actions. That may mean challenging our own defenses and avoiding the trappings of a fantasy bond in order to remain open and vulnerable to another person. In a recent blog, Dr. Lisa Firestone listed “some essential characteristics that fit the description of a loving relationship. These include:

  • Expressions of affection, both physical and emotional
  • A wish to offer pleasure and satisfaction to another
  • Tenderness, compassion, and sensitivity to the needs of the other
  • A desire for shared activities and pursuits
  • An appropriate level of sharing of one’s possessions
  • An ongoing, honest exchange of personal feelings
  • The process of offering concern, comfort, and outward assistance for the loved one’s aspirations

If we commit to these characteristics as principles we uphold within ourselves, we are much more likely to stay in touch with our loving feelings and keep passion, attraction, respect, and admiration as living forces in our relationship.

When is passionate love too much?

An article on kinseyconfidential.org recently highlighted the effects of passionate love on the brain. It stated that “a person who is love-smitten will often make choices that will seem illogical to others, such as prioritizing the object of their affection above work, friends and family, no matter what the trade-offs.” Citing studies that used fMRI technology to reveal which parts of the brain are activated when people fall in passionate love, the author concluded, “In many ways, the brain scan studies show that the maddening feelings of love are essentially a major mental-health crisis. The chemical storm of brain changes it causes are strikingly similar to drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Love really does make us crazy.”

Other studies have linked passionate love to addiction. A recent study published in Frontiers of Psychology concluded that “individuals in the early stage of intense romantic love show many symptoms of substance and non-substance or behavioral addictions, including euphoria, craving, tolerance, emotional and physical dependence, withdrawal and relapse.”

It’s important to know when the intense feelings we’re experiencing are not healthy or even love per se so much as obsession or addiction. If we’re struggling or experiencing a lot of pain around our feelings of love, it’s important to talk to someone and seek help. For many of us, love can open up old wounds and trigger us in ways that are important to make sense of. Relationships present many challenges, and therapy can help us to understand what’s going on in inside us and to feel more security within ourselves.

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