Are You In Love or Are You Lovesick?

Positive Psychology Experts and Husband-and-Wife Team Suzann and James Pawelski Explore Healthy Passion Versus Obsession.

I can’t live

If living is without you

(Mariah Carey, “Without You”)

Many people equate these desperate and yearning lyrics from Mariah Carey’s emotional hit ballad with an ideal form of romantic passion. And not surprisingly! From Billboard music charts to blockbuster films, popular culture perpetuates this notion of healthy passion as an uncontrollable, “swept away” feeling.

However, while an unbridled passion may be every girl’s (and guy’s!) dream, it can be harmful to our well-being and relationships according to Robert Vallerand, past president of the International Positive Psychology Association. He found that an all-consuming or “obsessive passion” is more damaging to a relationship than having no passion at all. In fact, women in relationships with men who were obsessively passionate towards them reported being less sexually satisfied.

Obsessive passion is associated with distrusting one’s partner. People who are obsessively passionate toward their lovers are insecure and are preoccupied with protecting their ego rather than being attuned to their partner, says Vallerand. Additionally, they tend to be controlling, defensive and need to win all the time.           

So does this mean that if we are consumed with our partner in the early stages of a romance –perhaps experiencing butterflies in our stomach at the mere mention of our lover’s name – and can’t focus on our work, friends and hobbies that we are in an obsessively passionate relationship? Of course not. We should cherish these glorious moments and pleasant feelings of a budding relationship.

However, if months and years into the relationship, we still seem to be distracted at work and have abandoned our friendships and interests, these may be signs of an obsession, rather than a healthy love. Our relationship will likely fall apart, according to research, since it’s stuck at this stage and can’t develop.

The good news is that passion can strengthen our relationship but it has to be the right kind. In a “harmoniously” passionate relationship we are in control of the passion rather than being controlled by our romantic desires. A healthy passion leads to a more sustainable and mature relationship.  We maintain a strong overall identity and balanced lifestyle and we experience a deeper connection with our partner.

Fortunately, harmonious passion isn’t an innate quality but rather something we can cultivate resulting in greater intimacy and a more satisfying relationship.

Healthy Habits to Build a Harmonious Passion

Maintain your sense of identity:

Thing back to before your relationship. How did you spend your time? What were those activities that made you feel like you? And who did you enjoy doing them with?  Take up some of those activities again and nurture those friendships so you don’t lose a sense of yourself.

Listen to close friends:

Seriously consider any concerns from friends saying they no longer recognize you after becoming involved in a relationship because you changed so much. Research finds they often see red flags of obsession before we do.

Reflect upon your interests and those of your partner:

Identify something you and your partner both enjoy and do it together since engaging in novel activities boosts attraction. Remember to avoid serious competition, which may damage the relationship. The idea is to have fun connecting, not competing. So if you’re a chess master and your partner can’t distinguish between a pawn and a bishop, choose another activity.

Schedule “Strengths Dates”:

Identify your top five character strengths, commonly referred to as your “signature strengths” by taking the free Via Survey. Invite your partner to do so as well. Choose a strength of yours (e.g. zest) and one of your partner’s (e.g. love of learning) and plan a strengths date, or outing, that allows each of you to exercise your particular strength. For example, a Segway historical tour of your city will satisfy one partner’s sense of adventure and the other’s intellectual thirst. When we exercise our strengths we experience greater well-being.

Carve out daily time to savor together:

Practice sharing with your partner secrets or something good that you experienced personally to build trust and a stronger, healthier bond.

Healthy habits like these will help you build a harmonious passion which is associated with satisfying relationships and will increase your chances of being happy together over the long haul.

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This article was adapted from Suzie and James’s Psychology Today “Happy Together” blogHappy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, written by positive psychology experts and husband-and-wife team Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski, is the first book on using the principles of positive psychology to create thriving romantic relationships.

James O. Pawelski, PhD, is Professor of Practice and Director of Education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Suzann (“Suzie”) Pileggi Pawelski has a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a freelance writer and well-being consultant specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on health and relationships.