Passion Vs. Comfort: Do You Have to Have Fireworks to Have a Successful Relationship?

Passon Vs. Comfort: Do You Have to Have Fireworks to Have a Successful Relationship?

Passion vs. Comfort. This is a post you don’t want to miss, inspired by a discussion on my (500) Days of Summer thread. Here’s the gist of it. Reader Lori writes:

I have been with a man who loves me, and has loved me, as close as one can get to unconditionally for over 13 yrs…. I was never totally madly in love with him, but he knew he wanted to marry me the minute he met me. I married him – BECAUSE he was a great guy in so many ways, minus the sky illuminating fireworks. Don’t get me wrong, intimate moments were always adequate…even pretty damn good at times. But never, well, you know…crazy great. Almost fourteen years later, I remain married and faithful, but with an empty space in my heart. And wondering if I aspired to mediocrity and lost out on the amazing feeling most of us have felt at some time, of true selfless love. I love him….but I’m not ‘in love’ with him. And that is what has happened to EACH AND EVERY married friend I have, (male and female) that married simply because of the reasons you mention… many have strayed, the others are simply living there…yet nobody’s home.

Because if you take as gospel what she says – “passion or bust!” – you might have a long and lonely road ahead of you.

Everyone I know that married because the partner seemed a great choice, would be a great dad, etc. ended up divorced or unhappy. The FEW couples I know who are happily married – still love to hold hands AND ‘make-out’ – THEY married someone they felt intense chemistry for & vice versa…and of EVERY one of the divorced friends, several who are dating but have not found love, only ONE tells me she made the wrong choice leaving. The rest say they would rather be alone, than with someone and lonely.

Please know, I am not a cynic. I have SEEN & BELIEVE IN great love & marriage, but it SHOULD NOT BE treated as a business decision – it sounds great in theory – but it just brings way too much misery for way to many down the road – you better be pretty damn sure you wanna come home to this person, sleep with this person, and walk on the beach holding hands with this person 50 yrs later…because divorce.. from what I have seen… hurts. And living in quiet desperation…hurts.

Listen, I’m a 37-year-old dating coach who’s been married for less than a year. As such, I’m not going to sweep Lori’s points under the rug or deny her 13 years of pain. She feels what she feels, she’s seen what she’s seen, and it’s perfectly valid. In fact, it’s very persuasive.

However, without negating Lori’s take on things, I’d like to try to balance it out a bit. Because if you take as gospel what she says – “passion or bust!” – you might have a long and lonely road ahead of you. And I’d rather you have a happy relationship instead.

Unfortunately, while I’d like to appeal to emotion (as Lori did), I have to appeal to logic. So first of all, let’s acknowledge that Lori’s working off a small sample size, and, like most of us, she finds evidence to support her existing worldview. Whether Lori knows them or not, there are plenty of happy couples who did not have instant magic and chemistry. I’m in one of them. It’s dangerous to extrapolate from five divorced friends who regretted their choice of husbands and conclude “this is how the world works”.

People who are generally satisfied in life are satisfied in marriage. People who are generally dissatisfied in life are dissatisfied in marriage.

Next, Lori’s making the assumption that every woman who didn’t have that ga-ga, giddy, wobbly-kneed feeling about her husband feels as empty as she does in her relationship. This is not the case either. People who are generally satisfied in life are satisfied in marriage. People who are generally dissatisfied in life are dissatisfied in marriage. This is further explained in “The Paradox of Choice”, by Barry Schwartz. I can’t say what the right reasons are to get married or what the wrong reasons are. Nor can I say whether you or your friends truly settled. What I can say is that it’s really easy to envy others based on what you think they have in their marriage. The reality is often quite different. Yes, even for couples brought together by passion.

A movie called “Serendipity” illustrated this point well. In it, John Cusack envies his best friend Jeremy Piven’s perfect marriage…until he learns near the end that Piven’s getting a divorce. Who’da thunk it?

Envy is always a sin, and grass is ALWAYS greener. Seriously, Lori could sacrifice her marriage to pursue her dream man. The fact that she doesn’t means that there’s something compelling keeping her married – and it’s not simply the kids. I suspect she realizes that even if she doesn’t have the divine spark, being single in your 40’s is no cup of tea, and perhaps a kind husband is not so bad after all.

Reader Sophie follows up on Lori’s comment with this question:

Can you give me/us an idea of how many of your friends you think/know married people they weren’t in love with?… I’d like to know what percentage of people aren’t in love on their wedding day. I don’t want to “settle” but I think it would make it easier if I knew that it’s what a lot of people end up having to do.

For what it’s worth, I think MORE people are “in love” when they get married than not in love. Unfortunately, that “in love” feeling one experiences is often an illusion that masks severe cracks in a couple’s long term compatibility. Thus, being “in love” – what some might call passion or chemistry – is not necessarily correlated to a happy marriage. Doubt it? Look at all the times you’ve felt passion for someone, which, ultimately, amounted to nothing.

That leaves a certain percentage of people – fewer than the passion-seekers – who go into marriage without blinders on. I would guess most of them love their partners – much like Lori – they just don’t feel that THING that makes you feel like you just KNOW. These marriages have a greater likelihood at lasting, but only if these folks can get out of their “grass is greener” thinking. Once they go for greener grass, as Lori acknowledged, they find themselves in the same morass as every other single person – wondering how to find that elusive partner that gives them EVERYTHING, consistently disappointed that everyone’s falling short. If you’d rather be single and alone, well, congratulations, you’ve got your wish.

If you’d rather be single and alone, well, congratulations, you’ve got your wish.

I didn’t arrive at these conclusions from a textbook. I arrived at them as a newly married man, as a dating coach, and as a student of all sorts of dating and relationship advice. In short, I’ve long been asking the same questions that you have. After dating half of Los Angeles over 15 years, I didn’t rush into marriage – and I wanted to be sure that it felt the way it was supposed to feel.

I remember talking to Dr. Pat Allen, author of “Getting to I Do”. When I asked her how marriage was supposed to feel, she held up a blank index card to me. “On this side, you have passion.” She flipped over the card. “On this side, you have comfort.”

“Choose one.”

Yeah. It hit me like a ton of bricks, too. But I got it instantly.

It’s not impossible to have ANY passion with comfort or ANY comfort with passion. It’s that the two don’t coexist easily. The very thing that ignites passion is friction and instability. Once again, look at your past. Passion is usually brief, intense and rocky. Comfort, on the other hand, tends to be softer and more nurturing.

Comfort, therefore, is not nearly as exciting, but it tends to last longer. Studies say that passion usually dissipates in 18-24 months. Which is why people who expect their passion to last for 40 years, in essence, are trying to defy the laws of nature.

In marriage, you’re not making a decision for the next six months. You’re making a decision that’ll last the next 30 years. And just like one might choose different career paths for passion or comfort, people choose partners for similar reasons.

Consider the 45-year-old struggling actress who still thinks she’s going to be the next Julia Roberts. Guess what? She’s not. But kudos to her – she followed her passion, she followed sher dreams, she never settled. She showed them!

I use the Hollywood metaphor because I was a screenwriter in my 20’s. I pursued it for 7 years because I knew that SOMEBODY made it in this town, and dammit, I was as good as they were. Agents, managers, execs, contests and film schools all agreed. But after writing 13 screenplays before I turned 30, and not making a consistent living at it, I made a conscious and difficult decision: I was going to put passion aside for comfort.

Due to some combination of unrealistic expectations, Hollywood fantasy, and human nature, we seem to think that all our dreams should come true.

I could have been the penniless 40 year old guy who continues to take a 1-1000 risk with his life…or I could get a new career. You know what I chose.

I have absolutely NO regrets.

Hey, I admire those who refuse to compromise – especially that tiiiiiiiiny portion who finds both passion AND comfort in work or love. But make no mistake, it’s rarely that simple. Passionate couples fight and divorce more readily than comfortable ones. Successful writers run cold, and are forced to find new careers. It’s easy to envy everyone else; it’s just foolish to do so.

All of this talk reminds me of a favorite Billy Joel song, Vienna, from 1977. In it, he wrote:

You have your passion, you have your pride, but don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?

Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true.

Due to some combination of unrealistic expectations, Hollywood fantasy, and human nature, we seem to think that all our dreams should come true. Why?

Because we want them to. Because we’re good, deserving, people. Because SOMEONE has fantasies come true, why not ME?

I don’t begrudge you the right to your dreams. But at what point do you start to live in the real world, where people make compromises because they’re prudent?

Chances are, you’re compromising at your job – with your pay, your hours, your co-workers, your location, your status, your very career itself.

The alternative to this compromise is called unemployment (or, maybe, self-employment). Either way, it’s a lonely road.

Which is just my way of saying: think twice before you toss out that sweet, generous, good-hearted, loyal, honest partner of yours.

You might think you’ll be happier alone.

I think it’s debatable.

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Comments:

  1. 181
    Ally

    I only meant passion takes the lead over comfort. Consider zero to little passion with a persons  chosen significant other and then that significant other becomes chronically sick or permanently hurt to a point where they cannot provide comfort. Now, what?

    I beleive that passion is the extroidinary and necessary component which fuels the unique and coveted experience of an intimate relationship to begin with. The challenges that accompany passionate love are not exclusive to it. Challenges in relationships accompany “comfort” as well.  The challenges in either scenario both encourage growth as a person which is another leading component of long term intimacy and commitment regardless. Additionally, relationships based on comfort do not work out just as often as ones based on passion.

    It is also highly important that in any relationship a person learns and knows how to comfort themselves for under all circumstances this tool becomes highly necessary in all aspects of life and living. It is actually best to learn this tool before entering a relationship as not to wear down your future partner with excesive neediness.

    Again, I only meant that passion takes the lead. Comfort is secondary IMO.

    In order for me to be motivated to comfort another in an intimate relationship, I would require the unique initial passionate experience to fuel me there. Otherwise I may not be willing to put my SO first since I’ve put my comfort first ( before passion).

    I wouldn’t know how to start a blog so there’s that.

    Why don’t you go into business? I’m sure there is much comfort for the public to obtain through the comforting service of Geisha Girls.

     

  2. 182
    Linda M.

    I think instead of arguing “passionate marriage” versus “comfortable marriage,” we should be defining what kind of love keeps a married couple bonded and fulfilled. Obviously even the most passionate marriages evolve into more comfortable ones, but I’ve found that those couples who report being happy 20 years down the road (and I know several of them) always retain a bit of what I like to call “magic glue,” a chemistry and spark that override the hard times and keep them coming back to one another. It’s the essence of a great marriage. Evan, I think your reply was awesome and level headed, but one thing I resent is your telling Lori that it’s no picnic to be a single woman in her 40s. It’s this kind of sexist, fear-based thinking that keeps women locked into unhappy situations and thinking that it will be impossible to find love elsewhere. Life is “short,” but we are living longer and longer, and Lori still has more than 40 years of life to experience. Ask any 70-year-old who’s been trapped in a loveless marriage, and I guarantee she will tell you that she wishes she left 30 years ago. Please don’t encourage women to make decisions based on fear. Would you be telling a guy that?

  3. 183
    Chris

    The two problems with all attempts to give advice to people:

    1.) Having to make general statements in order not to put oneself in an existential trap (e.g, it’s easier to say no one can have both passion and comfort for the length of a marriage than to say some people do, but it’s very rare, or even some people might have that but I’m not sure). I was just thinking the other day about how we have more interpreters/ critics these days than creators/artists. Everyone is offering up their opinion and there’s no problem with that, but what happens if the ones who should be talking (the ones with the unique perspective) aren’t?

    2.) The creator of this site said he wanted to be screenwriter but after trying for so long he gave up. He also said compromise is necessary in every relationship, meaning that he’s obviously compromising in his marriage. So when someone who compromised in his professional and martial life decides to give advice, there’s almost a conflict of interest. It could be that compromise and going after comfort IS the best way to live, but how can one give objective advice once he/she has taken up a position personally? I’m sure there are screenwriters who suffered (striving to be successful)for longer, but finally made it – now, there a lot of people who try but don’t make it, yes. But the one that does, if you asked her/him whether you should chase your dream, or do something ‘real’, isn’t there more of a chance that person will have something more balanced (she/he may say not everyone will make it, but making it is definitely possible)-or at least more positive – to say?

    How does one have a successful relationship, does anyone know? I think everyone has to take the time to work out what is possible and decide for themselves.

  4. 184
    Monica

    Everyone is unique! For  those of us who may very well wind up alone because to live in a passionless relationship is tantamount to denying the very best this thing called life has to offer: Bravo, for not being SELLOUTS! And best of luck hitting the lotto of true Love!

  5. 185
    Debbie

    Okay, this may sound unbelievable, but I had that passion that lasted for over 20 years, that love that leaves you breathless every damn day, that stirs your soul from many different lifetimes. The one you know is perfect from day one to death! It happened, he died! Now, I am at the point where it seems most are. I have found a wonderful, beautiful man, he loves me, his actions speak louder than his words! I know, according to your opinion Evan, its great! But, how when you have had it all, can you settle? Dont get me wrong, I love this man, just not with the passion before!

  6. 186
    Raquel

    I am confused really as to who would want to be with someone who didn’t think their partner was a 10 about them passion-wise. I personally would not be attracted to someone who told me, oh, I feel about you a “5”. I need and want someone to be absolutely crazy over me for me to be crazy over them. Maybe I am in fantasy land or something, but that’s the only way I’m happy.

      1. 186.1.1
        ScottH

        sometimes the most succinct answers are the best ones.

  7. 187
    say it

    I do not know what you guys are going through. In my area and so many years down the road all I am appreciating is to know the difference between real and fantasy.

    A woman is making me to promise to marry her yet we never had a date. She sounds like its no joke. Luckly now I can tell myself…. She is just fantasy.

    Sadly my life is full of online and texting friends that ended disastrously.

    I have learned a new word here. Comfort.

    So I will seek for real n comfortable henceforth.

  8. 188
    Hazel

    I appreciate that Evan is presenting a logical view of this topic so as to help us gain a more balanced perspective. I really appreciate that he cares enough to want his readers to err on the side of caution. I am in a passionless marriage but I knew also that chasing passion could be problematic, like getting a rock to hit my head with because there is simply no guarantee. The problem these days is how we really see love. Most of us don’t know how to love and even receive love. Some see love as merely encompassed by feeling or that passion and intense emotion when that is not enough. Love is actually an ability and a set of traits that include patience, selflessness, commitment etc. Without seeing love as such, any relationship is doomed to end. Come to think of it relationship is hard work and no person is perfect. In a world that puts premium on perfection, no one can really be good enough. At the end of the day, you cannot find completion and happiness on another. It’s an inner job.

  9. 189
    Hazel

    I come to the conclusion that the foundation for lasting relationship is “mutual” true and authentic  love that is self giving not self seeking. Unfortunately, it seems hard to come by these days when people get into relationships thinking what is in it for me and it is all about me plus the wrong idea of what relationships are for and true love is.

  10. 190
    Christine

    This is an old post but a timeless one, since it’s a question everyone has faced at one time or another.  For me, no, I don’t need constant fireworks to have a successful relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I do have chemistry and attraction with my guy.  But, for the most part, our relationship doesn’t look like one of those love stories in the movies.  For me, love hasn’t been passion, but little, consistent acts of kindness.

    For instance, as silly as this will sound, him giving me a steering wheel cover is one of the most romantic things anyone has ever done for me.  Seriously.  I was grumbling about how hot it was at work, and how we don’t have any covered parking–so the steering wheel gets insanely hot by the time I drive home.  I was just venting, not expecting him to do anything (after all, I don’t expect him to cool off the sun!)  But, he surprised me by immediately ordering a steering wheel cover from Amazon–to insulate me from the heat.

    I loved that more than my birthday dinner, or the Valentine’s Day roses he got me.  I love that he did that on just an ordinary day, without some social obligation to give me something (like my birthday or Valentine’s).  I suppose I loved it because it showed me he cares about me, down to my smallest problems–and how he doesn’t even want me to suffer minor discomfort.

    My relationship will never be made into a movie and it wouldn’t be the most riveting thing for anyone else to look at–but it’s wonderful living in it.

  11. 191
    Diane

    I think a relationship should have the five Cs

    1) Communication

    2) Compromise

    3) Consistency

    4) Chemistry

    5) Compatibility

     

  12. 192
    Mawds1

    Evan, I’m subscribed to you because I like the psychological frameworks that shapes your insights. I find myself agreeing on a lot of things. But not here.

     

    I believe the basic premise of your argument is mistaken. The idea that relationships are either built on passion and chemistry or a sense of comfort and stability is, in my opinion, a false dichotomy that arises because of a misunderstanding of deeper dynamics of the psyche.

     

    There is a basic devide between people in how they cope with anxiety. There are those who respond to anxiety by using the creative centres of their prefrontal cortex to open to the discomfort of anxiety and let it flow through them until they release it, create new understanding and find calm inside.  (See Brene Brown and Kelly McGonigal’s work on vulnerability and anxiety.) And there are those who shut down these higher centres of creativity and shift to the more base programming of their limbic systems, their fight or flight.

     

    For the latter, you are quite right. People cope with anxiety using their fight or flight. Fight triggers the passion that rides on the edge of chaos, is unpredictable and unstable. Flight seeks comfort and calm at all costs, forever moving towards a flatline life.

     

    For the former, calm and passion together are the norm inside one person. In fact, passion arises from a sense of pushing the envelope of possibilities outwards from a matrix of safety and peace at the centre.

     

    Two people who have reached a place of safety and peace at their centre, and have passion arising from pushing the envelope outward from this centre, can create a place of calm and peace and gentle safety together from which they can push envelopes of passion together.

     

    I think this is the ideal everyone seeks. And it’s possible for anyone but requires a lot of inside work and personal development.

     

    If Lori is someone who tends to open to the discomfort of anxiety and let it flow through her until she releases it, creates new understanding and finds calm inside, she is different, at a core level, from those who use fight or flight to cope with anxiety. And she is fundamentally different from the personality types your advice is valid for.

     

    If Lori’s basic orientation to life is to self-actualize, rather than to escape anxiety, she needs to listen to those inner signals that are telling her she needs more. And… she would be doing her husband a favour by giving him the chance to find a better match. There’s no guarantees but it might be the right move for her.

     

    I had those inner signals. I listened to them. Eight years later, I wouldn’t change a thing.

  13. 193
    PKG

    I absolutely love this article.  I’m in a debate with my husband about this issue.  I honestly believe you can have passion and comfort simultaneously BUT they don’t have to be poured into the same thing.  If you’re comfortably in your relationship and passionately pursuing your career that to me is HAVING IT ALL!

  14. 194
    Javier

    So I just spent about 45 minutes reading through the  article and the many interesting comments and points of views.  The passion versus comfort debates and how they both seem to fade over time. Passion fading faster than comfort, but as one poster wrote: over time comfort is not that comforting.    So I will pose the question: Is the real root of the problem th9 fact the we are striving for a sociol construct that is not natural?

    Is monogamy a natural human state or is it a sociol construct?  My initial research indicates to me, that there seems to be more factors pointing toward the negative on this question.

    Historically, various cultures have spent  time and energy trying to regulate and define what is “socially” acceptable behavior regarding human relationships.   It make me wonder if this would be necessary if the idea of life long partnerships are in fact a natural human state.

  15. 195
    Cici

    I needed this. My husband and I didn’t have sex until we got married which was good and bad at the same time. After 3 years of marriage we still are learning in that area. I kinda feel we lack passion however, he provides for me and our children. He is there for me when I need him, he’s not a cheater and he is an honest man. I don’t feel passion at all…. I love him but I do feel lonely a lot. Marriage is work and I will keep working on it. Hopefully sparks will come one day.

  16. 196
    nicole owen

     

     
    I feel like the response was basically to
    settle. I get that passion fades and stability is very important. But if she
    is genuinely not happy in the relationship should she stay just because
    being 40 and single is horrible? OR just to say well at least I am married and
    have a body to lay next to at night.
     

     

  17. 197
    Fep

    This has been an amazing topic. I have read 7 pages of different views, all of them have great points. I do not disagree with anyone here. All of you have valid, reasonable responses. It has been a thought provoking read and I thank you all.

    My career provides me with the opportunity to interview couples who have been together for 20-60 years. I have asked every couple, “what’s your secret”? I have asked over 1000 times so far in my career, both married couples and those in long-term relationships.

    Now, I am not an expert, nor can the responses I received be taken verbatim as scientific evidence, but I can say with confidence, most have said the same things to me (in no particular order):

    1. Compromise: Nobody is perfect. Those who truly love each other accept their partner and their flaws. Now, we are not talking about accepting abuse, or something that could lead to the physical or mental harm of another.  Just they weigh the good with the bad, and are mature enough to understand what can be a, “deal-breaker”, so to speak. Compromise is not necessarily “settling”, its more picking your battles…fight for the major things; don’t cry over the spilled milk.

    I think people take the term, “settling down” wrong sometimes. I believe one should settle down once you find the one, but not settle. Settle means, ok, I’m married, I don’t have to do anything.

    One gentlemen asked me, “how important is passion 24/7 to you, compared to passion once in a while but you have someone who would die for you in a heartbeat 24/7?” WOW…that was pretty thought provoking to me.

    2. Communicating: Talk, talk, talk, and talk again.  Ask for what you want. If you want a partner who will be your kinky, passionate lover years from now, then they need to know what you are feeling. Even if it’s not what you or they want to hear right? I believe in this: you need to communicate.

    3. Work: marriage is a job. You agreed to be together and love each other the same way on your wedding day until DEATH. People I believe forgot that too much, or really truly don’t understand what kind of commitment that entails. Think about it: what other relationship requires that commitment?!? A child? Yes, but it’s easier, because they are your blood; you feel naturally responsible for your children, even then I know many who do not have that commitment for children after a period of time.

    It’s the hardest job both mentally and physically. You need to work on it harder than your career.  If something is broken, you need to at least try to do everything to fix it. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Life events will come up that will test the strongest marriages. It’s how you work on them as a team that makes it last. They say hard work pays off; I believe that is true for a successful marriage, career, etc.

    My wife of 11 years(17 overall together) has told me she loves me, but doesn’t want to be married anymore. I love her more than life itself. She brightens my day the moment I see her to this day. She is my best friend and sole mate.  I will do anything to change her mind, but I know now I should have been doing that years ago. I put myself in this position because I took her for granted. Don’t get me wrong, I never cheated, or physically abused her, however I know I missed she was hurting, and I failed to fix it. I failed to WORK! I accept full responsibility because I ignored 1,2, & 3.

    I found this article because I was looking for answers, something perhaps I could use to help me save what I have lost.

    What I learned is while everyone has differences, only the 2 people who are together can make or break the passion, or comfort. A blog can help, a counselor can help, a psychiatrist can help, but in the end it comes down to two people WORKING on being happy together in each other’s skin , and in their sole mates.

  18. 198
    Cam

    Evan is right.   There is always a compromise in lifelong mate selection.  I was married to a tall, dark and handsome man in my twenties who left me when i had twin girls.  I raised them until age 48 and then started over again, meeting many tall, dark and handsome passion guys, who were also not the whole package, meaning they lacked consideration and caring.   I was on various dating sites and at age 51 came across a man who was my height, blonde and quite shy.  But something clicked and I got to know this man, first forming a friendship and then more.  We have been together a year and I look forward to the next.  We have fun together, antiquing, cuddling and talking for hours.  He is so kind and considerate and as for sex, it is nice to be with someone with whom making love is tender and meaningful, not a full on passion play.  Most of my passion relationships lasted a month, this one has lasted a year and keeps growing.  I learned from Evan’s columns and videos and now feel content and happy in a stable, joyous relationship.  People, there is always a trade off-he is not 6″5 or has black hair but he is the coolest, funniest, sweetest person I have met and I cannot imagine life without him.  Thank you Evan for showing me that love is about the spark and the common traits-the joy of living everyday instead of the weekend date.  Not media driven hot sex but a true meeting of kindred souls.  Some of y’all need to grow up:))

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