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.

Join our conversation (255 Comments).
Click Here To Leave Your Comment Below.


  1. 61

    If that confused anyone, it doesn’t mean that women rank themselves much lower compared to peers than they actually are, but that they often don’t feel attractive. Does a lousy body image lead to worse relationship management? No answer to that is available.

  2. 62

    Great post. It made me think about how many cultures operate in the “arranged marriage” paradigm, and how the divorce rates of such marriages are much lower than those of “love marriages.”

    I don’t mean to advocate for them, exactly, but it’s food for thought. Proponents of arranged marriage will often state that they believe individuals can be too easily influenced by the effects of love to make a choice that is ultimately in his or her best interest. Are they necessarily so wrong?
    .-= Dope’s last blog … review =-.

  3. 63

    RE: Selena’s #48

    I didn’t disagree that your definition of chemistry is an integral part of a relationship, be it amorous or platonic. It is, in fact, a key component. I was just noting that I’m not sure how many people define chemistry the same way you do, as I was one of those who had a completely different definition.

    To answer your question though, if I think someone has the potential to become a friend then I hang out with them. If it goes well, we hang out more. The better it goes, the more frequently we’ll do stuff until I feel close enough to call them a friend. I do the same thing when I go out on dates as well. I will say, though, that the *it* factor with my closest friends was not immediately there, it was built. I take awhile to fully warm up to people and so it takes a little while to fully break out into my inner crazy self when with new people. That’s why I also give [most] guys more than 1 date to see how things go.

    RE: Melissa’s #57

    Didn’t mean to make you rethink your whole life! And you’re right about me sort of thinking aloud. This blog does help me to clarify my thoughts on some of these issues which are quite applicable to my life. A lot of times I don’t realize something until all of a sudden I blurt it out here or read it from someone else’s comments. So, thanks Evan!

  4. 64

    Re: #62

    Could it be the divorce rate among arranged marriages is lower because the cultures in which they are fostered also attach significant stigma to divorce?

    In other words, the divorce rate may or may not predict how satisfying these marriages actually are, but could be a reflection of the couples reluctance to be stigmatized within their religious/social group.

    Historically this has been a factor in cultures that didn’t foster arranged marriages as a norm. You don’t have to go back that many decades in the US to find this. And possibly among some religious communities currently as well.

  5. 65

    That’s not to mention the lack of individual freedom in those countries, especially for women.

  6. 66
    Mikko Kemppe - Relationship Coach

    Re: #48
    The way Selena defines the terms Infatuation, Chemistry, Passion, Being in love, and Being in love in post #40 is how I understand and interpret them as well. Very nicely done!!
    Re: #62
    I think Selena again hit the nail in the head on her post # 64.

    .-= Mikko Kemppe – Relationship Coach’s last blog ….How To Get A Guy To Marry You? =-.

  7. 67

    Selena#64 & JuJu#65, true. In many traditional cultures women are more dependent on their husbands financially and socially. In America (and othe western countries), many second-generation still view marriage as a requisite for adulthood.

    I have friends who are Indian/Pakastani-Americans (second generation) and are happily married to people they love. They weren’t arrange marriages, but their families played an active role in fixing them up w matches, they’d date, and if there’s a click, would be engaged within a year. If there was a click but no engagement by that time the family would either pressure the guy or help/convince their daughter to find a more ‘suitable boy’.

    Are they still happy and will they remain so after xyz years? Who knows? But it seems they have some realistic expectation of marriage, based on their family influence.

  8. 68

    #64, #65, and #67
    My Indian friend said one of the reason arranged marriages have a lower divorce rate in his country is because it is not just the couples that marry – it is a marriage between two families and so there is bigger support, more active investment from both families in making the marriage a success.

  9. 69

    Lori @ 53:

    It looks to me like you just proved Evan’s point a couple of posts above yours. If you’re a 9, the world is your oyster, but you’re still just dating the other 9s and ruling out the 4s and 5s who might actually treat you better than those 9s.

  10. 70


    You brought up an interesting point about family influence. If one grew up with parents who made “a practical match” based on social standing and other socio-economic compatibilty factors, would they be more likely to choose the same for themselves? Likewise, would someone who’s parents “fell madly in love” be more apt to use that as a benchmark in choosing a mate?

  11. 71

    Parents influence based on how they look (that’s called imprinting), how they treat each other, etc. What brought them together would seem to be way down the list.
    A very good-looking man might be less likely to treat a woman well, but a rather unattractive man is not a good match for a very attractive woman in general. Relationships with serious disparities in looks are at higher risk for dissolution. The old wisdom is that it’s better for the woman if she is the more attractive partner. Maybe 9 woman with 7 man is the happy medium.

  12. 72

    One of probably multiple, if not very reliable, studies comparing marital satisfaction in arranged marriage vs. marriages of choice.

  13. 73

    Millionaires and models being the exception, it’s been my observation that people who pair up are more often than not on parity in terms of attractiveness.

    Test this for yourself Mic when you go to restaurants. How many couples do you see where one person is greatly more attractive than their partner? My guess is whatever your personal scale happens to be, you will notice most of the couples fall into the same range of attractiveness compared to each other.

  14. 74

    Joe (# 69):
    I still fail to see what would motivate one to settle for less than one can offer. Good treatment, you say? As though there are no attractive people who are also kind?

  15. 75

    Is passion in a LTR overrated?

    Passion in and of itself is an essential part of human existence; it is what motivates us to live. But passion need not be directed only toward romantic love with one person forever. Passion can be directed toward work, family, hobbies and other activities.

    It seems that one disease (too strong a word, but no other comes to mind now) in modern Western ways of thinking is that one should always feel passion for one’s lifelong partner; or else it is not a good relationship. Far more important is to feel friendship, comfort, enjoyment, and respect. If you have these things, you are fortunate indeed! Passion can be channeled elsewhere. Of course romantic movies and TV shows are enjoyable to watch (and make people think that real life should imitate them), but with all due respect, movies and TV shows aren’t as prominent in showing other types of passion, such as passion for science, literature, running, biking, gardening, dancing, etc.

    In summary, I fear Lori is throwing away a good relationship in order to chase after something foolish that she thinks she should have because society / media / friends seem to be telling her she should.

  16. 76

    75 comments and I haven’t read any yet. I can’t catch up!!!

  17. 77
    Mikko Kemppe - Relationship Coach

    Re: #75
    I agree friendship, comfort, enjoyment, and respect, are all important to have in relationships. But I don’t understand why would you want to channel passion elsewhere and not to your relationship, as if to say you could not have it all? I.e. I believe it is possible to have a relationship where you feel friendship, comfort, enjoyment, respect, and life long passion toward your partner.
    I understand our expectations to have the type of romance portrayed by some Hollywood movies every day is unrealistic of course, but I still think that by up-dating our relationships skills it is possible to maintain, cultivate, and grow your passionate feelings for your partner for a lifetime.
    I understand that not everyone expects or wants that. But I don’t think we should make a value judgment on those who do or does who do not.

    .-= Mikko Kemppe – Relationship Coach’s last blog ….Dating Tip To Succesful Independent Women – Video Blog =-.

  18. 78

    Sorry not to read all the comments (there are too many, lol!).

    I was married for 15 years. We went from passion to comfort, then my ex-husband started having problems with mental illness. I was unable to stay in that relationship.

    My point is: there are no guarantees, there is no way of knowing what will happen and how your mate will change over the course of time. Heck, there is no way of knowing how you yourself will change over the next 20 years.

  19. 79

    I wonder if there is a study (poll taken or one a relationship expert would be willing to take) – that would satistically indicate relationship status after time… divorced men and women – do you wish you had stayed. People married over 5 years – if it werent for societal conventions, finances and kids – would you leave…. anonymous of course – and listing questions such as “was it love at first site” “arranged” “do you feel you settled” “approximate your looks vs mates” all yes/no answers – because as Evan always says – its the ‘rules’ that matter – and statistics dont lie. If there are many people who are very happily married after 10 years – that is statistically indicative. I just dont know that many. And my friends who have professions where they work INSIDE peoples homes and get to know the families – say there are even more unhappily married couples than anyone realizes – who look like the picture perfect family from the outside. Of all the families ive known intimately – i only know a handful that are functional and BOTH (that is key here – BOTH) partners seem content.

  20. 80

    Dammit, came into this one late, but I’ll still get my two cents in!
    Evan, killer post, I have to agree. Choose comfort over passion for your marriages and long-long term relationships. Love what Honey said early on about making yourself happy and being pro-active about “generating” passion. Attraction is very much a skill, and if you can generate attraction, you can almost certainly stoke the fires in a LTR that’s had some great intimate moments. She gave some great examples.
    Unfortunately, for Lori, she’s probably screwed despite our words of wisdom. Notice she say describes herself as being in a state of quiet desperation? That’s a killer, and not something that can be fixed. In her case, I would probably recommend moving on.
    If I was married in a comfortable but somewhat passionless marriage, I would try the polyamory route. Evan’s post is a great argument for it.

  21. 81

    thats funny Lance – polyamory route – there is a self help guru online – forget his name – and that is his solution. Would never work with kids involved. If u are single, or married without kids – anything is game if both adults were consenting. But once you have children -all rules change. I try to be a good role model – which is really where all the problems rest – if you were a child – would you want to see your parents together, tho a mom who feigns any intimate, loving gestures toward your dad (im sure kids sense falsities), but comfy cozy in nice home, with a nuclear family…. or would you prefer to see your mom have a chance for happiness – whether alone or with a new man in the future… but take all the issues that go along with it – one parent relocating, etc. I hear children, now adults, of divorce – say they wish their parents stayed regardless or any issues. And ive heard adult kids of divorce say – THANK GOD my parents got divorced -they were miserable. What it all comes down to in the end is – THINK LONG AND HARD before you marry if you are questioning anything at all. As Chanel said – there are no guarantees – and as i can attest – once you involve children – your not making choices for yourself alone any longer. It becomes an intricate web where every choice you make affects young, innocent bystanders.

  22. 82

    I’m not poly (nor do I want kids) but I have known lots of poly folks and they all believe it’s better for kids to have a stable, loving “community” of more than two adults. Of course, for this to work, it has to be a FUNCTIONAL poly relationship – but then, so many “traditional” marriages aren’t functional, really I don’t see how polyamory would be any more of a negative impact on kids than anything else.

  23. 83

    To add, I think marriages are designed for comfort, family building, and inherently more about safety and stability than passion. I’m sure the 50 year passionate marriage exists, but they’re not the majority. I did recently met a couple who’s been married 14 years and they have an exceptionally passionate marriage (with 1 kid), so that’s nice.
    My system would be marry for the stability and intimacy, fulfill my passionate needs after X number of years (say 7 years) with another partner. My wife would of course be allowed the same.

    Latest from Lance…Couple Use Emoticons To Replace Intimacy and Affection In Their Relationship 😉

  24. 84

    For polyamory to work wouldn’t both individuals have to be in the ‘comfort’ stage? Would someone who was passionate about their spouse by open to this? Lori, do you think your husband would consider the polyamory lifestyle?

  25. 85

    Again, matching on looks is real (e.g., quite common) and called assortative mating on physical attractiveness. Of course some very good-looking people are nice, but odds are that such individuals go off the market quickly and stay off it. With online dating, there are cues to inner goodness, from style to of course what people write about themselves, if physical attraction and scarcity don’t blind the evaluator.

    Lori, all those questions you asked probably have been posed before. There is research on happiness after divorce, for example, and also long-term marital happiness (not a lot of very happy couples). There’s no clear connection between love at first sight and marital satisfaction. Partner-rated physical attractiveness is plentiful in the literature and linked to marital satisfaction, but such ratings tend to involve positive illusions and don’t much address assortative mating on PA, if that’s on your mind.

    Marital Satisfaction and Passionate Love

  26. 86

    Honey- #82-

    I agree that kids need a community of adults. People did have that for a long time with extended families and close-knit neighborhoods, before the suburban sprawl. Were people happier then? It’s hard to say….it depends on whether the adults in the family/community are well-adjusted. If not (and that’s def possible), it’s hell times ten.

  27. 88

    In #84 Lance wrote, “My system would be marry for the stability and intimacy, fulfill my passionate needs after X number of years (say 7 years) with another partner. My wife would of course be allowed the same.”
    Will you discuss your polyamorous intentions prior to getting engaged? What measures would you take to prevent the polyamory from destabilizing the stability and intimacy you’d been building for the previous 7 years?

  28. 89

    Is it wrong to attach stigma to divorce? Is divorce so wonderful and desirable that we want to view it through a judgmentally neutral lense? Is it not, at the very least, nearly always representative of a huge failure of judgment? Should we celebrate failure?

    1. 89.1

      Can you predict whether Apple or Google will be solid stocks in 20 years? If you predict wrongly, was it because of a failure of judgment? Or due to luck? Same is true of choosing partners. People grow, change, their qualities metastasize, or they have find themselves in unlucky circumstances that sap their vitality and attractiveness.

  29. 90


    Wow! 😮
    Yes, of course, wouldn’t it be much more productive to engage in self-flagellation over it until the end of one’s life…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *