Yesterday’s post ended by describing a typical goal — what you hope to get if you want to commit to a relationship, at least concerning passion and attraction: an enduring relationship with lots of passion and attraction, smooth edges, and never fading away.
When you and a partner both reach that goal, many people choose to commit to each other.
In my experience, choosing to commit doesn’t mean living happily ever after with no more relationship work. It means the beginning of a new type of work — potentially deeply rewarding work, but work nonetheless. After all, you don’t find passion, you create it with your behavior and beliefs.
Committing to someone like the blue curve above means you get the high levels of emotional rewards of all the passion, attraction, and Other Feelings you wouldn’t otherwise. But there are risks to committing too, and I’ll describe them through the model.
The three risks I’ll describe I call
- The Gamble
- One Alternative
- Many Alternatives
I’ll write a section on each; two today, one tomorrow. First, a few caveats.
First, I’ll remind you I’m not evaluating any behavior or lifestyle choice, just describing. Since the P-AM plots feelings, not behavior, I’m using it to increase self-awareness to help prepare and choose behaviors and beliefs more effectively, at least to the extent one agrees with the model.
I’m pointing out properties of the system people might otherwise ascribe to their partners and take personally. By system, I mean that the P-AM says the risks below don’t occur because your partner doesn’t love you or doesn’t care. It says they occur because whether we want it to or not, the human emotional system creates some passion and attraction for others and those feelings rise and fall. Likewise, it says you don’t feel more passion or attraction for someone other than a partner because you don’t love your partner or don’t care. It happens because you’re human.
I’ll also note that I’m trying to avoid judging while considering the feelings and actions people might respond with. Many people looking at the situations below might indignantly say “How could anyone think of leaving someone they committed to?!?”
But I’m not endorsing any actions. I’m suggesting being aware of your emotions, especially in complicated yet predictable situations. Emotions motivate. You don’t choose what emotions or motivations you feel. Your emotional system creates them automatically. My goal is to understand and create awareness without judgment getting in the way of understanding because acting without awareness often leads to counterproductive results while awareness often makes strategy obvious.
In any case, I’m only presenting a hypothetical case here anyway. We could just as well apply this analysis to your passion for a hobby or a sport.
The graph below illustrates a major risk in committing to a partner — that after you do, you risk finding another who excites more passion and attraction that you expect to endure longer.
This risk increases the better your relationship skills since they attract other people to you, in particular people with great relationship skills, exactly those most likely to spark passion and attraction.
You gamble when you choose to commit that the peak feelings for the person you commit to are as high as you’ll find. It’s like choosing a wave when surfing — you don’t know how a wave will turn out until you’ve either gotten on it or let it pass. By then you can’t change to a later one or get off this one. I wrote about using this model for choosing, but the stakes are higher here.
The gamble is a great challenge for exclusivity, since the greater attraction motivates (but doesn’t necessitate) moving closer to another person. That’s what attraction means.
A marriage contract or public vows could stabilize the committed relationship by making switching difficult, but might also promote resentment. The high and growing divorce rate in the U.S. suggests this strategy is weakening, though. Having children together, sharing finances, living together, developing trust, sharing rewarding experiences, and so on also create stability in the committed relationship beyond what the Passion-Attraction Model shows. Note none of these things decrease the passion or attraction for the new interest nor increase it for the committed partner. They only increase the switching costs.
Even those who don’t believe in exclusivity can have problems with this situation since the more passionate and attractive newcomer could overwhelm and inadvertently extinguish the committed relationship (note I distinguish between commitment and exclusivity, which I consider different. I commit to being the best friend I can to my friends, but we don’t require exclusivity).
Having fights, poorly resolving conflicts, and other problems would decrease the resistance to switch partners.
As I wrote above, I didn’t write this section to give answers or endorse behavior, just to describe consequences of this model and, if you agree with the model, of being human.
The graph below illustrates the risk of a single alternative. It happens when you meet someone after your passion and attraction to the person you committed to decreased a lot. When you meet someone who excites passion and attraction, even someone for whom you feel less than at your peak with your committed partner, at the time you may feel more for them.
One person I showed this graph to immediately said “Oh, that’s a fling.” Remember, though, the graph only shows feelings, not behavior. It may show motivation for a fling, but it doesn’t show a fling. The P-AM says feeling the motivation is automatic and involuntary. Acting on the feelings is another story.
This graph doesn’t show noise. Meeting the new person while, say, fighting with your committed partner, would make the difference between the attraction to the new person and temporary lack of attraction to your committed partner even larger.
This graph also doesn’t show any Other Feelings, which could more than make up the difference in passion and attraction. If the red curve happens, say, five or ten years into a committed relationship, a couple’s love, trust, intimacy, understanding, and so on would likely count for a lot. On the other hand, short-term passion can be intense and briefly overwhelm subtle long-term feelings. Other Events like children and public vows will also increase switching costs.
Note how quickly the red curve drops below the long-term blue one. Relatively small passions tend to decrease below larger ones, especially of higher duration, especially when you’ve built solid foundations so it fades to something more than zero. This effect suggests a strategy to counter the attraction of a later alternative: build foundations that create long-term passion and attraction.
As the yellow line in the plot above illustrates, short-term passions and attractions like in the red line don’t have time to create such foundations. Nor can lower-strength emotions ones build them as high.
Choosing the smaller peak, if it meant losing one with a foundation for long-term passion and attraction, would sacrifice a lot from your long-term partner, to say nothing of the pain you might cause your partner and the losses to your Other Feelings and Other Events.
Building long-term confidence in your relationships
In other words, the more long-term passion and attraction you build into your relationship, the more confident you can be in it. Building long-term passion and attraction takes work. We already know that the more you put into a relationship the more you get out of it. This helps focus where to work so you don’t just work aimlessly, you build constructively.
Looking at this risk from the point of view of the model suggests unexpected benefits to thinking long-term about your relationships — more loyalty from others and less distraction for yourself and the confidence that comes with it. As I so often write, it comes down to emotional intelligence and self-awareness over merely acting in the moment. When you know how your passions and attractions evolve, you’ll know what you gain and lose with your life choices. As attractive as red option feels in the moment, if you know it will fade to below the yellow one soon enough, you can choose to improve your life most, not just enjoy the moment.
Keeping in mind other factors, knowing how your emotions evolve, thinking about other people, and building long-term value are all major parts of what I call maturity in relationships.
A bigger challenge comes in the form of a big passion that comes later in a relationship, if you haven’t built up much Other Feelings and Other Events, at least if you feel you have to give up the committed relationship to indulge in the new one. The graph below illustrates this case.
In this situation, the passion and attraction for the new person (the green line), though below the committed person’s now-long-ago peak (the blue line), dwarf what you feel for your committed partner and don’t drop that much below it later.
If you sense early on how high the green peak might grow and don’t have much Other Feelings or Other Events, it might make rational sense to switch. This situation underscores the importance to stability and endurance of a relationship of creating long-term passion and attraction and promoting Other Feelings and Other Events. I also believe it helps to remember situations like this happen because we are human, even among people who don’t want them to happen.
Not everyone believes in or practices exclusivity. As far as I know, science finds it nowhere in nature, and not nearly as much practiced by humans as mainstream American society suggests. Those who don’t might look at a situation like this with no problem or even excitement. They might point at my clause a few paragraphs ago, “at least if you feel you have to give up the committed relationship to indulge in the new one” and say “That’s a pretty big and dumb ‘if’ considering how often situations like this occur.”
They might further ask, “if you have enough trust, communication, and a few other ingredients, why would you and your committed partner deprive each other of acting on passion and attraction that would bring you emotional reward, happiness, joy, and so on? … If you loved your partner and knew they loved you and knew neither would leave the other, wouldn’t you want them to be happy, not to prevent it? … If you felt jealous, wouldn’t you do better to increase your trust and faith in each other over limiting your loved one’s emotional reward, joy, and happiness?”
Again, My goal in writing is only to discuss the model and its consequences, not to evaluate the morality of acting on it. Mainstream America’s puritanical heritage makes productively discussing non-exclusivity in this country challenging for many. Other cultures seem to view non-exclusivity more liberally though I haven’t lived elsewhere enough to know other cultures nearly as well.
Tomorrow I’ll write about the third risk.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees