Relationships are complex, and they become even more so as we age and (hopefully) mature. There are two types of relationships that happen in our early twenties. One (all of mine) goes something like this: drink, mess around, get to know them, mess around some more, get drunk, mess around with someone else. Then there are the people who meet and then spend every minute of every day together until suddenly, they have been dating for 3 years and are dressing alike and finishing each other’s sentences. Those couples have always made me uneasy. They’ve made me uneasy because it seemed like a shame that they had settled into such a lull at such a young age. In my young world, that comfort shouldn’t hit until about retirement age, when I imagined you weren’t still having sex anyway. Being young meant passion.
Now that I am in my thirties, most of my couple friends are in that comfortable lull, but it seems more expected somehow. You can’t be running around having fun when your mortgage depends on your job. You could have sex whenever, but that would mean missing American Idol. You can (in theory) have sex anytime. American Idol is only on, what, 4 times a week? And most of them are happy with this scenario. It seems like the expected turn of events when couples settle into their relationships and into their lives. So what is lost and what is gained when the compassionate relationship replaces the passionate relationship?
The thing about passion is that it is amazing and torturous and fantastic. Anything you would normally feel is elevated to the intensity of a Spanish soap opera, yet it doesn’t seem foolish at all. You will say things and do things in the heat of the moment that, if you stepped outside yourself for just a moment, would make you want to die of cliché mortification. Yet, in the moment, it seems intuitive. That is what passion does, it makes us react, and gives us license to react however we feel, regardless of the damage we are doing to the other person or to ourselves. Passion is not always a gentle kind of love. It can be, but it can also be cruel, sensual, angry, tragic and euphoric. And this is the draw.
The one thing that passion will never be is boring. If you are in a passionate relationship that becomes mundane, there is a good chance that you will find that what made you passionate about this person did not necessarily make them a good partner in a relationship, but they made you feel alive and they made you feel intensely. Passion is a powerful drug.
To keep that passion alive, you need to keep all of the elements alive, and that can often include equal amounts (and extreme amounts) of love and pain. Sometimes, in order to love someone intensely, we need to feel the pain of losing them, of hating them, of wanting to destroy them as strongly as we want to keep them, love them and protect them like no other can. Passion in this sense is a battle and it taps into some of our most primal, least “civilized” instincts. It makes us act like selfish animals, and though it is difficult to admit, that feels good sometimes.
But can this type of passion ever be called love? The euphoria you feel in these types of passionate relationships is the kind that is romanticized in movies and books. It is portrayed as the type of passion that we are to pursue, that which is going to make us feel alive. And it does. It also makes us feel, in turn, crushed, degraded, worshipped, in control and helpless. It takes logic and principles and chucks them out the window in favor of lust and hedonism.
Everyone needs at least one relationship like this in the course of their love life. But how does this passion hold up in the long run?
The compassionate relationship is the one that made me shudder in my younger years. It is the respectful relationship, the one that puts the “us” above the “me.” To those who are drawn to the passion, it exudes complacency, boredom and stasis. To those who are in a compassionate relationship, it means security (financial and emotional), respect and a life plan with a sidekick to help carry it out.
Are passionate and compassionate love mutually exclusive, however? Can a passionate couple, born of tragedy and drama, evolve into the compassionate couple? I’ll tell you a secret: I have seen it done. Compassionate relationships seem to emerge from all sorts of pairings: from passionate flings to arranged marriages; shotgun weddings to train wreck couples. The important question in gauging the success of such a relationship transition seems to be the conscious choice on both parties’ behalf to want to make this change.
This is a change that will probably come about naturally in any mature relationship that lasts an extended period of time (unless it is one of those on-again, off-again relationships that are maintained in the new-relationship dynamic with the drama of constantly breaking up and making up). Whether the relationship will survive in this compassionate zone depends partially on the level of awareness that this is a new phase of the relationship (one that is inevitable if you are going to be together for a while). And something new often necessitates the loss of something else.
Usually couples who are going to succeed enter the compassionate phase of the relationship recognizing that it isn’t the good stuff ending, it is just the good stuff changing form. If you (or your partner) wake up one day and suddenly find yourself in this type of relationship without being aware of how you got there, some panic will set in and you need to decide what you want. Compassionate love is only about complacency if you don’t choose it.
All of this is not to say that passion will be dead in your relationship. But it will change. It will become a task to keep it alive, and the old tactics of pain and anger are going to get pretty exhausting and less forgivable after a certain amount of time together. They will become less about the passion game and more about the long term effects on the relationship. Compassionate love is about respect and mutual goals, as well as love and companionship and physical intimacy. It is the point where these things intersect, and when you are ready for it, you can take care to make sure that none of the good stuff is sacrificed in the name of comfort.