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Wednesday
Oct242012

Stranded In Barcelona: The Ups and Downs of Passion

A few years ago, I fell madly in love with a guy shortly before he left for a study abroad program in Barcelona. So I did what any rational person in my position would do: I made plans to stay with him for a month, bought a plane ticket, and spent every possible moment chatting with him via Skype until my long-awaited departure. We both grew increasingly excited about my arrival, and when I finally showed up at the front door of his hostel, things were, well, intense (in a can’t-keep-our-hands-to-ourselves kind of way). Things continued this way for a couple of days. But soon we realized that we didn’t have as much to say to each other as we thought we did, and the passion quickly dissipated. Within a week of my arrival, he dumped me, and I found myself stranded in Barcelona. (If that’s not the title of a country song, it should be). 

So, what happened? Where did all of that passion go?

Researchers have long suspected that increases in intimacy (the feelings of closeness and connectedness that result, in part, from sharing information or experiences with someone)—and not simply high levels of intimacy—lead to feelings of passion.1 In other words, when you experience a spike in intimacy—because you had a deep conversation over a bottle of wine or went on a long road-trip together—then passion is expected to spike as well; when intimacy remains stable, passion is presumed to hit the floor. 

Using a daily diary approach, researchers examined whether day-to-day increases in intimacy were tied to (1) increased feelings of passion, (2) a greater likelihood of sex, and (3) greater sexual satisfaction.2 Every day for three weeks, couples completed a brief questionnaire assessing their day-to-day disclosures, feelings of closeness, and displays of affection—all components of intimacy—as well as their feelings of passion and aspects of their sex lives. 

As expected, individuals who experienced an increase in closeness from one day to the next reported feeling more passion, and they also were more likely to have sex (and say that the sex was good). The researchers also found some interesting partner effects—specifically, if your partner experienced a boost in intimacy, then you were more likely to feel more passionate and have sex that day.

But couldn’t things go the other way? Isn’t it possible that, when partners feel especially passionate about one another, it fosters feelings of intimacy? Turns out, it does…but only in certain ways. Individuals who experienced a spike in passion from one day to the next also reported greater intimacy, but having sex did not seem to make partners feel more intimate. Although sex is believed to promote feelings of attachment to one’s partner,3 it seems that sex, in and of itself, is not enough to elicit disclosure or affection from one’s partner.

Not only does this study demonstrate that changes in intimacy are tied to feelings of passion over time, but it also demonstrates that these shifts matter on a day-to-day basis. Basically, if you want more sex—and you want it today—try behaving in ways that draw you and your partner closer together. Share a secret, try something new, or listen attentively as she tells you about her day.  Basically, do what you can every day to stay close and connected to your partner, or else you might end up sexless and stranded in a foreign country, too.

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1Baumeister, R. F., & Bratslavsky, E. (1999). Passion, intimacy, and time: Passionate love as a function of change in intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 49–67. 

2Rubin, H., & Campbell, L. (2012). Day-to-day changes in intimacy predict heightened relationship passion, sexual occurrence, and sexual satisfaction: A dyadic diary analysis. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 224–231.

3Dewitte, M. (2012). Different perspectives on the sex-attachment link: Towards an emotion-motivational account. Journal of Sex Research, 49, 105–124.

Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life.  She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.

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