Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.
– Robert Sternberg
Understanding the psychology behind sexual passion is not only interesting academically, but can help us make positive changes in how we take up our passions – sexual and otherwise – in relationships, personally, and professionally.
What is passion, in general?
Our understanding of passion is still evolving. Synthesizing and expanding upon prior work, researchers Philippe and colleagues (2017) describe four defining qualities of passion:
- a strong tendency to engage in a given activity;
- a strong positive connection with that activity;
- an intellectual sense that the activity is very important and valued;
- pursuit of the activity on a long-term basis.
According to contemporary theories (e.g. Vallerand, 2015), there are two kinds of passion – harmonious and obsessive. Harmonious passion is characterized by a high level of autonomy and integration into other aspects of oneself and one’s relationships and pursuits. In harmonious passion, when the object of passion is included into other activities and internalized into one’s view of oneself, there is lower conflict, less defensiveness, and greater flexibility and openness. Those with harmonious passion tend to more easily enter a flow state, and don’t confuse what is important to them with what they think others may be thinking. For example, in harmonious passion, a writer feels simple enjoyment while writing, getting absorbed for longer stretches of time, and handling challenges as opportunities and a part of growing and learning. When writing comes up in other areas of life, it doesn’t cause issues but rather enhances and works with other interests and activities.
In contrast, obsessive passion arises from a lack of integration of one’s passions with the rest of their life. Passion is still enjoyable, and does not lead to distress or pathology, but is more likely to clash. Obsessive passion becomes dominant when we over-control ourselves, and when there is social pressure to pursue activities we are not completely on-board with but for which we do feel passion. Thinking about the passionate activity is emotionally loaded, getting in the way of dealing with other activities which more peripherally involve the object of passion. For example, an obsessively passionate writer enjoys writing, but it is tied up in a tendency to over-think. Ideas about writing are loaded with complicated meanings, often because of a mismatch with one’s own values and those of the social environment. This might happen when an editor and a writer are at odds about style or topic, or a writer takes on for pragmatic reasons projects she does not fully want.
Two kinds of sexual passion
With this dualistic model of passion in mind, Philippe and colleagues develop a model of sexual passion which is based on individual difference, rather than being a quality of relationships. Much of the research on sexual passion has focused on relationships, leaving less clarity about how people individually experience sexual passion. Rather than looking simply at sex drive, or sexual behavior, they formulate sexual passion as harmonious or obsessive. In their research, they construct a model of harmonious sexual passion (HSP) and obsessive sexual passion (OSP). They view both as associated with enjoyment, versus compulsive sexuality, associated with distress. Because they are starting at the ground floor, they spell out the theory in detail, construct and validate a rating scale based on the prior literature on general harmonious and obsessive passion, and begin to work out the core features of each kind of sexual passion, and how they connect with relationship outcomes. In order to do this, they conduct 5 research studies, each of which builds up on the prior study.
Researching harmonious sexual passion and obsessive sexual passion
Study 1: In the first study, they develop and test the Sexual Passion Scale with more than 600 college and graduate students, looking at measures of passion, emotion, flow, sexual satisfaction, and intrusive sexual thoughts. They found that HSP and OSP were not correlated, and so were measuring different aspects of sexuality than one another. They found that men had higher rates of OSP, and those in relationships higher rates of HSP. As hypothesized, HSP was associated with greater flow, positive emotion, greater sexual satisfaction, and less sexually intrusive thinking. OSP was enjoyable and not associated with distress, but was associated with less satisfaction, greater negative emotion, lower flow and more intrusive thinking.
Study 2: In the second study, they wanted to look at HSP and OSP in terms of standard relationship outcomes in a group of 165 students. They assessed HSP and OSP along three dimensions:
- sociosexuality – openness to casual sex;
- relational passion – a traditional notion of sexual passion as happening within love relationships;
- trait self-control – the ability to inhibit thoughts and resist temptations.
They looked at four outcome measures:
- relationship quality;
- attention to alternate partners;
- sexual conflict;
- aggressive reactions to relationship threats.
They found that HSP and OSP correlated independently from each other with sociosexuality and relational passion. HSP correlated with reported greater relationship quality, and OSP with greater attentiveness to other partners and sexual conflict, and greater aggressive response in jealousy. These findings support the idea that OSP and HSP are distinct from one another, and were associated with different relationship outcomes. While OSP is not associated with distress and is still a form of passion, HSP was associated with more positive relationship outcomes and experiences.
Study 3: In this study, researchers looked at whether HSP and OSP were associated with different longer-term relationship outcomes in a group of 192 people. They looked at sexual passion, attachment, psychological distress, and romantic passion, and checked back in with participants 1.5 years later to see what had become of their relationships. HSP continued to be associated with greater relationship quality. They found that avoidant attachment and anxiety were associated with lower relationship quality. Controlling for the other variables (e.g. attachment style, anxiety, distress, etc.), OSP was associated with a significantly greater chance of break-up over time, and HSP with a lower chance of break-up.
Interestingly, HSP and OSP predicted the same chance of being with the same person, suggesting that there may not be a difference in the tendency to switch partners, even if overall rates of breaking-up are higher. They confirmed that neither HSP nor OSP were associated with psychological distress, a notable and intriguing finding given the negative outcomes with OSP. Perhaps people who experience OSP are less aware of the source of negative emotions and conflict in the way they take up sexual passion – future research could explore the relationship between OSP and defenses such as denial and projection.
Study 4: Researchers examined differences in cognitive processing between HSP and OSP in 165 participants. Are attitudes about sexuality well-integrated into other cognitive networks, or disconnected? Are there cognitive biases in how relational situations are perceived and interpreted between HSP and OSP, is judgment skewed in how situations are viewed – for example, in a situation in which a person is friendly but their sexual interest ambiguous, will they tend to see it as sexual? If someone who we are attracted to from a professional setting or class wants to meet up, do we tend to assume they are romantically interested? They looked at various measures of meaning (e.g. sexual and relational semantic representations), passion, and how people bias information processing in an ambiguous interpersonal interaction and in response to sexually ambiguous words. They found that HSP was associated with greater balance in relational and sexual meanings, and sexual meanings tended to dominate and unbalance how relationship is viewed in OSP. Participants rated as experiencing OSP tended to sexualize experiences and saw others as having greater sexual intentions than with HSP. Sexual meanings (semantic representations) are seen as more integrated with relational meanings with HSP than OSP.
Study 5: In order to check whether differences in sexual meaning processing lead to greater interference with thinking about non-sexual areas, researchers measured reaction time in 156 participants over the internet, and 36 participants in person. They presented a subliminal image too fast to see, sometimes of a sexually attractive person, followed by a more slowly presented image of either an artificial or a natural object. They measured reaction time for how long it took to tell whether the image was artificial or natural. They found that reaction time was delayed in OSP, suggesting that sexual semantic representations get stuck, failing to integrate with and spread into non-sexual networks, and slowing cognition for unrelated tasks. In other words, with OSP sexual signals were more distracting and problematic. The higher the HSP rating, the less affected the reaction time. Those with greater HSP remained focused and engaged in the task, while with OSP self-control and focus were diminished in the presence of unconscious sexual distraction.
Rather than considering sexual passion solely as a relationship factor, we can can contemplate our individual style from the point of view of harmonious versus obsessive passion. Do you approach relationships with harmonious sexual passion or are you more obsessively sexually passionate? While those with an obsessive sexual approach do not report distress, this research (and commonsense) suggests that relationships don’t work out as well with an obsessional approach, enjoyment is lower, and sexual thoughts tend to interfere with getting other things done. With OSP, we may over-estimate others’ sexual intentions when we find them attractive (possibly projection), and read sexuality into ambiguous words and scenarios when it is not present. These distortions can cause problems in relationships, romantic, friendship, and professional, and relationships don’t last as long and aren’t as good when passion is obsessive, even though OSP isn’t reported as psychologically distressing. Harmonious sexual passion, on the other hand, is associated with better relationship outcomes, satisfaction and greater integration of sexuality into other areas of life.
Why isn’t OSP associated with distress, when outcomes are worse? One possible factor is unawareness. Future research may look at how kind of sexual passion relates to personality style. Is OSP associated with more brittle coping mechanisms, such as denial, or personality traits such as neuroticism? While OSP is not associated with reported distress, it may be contributing significantly to dysfunction. One of the interesting features of the human mind is that simply becoming aware of things can catalyze change. Noticing the presence of OSP and lower HSP, and the connection with relationship dissatisfaction and dysfunction, can unveil or produce distress where before, there was none reported. It may be that the distress was there, but unrecognized, or that there was distress around bad relationship experiences and dissatisfaction not directly caused by an obsessive style.
It is almost too obvious to note it makes sense to move away from obsessive sexual passion and toward greater harmonious sexual passion, if possible. Doing so would require either a fundamental change from OSP to HSP, or fine-tuning lower HSP to higher HSP. Future research should check the validity of the HSP/OSP framework in other groups of people, how this framework connects with personality and social factors, and what approaches work for changing how one takes up sexual passion so that it is more smoothly integrated into the rest of one’s life, a source of greater enjoyment and less conflict rather than a source of distraction and difficulty.
Regardless, using the HSP/OSP framework to guide self-assessment and frame constructive changes in intimate sexual relationships may lead to greater sexual satisfaction and uncomplicated attitudes toward sexuality, Shifting sexual passion may reduce the potential for distraction and interference from the unwanted effect of sexual activation on information-processing and task performance. The current research suggests fruitful areas to work on: identifying and resolving internal sexual conflicts, recognizing and addressing problematic social influences on sexual attitudes and behaviors, and replacing maladaptive habits about sexuality and relations with more adaptive approaches.