Passion and Romance in Marriage: How It Goes Sour

This article originally appeared on Dr. Susan O’Grady’s website here.

Would you choose gelato over non-fat frozen yogurt? Most of us would say gelato, even knowing that it is an unhealthy choice. Long-term marriage versus an affair? Most would choose a good, healthy marriage over a fleeting affair. But that choice depends on many variables. Is your marriage healthy? Do you still have passion, romance, and intimacy? If your relationship has lost its passion and romance, there are ways to bring it back so that it can have the richness of gelato, yet be nourishing and fresh.

Relationships begin with infatuation. A crush is mistaken for love because it is so powerful and ineffable, even though it is fleeting in the end. Romantic love leaves an imprint on the heart and psyche that is hard to shake. When love matures and the romantic sentiment fades over years of managing kids, chores, jobs, money, and family commitments, the memory of that imprint can cause misery as couples feel loss. This is a pivotal point when marriage begins to unravel.

Most relationships begin with gelato, and then evolve into true intimacy and love. With infatuation, you’re projecting your ideal lover onto someone who seems like the right fit, but once the real life intrudes, that projection fades. In a long-term relationship, intimacy develops as you see your partner’s flaws—and he sees yours. And by overcoming hardships together, intimacy deepens. Romantic weekends may be fun, but don’t lead to long-lasting romance and passion unless they are part of a real relationship.

Negative Sentiment Override

Though every partner sometimes has negative feelings about the other, in a deteriorating marriage one or both partners can develop what Dr. John Gottman calls negative sentiment override: “where your bad thoughts about your partner and relationship overwhelm and override any positive thoughts about them. You may start to stockpile your grievances, keeping track of each offense your partner commits. In the meantime, your bad feelings fester and grow.” (Gottman, John, Ph.D., Gottman, Julie Schwartz, Ph.D. 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, 2006.)

With negative sentiment override, disappointment seeps in as a husband or wife increasingly believes their partner is not their ideal mate. This is the time when a relationship is most vulnerable to infidelity. Thoughts of “what could have been” begin to dominate one’s private thoughts; the partner is viewed more and more with disappointment and criticism. The unhappy spouse often keeps these thoughts from the partner. Or, attempts to discuss the loss of intimacy are seen as a threat to both partners, and conversations are avoided.

When bottled-up feelings seek a release, people might seek support from a co-worker or a friend who will listen compassionately. Sometimes when friends get together, the conversation turns to the ways their partner goofed up, let them down, or was clueless, and camaraderie begins—a kind of misery-loves-company partner-bashing. By verbalizing the big and small ways their husband or wife is clueless, inept, thoughtless, inattentive, and dull, wives exaggerate and reinforce these very traits. Rather than relationship-enhancing thoughts, negative thinking dominates, squeezing out all traces of what drew a couple together and the good they created together in the marriage.

Laying the Ground for an Affair

If feelings of self-pity take hold and there is a convenient, attractive co-worker who is also feeling unhappy in their relationship, the friendship can become sexualized as they confide in each other over coffee, lunches, and eventually drinks after work. As meetings become more clandestine, the secrecy provides a dual purpose: it keeps the threat to the marriage from their spouses and it perpetuates excitement, intrigue, and illicit fantasies. This dynamic mimics the excitement they felt with their spouse at the beginning of their courtship when life was simpler.

Couples Counseling

At this juncture, some partners come to couples counseling because either the emotional affair has been revealed or because mutual unhappiness leads one partner to suggest counseling. If the emotional affair has not been revealed and in fact is continuing, then counseling will most likely be doomed. No marriage, with all of its history of squabbles, bickering, and life stresses, will compare with a sexualized companion who listens with consoling, uncomplaining, unquestioning patient attention. Trying to work on a marriage when only one partner is involved (even nonsexually) with someone outside the marriage is like choosing gelato. The healthier choice of marriage, like non-fat yogurt versus full-fat gelato, will lose in most cases. Our impulses to recapture the imprint of passionate love strongly pulls us from what is healthy—an impulse rather than a conscious choice.

Truth and Honesty: Rebuilding Intimacy

As difficult as it is, every relationship must be based on trust. Affairs, whether emotional or full-on sexual, do not have to spell the end of a marriage. I have worked with many couples that, once the affair is disclosed, use it as a wake-up call to begin to rebuild intimacy. But first, they must have the conversations that have been avoided or ignored. In the safety of counseling, many couples will develop the tools to resurrect their love, and while they may not return to the delirium of pounding hearts and fantasy, they will remember that still-present imprint of the love that brought them together.


Has your relationship experienced a sexual or emotional affair? The Gottman Institute is currently seeking couples for an international study on affair recovery. For more information, please click here.

Show More