On Loves Passionate and Companionate

3 Mar
Cavanagh edited

Sarah Cavanagh’s blog appears in Psychology Today.

In the first installment of Sarah Cavanagh’s blog for Psychology Today, she explored the topic of romantic love.

Her first step was to (gulp) define “love.”

“Early-stage romantic love is often called passionate love, and this love appears to be at least partially distinct from companionate love, or the gentle care that grows in long-term relationships as the intoxication of early love cools.”

She then set out to explore passionate love, since Valentine’s Day was, at the time of the writing, “just around the corner.”

So why am I writing about this almost three weeks after Valentine’s Day, on a blog about community service learning?

The first reason is that, what can I say, I’m way behind.

Then there’s the temptation every blogger faces – to ignore her/his initial focus and start chunking into the blog anything that fascinates. Cavanagh’s blog fits that bill, since I’m a sucker for the social sciences in general, and for people who write well about it in particular. But imposing my random and eclectic taste on a collection of random and eclectic friends … well, that’s what Facebook’s for.

Apologies made, there are other reasons that make Cavanagh a welcome voice in  Serving … the Story. For one thing, she’s part of the latest wave of practitioners of Community Service Learning at Assumption. Specializing in positive psychology, Cavanagh has added 15 hours of service to her current Motivation and Emotion course; students will report on how the service  impacts their own psychological well-being as the service ensues. I’m excited to see the results of her pedagogical innovation as the spring progresses.

Most thoughtful-provoking, though, is how Cavanagh’s above distinction between passionate and companionate love might apply to our personal service experiences. The word “passion,” after all, is overused left and right in the rhetoric of vocation and avocation. In my senior capstone course, students reading Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life? debate the role of passion in making career choices – do you just wait for passion to strike, or go out and try different jobs until that magical click occurs? Of course, when it comes to making a living, people are forced at least to try something – one has to eat, after all. But Bronson’s book is full of people who, security obtained, then repress their restless and discontent, their vague sense that they have betrayed their dreams by giving up too easily. (Some of them, interestingly, turn to volunteer work to satisfy the other sides of their selves, feeling their way to ultimate career changes.)

But when it comes to service, which is voluntary, waiting for passionate love can result in years of doing no service at all. While our drives for shelter and romance drive us onto the interview and/or dating circuits, community service often seems so abstract, we don’t even know where to start. (One hope I harbor for community service programs is that it makes the act of serving feel less alien when people look for ways to feel the gaps in their lives down the road.)

What I most think about, however, is this notion of passionate love as an ecstasy of connection and transformation – the hope that somehow the act of serving is a kind of transcendental and romantic experience, in which one’s own petty problems drop away and one connects to the world in an almost cosmic way, completely at one with the act of serving … and even experiencing reciprocation in the form of a connection with those being served. I do not say this ironically – who, after all, in their soul of souls, haven’t wished for this spiritual high? I’m guessing a fair number of readers have known just such a joyous moment at one time or another – that mountaintop experience so profound, one seeks to take it and bottle it, and hope they won’t dash said bottle on the rocks upon their return to earth.

Such moments have their place. They lift us out of our immediate context, remind us of vaster worlds and alternate realities – ones that could just as easily be true, if we simply choose to act that way, and apply some imagination to how our routines can expand to acknowledge our now broader sense of possibilities.

But as in romance, the work of transforming those moments of joyfully passionate service into something lasting is, I suspect, the role of companionate love – the kind of love that simply shows up every day, week, or month, regardless of the highs and lows of the service experience. The secret, it seems, is in the balance itself. And with that sense of routine, something more lasting grows.

What, however, if the two loves work in the opposite order?

Back in 1981, I trained on a mountaintop of my own – OK, more like a hilltop, in the ruggedly beautiful hill country northwest of San Antonio – as part of a Presbyterian program to send new college graduates to small churches which couldn’t afford to hire their own youth directors. A latecomer who applied only after someone I knew dropped out of the program, I was surrounded by people who had started applying a year earlier, who had systematically jumped through the hoops of the application process – and who knew, to one degree or another, that they had a passionate love for church work. About half would wind up in seminaries; it only took weeks for me to realize that I wasn’t going to be one of them. I fought the feeling that because I wasn’t radiating the same passion, that somehow there was something wrong with me – or with the experience. That somehow either I didn’t deserve the program or that the program didn’t deserve me.

What saved me was, of course, the companionate love of the friends I made during that five weeks of training. (Our leader, Dusti Deaver, made sure to fill our hours with group-building activities, from road-building and meal preparation to parties and, yes, massages.) Those bonds carried me through two fumbling years as a youth directorship – as did my subsequent connections with the people at my new church, First Presbyterian in Portland, Texas.

I never caught the passion for pastoral work – perhaps because the ministry and I didn’t share some of the commonalities so vital to Cavanagh’s description of passionate love. But I stood by my commitment to the church, just as the church stood by me – and, even though I didn’t know it at the time, all this companionate love in south Texas was laying the ground work for all the passionate loves I relish in my life now, from teaching and networking to service and writing this very blog, here in a New England coffee shop that, like so many things, a lost lad of 23 in the Texas hill country didn’t know existed.

So when future students share valid concerns that they didn’t feel what they hoped to feel during their volunteer work, I’ll likely mention Sarah Cavanagh’s blog, and add how sometimes passionate love doesn’t lead to companionate love – sometimes it’s the other way around.

One Response to “On Loves Passionate and Companionate”


  1. On Loves Passionate and Companionate | sarah.rose.cavanagh, ph.d. - March 4, 2013

    […] On Loves Passionate and Companionate […]

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