Should You Always Listen to Your Heart? Evaluating the Importance of Practicality vs Passion in a Relationship

Not every relationship is built to last. But for those that are, is it more important for them to be rooted in logic or emotional depth?

A relationship can make all the sense in the world on paper, but still lack affection and attraction. The opposite can also be true: you might feel a spark with someone, but for any number of reasons—distance, work, familial responsibilities, or even (gasp) another relationship—external circumstances might make it difficult to rationalize a future with them.

Today, we’re investigating whether college students think with their heads or their hearts. We took a look at students’ responses to the following question from the 2022 Marriage Pact surveys at Northeastern, Boston College, Wesleyan, and Villanova:

“A long-term relationship should be founded in... [practicality…passion]" 

We’ll also discuss why this question matters for compatibility with a member of the Marriage Pact Relationship Science team.

On a scale from 1 (practicality) to 7 (passion), all four schools were relatively split down the middle, with passion having a slight edge over practicality.

pass line correct

With that slight preference in mind, let’s look at what kind of people might lean towards passion over practicality. The more a student values passion in a relationship, the more likely they are to indicate that: 

  • They would go on a spontaneous trip, even if that meant putting off their responsibilities

  • Stability is just a synonym for boring

  • They always take the scenic route

On the other hand, students with a more pragmatic approach to relationships are also more likely to think that it’s more appropriate to wait longer before having sex

This may be because people who value a fiery, passionate relationship also value spontaneity, fun, and excitement, whereas people who lean towards more logical relationships are less likely to rush headlong into commitment as fast.

At each school, there were few clear demographic trends when it came to students’ responses to this question. The most consistent trend could be seen in students of different genders: men consistently responded that passion was more important than practicality compared to their female and nonbinary peers, but the difference in their average responses wasn’t extreme.

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The only other demographic category with a clear trend across schools was sexual orientation. At every school but Villanova, asexual students were the most likely to respond that practicality is the better basis for a long-term relationship. Heterosexual and pansexual students, on the other hand, leaned towards passion.

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Although responses to this question differ slightly by demographic, it's clear students believe that both practicality and passion are important for a relationship. Here’s the breakdown of student responses at each school. 

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As we saw in the average responses for each school, students are generally more likely to value passion over practicality. Nonetheless, a pretty significant number of students at each school (over one third, to be exact) are completely split between the two values. According to these students, their ideal relationship needs to be the best of both worlds: logically sound and emotionally gratifying. It’s important that both people in a relationship are enthusiastically in love with their partner, sure, but making sure they can see a realistic future ahead of them is just as important. 

While it's clear both practicality and passion are important to college students, finding someone who aligns with your specific preference is nonetheless a big predictor of relationship success. To find out more, I spoke with Joy Zheng, a relationship scientist at the Marriage Pact.

Joy explained that a person's preference for practicality vs passion reveals many of their values, including their levels of romanticism, emotional expressivity, imagination, sentimentality, and spirituality. Similarity across all of these domains is important when searching for a compatible romantic partner.

Joy specifically pointed to a paper about Implicit Theories of Relationships, which describes the ideas of “destiny beliefs” and “growth beliefs.” 

Joy Zheng:

“Think of our I believe in soulmates question. If someone responds 7, saying ‘yes, there is a soulmate out there for me’, they have a ‘destiny belief,’ where they believe there exists someone who is perfect in every way for them. This can lead to inflexibility as they expect perfection and there is very little wiggle room for their partner to change. On the other hand, someone with a growth belief is open to the idea that you can be compatible with multiple people. They’re open to growing to love others and can be more open to compromise and feedback.

If we were to apply the same beliefs to the practicality vs. passion question, someone who says that passion should be the basis of a relationship is more of a hopeless romantic, someone who has a destiny belief. They believe that ‘love’ will override everything and that their perfect soulmate is out there. Conversely, someone who prefers practicality is someone who understands the pragmatics of a relationship, that it isn’t just a fairytale sort of love and that there needs to be compromise and effort being put into the relationship to make it stable and long-term.”

We’ve seen that many students desire relationships where practicality and passion are both present in equal measure. However, maintaining a relationship where one person values practicality or passion far more than the other may be difficult. According to Joy, similarity in this domain is more reliable for compatibility. 

Joy Zheng:

“Intuitively, if we think about a growth versus a destiny belief, someone who has a growth belief is going to be butting heads more with someone who has a destiny belief.”

She presents a hypothetical: let’s say we have a couple where one has a growth belief—or values practicality—and the other has a destiny belief—and values passion. During an argument, the growth individual may be more willing to compromise and find common ground. The destiny individual, on the other hand, might interpret the fight as a sign that their growth partner isn’t a perfect match for them. They’re going to be frustrated because their partner holds a fundamentally different approach towards relationships. 

Well, there you have it. Whether you believe that love triumphs all or take a more calculated approach to your relationships, it’s clear that finding someone who wants a relationship as steamy or sensible as you is critical for long-term success