Human behaviors are often paradoxical and sometimes inexplicable. A particularly paradoxical, and unfortunately quite widespread, category of human behavior is romantic extremism. Extremism within romantic relationships can take various forms, ranging from behaviors that harm the actor and their close others, such as focusing excessively on the relationship and forsaking friends and family), to intrusive and violent actions that can cause long-term physical and psychological damage to the partner.

Despite the harm these actions cause, those who engage in them frequently claim to be motivated by love. The discrepancy between the allegedly loving motive and the destructive consequence of an action raises a question: Why do people act in extreme ways toward those they love? Why do they risk hurting both their partner and themselves through their actions?

Our answer is based in the psychology of motivation, which assumes that all human behaviors, even those that seem paradoxical, reflect specific goals and fulfill specific needs. This perspective raises further questions: What is the ultimate goal of someone who stalks—or even physically abuses—their partner? What need does sacrificing one's job or hobbies in favor of their romantic relationship address? And what do these seemingly disparate behaviors have in common?

Is Romantic Extremism Motivated by the Need for Significance?

To answer these questions, we drew on the Significance Quest Theory, which proposes that people have a fundamental and universal need for mattering and significance. People need to feel worthy, important, and respectable—that they matter in the eyes of others. How the need for significance is satisfied depends on one's cultural values. Consider, for example, romantic relationships. Within Western societies, having a romantic partner is highly appreciated.  Romantic relationships bestow significance because they make people feel significant to their romantic partner. For people who feel insignificant, romantic relationships must be maintained at all costs. From this perspective, extreme behaviors within romantic relationships such as aggression, stalking, and self-sacrifice represent efforts to maintain a romantic relationship to gain and maintain a sense of significance.

Testing the Role of Insignificance

This is exactly what we found in a set of studies that we recently carried out. More specifically, we ran three studies including a total of 647 participants who were about half female and half male. They were all adults (the mean age was around 28-29 years) engaged in an ongoing romantic relationship for at least a month. Further, in our samples, we included participants with different types of romantic relationships such as "initial dating", "stable relationships", "premarital engagement", and "marriage."  In the first two studies, we used surveys to see if the expected associations emerged. In our third study, we measured the variables of interest at two different times and tested whether feelings of significance loss predicted the subsequent development of obsession and extreme behaviors towards the romantic partner.

People who felt insignificant said they were more likely to sacrifice their own careers, hobbies, and familial relationships to maintain their romantic relationship. This link between feelings of insignificance and extreme self-sacrifice was explained by obsessive romantic passion—that is, people who felt insignificant engaged in extreme self-sacrifice because they focused all their energy on the romantic relationship, to the detriment of other goals. They were also more likely to engage in intrusive and violent behaviors towards their partner in the hopes of maintaining their romantic relationship. Again, this relationship was explained by obsessive romantic passion.


Apparently paradoxical and injurious extreme romantic behaviors served a common goal of gaining significance, even when those behaviors could damage oneself or loved ones. Extremism within romantic relationships arises because people who feel that they do not matter or are not respected aim to regain significance by maintaining a romantic relationship, which they perceive as culturally valued. Unfortunately, these feelings of insignificance and subsequent efforts to gain and maintain significance can have highly deleterious, and even deadly, consequences.

These findings emphasize the need to promote healthy, prosocial significance-granting behaviors, including within romantic relationships. People with healthy sources of significance do not hurt themselves and their partners in order to fulfill this basic human need.

For Further Reading

Contu, F., Ellenberg, M., Kruglanski, A. W., & Pierro, A. (2023). People act extremely toward their amorous partner when they feel insignificant. Personal Relationships30(4), 1293-1315.

Kruglanski, A. W., Molinario, E., Jasko, K., Webber, D., Leander, N. P., & Pierro, A. (2022). Significance-quest theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science17(4), 1050-1071.

Federico Contu is a PhD candidate at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. His research is mainly focused on how humans pursue and set goals.

Molly Ellenberg is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on the psychology of extremism and radicalization.

Arie Kruglanski is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park.  He has served as editor of several scientific journals and as President of the Society for the Study of Motivation. He studies human judgment and decision-making, the interface between motivation and cognition, group and intergroup processes, the psychology of human goals, and the social psychological aspects of terrorism.

Antonio Pierro is a Full University Professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. He studies—among other domains—decision-making, the interface between motivation and cognition, and group and intergroup processes.