Defining something as complex as romantic love can seem futile. Despite its ambiguity, psychologists have tried understanding the “how” and the “why” of love. One of the most well-known ones is Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. It gives us a broad overview of the many faces of love and how it impacts our connections. Learn about the three components and seven types of love based on Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. (Estimated reading time: 11 minutes)
“Love comes in all colors, shapes, and forms.”— Joe Cervantes
Last July, I was walking along the Seine in Paris. The sun glistened on the water as I admired the architectural gems that line the river, from the Eiffel Tower to the Musée d’Orsay.
During my stroll, I noticed several loved-up couples along the way. Some were sitting on benches sharing ice cream or a baguette, while others held hands and whispered sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Some were on river boats sipping champagne as they gazed at the passing scenery.
Given that I was in one of the most romantic cities in the world, the scene could be perceived as cliché, but instead, I let it take me down a rabbit hole of inquiry. I contemplated love — that intoxicating, all-consuming feeling that writers, poets, musicians, and artists have tried to capture in their art.
Sufi philosopher Rumi is one of my favorites when it comes to emoting the ethereal nature of love. In his many verses, he said, “This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First, to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.”
Defining something as complex as romantic love can seem like a futile pursuit. Some people believe it’s “love at first sight” or physical passion, while others think it’s based on friendship and a slow-burning affection that leads to a lifetime of committed companionship.
The truth is that there’s so much happening, biochemically and psychologically, that creates a unique experience of love for each person. No matter what your view on love is, its impact is undeniable. It can make us do crazy things and go the distance, no matter how inconvenient it is.
Despite its ambiguity and subjectivity, psychologists have tried to dissect and understand the “how” and the “why” of love because of its importance to our cultures, mental health, and well-being. A few have devised viable theories, each with a different take.
One of the most well-known theories is Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. It gives us a broad overview of the many faces of love, including its components and types. This classic take is one of the many doors we can open to enhance our experience of loving consciously.
What is Sternberg’s triangular theory of love?
With a name that includes the word “triangle” and “love,” it’s easy to mistake this for the dreaded “love triangle”— where two people are competing for the love of a third person and heartbreak is inevitable. But worry not! The Sternberg triangle is a hypothesis that can help us foresee and avoid this sad fate.
In 1986, psychologist Robert Sternberg introduced his theory of love in a paper titled “A triangular theory of love.” His theory states that love is based on three components that form the vertices of a triangle: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment.
Sternberg states that each relationship features one element or a combination, which shifts as a relationship develops. A relationship based on only a single element is unlikely to last.
Here’s a detailed description of the three components of love from the Sternberg triangle:
1. Intimacy: the closeness, bondedness, and connectedness that each partner feels to the other. This warmth and safety you experience result from the emotional investment in a relationship where you both trust and offer support and affection to one another.
2. Passion: this is the fun part of relationships that people covet, both IRL, and in rom-coms and novels. Physical attraction, romantic feelings, and sexual intimacy define passion. It plays a central role in short-term relationships but not so much in long-term connections. This intense need to be with someone does not last because our bodies can’t sustain the highs for extended periods, but it can be transmuted to excitement about other aspects of a person.
3. Decision/commitment: this is the mental decision two people make to become exclusive, maintain the love they share for the long term, and move towards shared goals. It’s the stage where you make things “official,” and your coupledom is declared. It occurs when you love a person enough to spend the rest of your lives together as a unit.
While Sternberg’s theory focuses on the love between two people, romantic or sexual, it can also be applied to other forms of interpersonal relationships, such as the bond between a parent and their child.
Modern love: why is Sternberg’s triangular theory of love relevant today
When the triangular theory of love was introduced to the world in the 1980s, the dating landscape looked very different from what it is today. Not only were social attitudes different, but we lacked the communication mediums that define modern relationships, such as the internet, dating apps, and cell phones.
People dated differently because of the smaller dating pool (no mindless swiping on apps because of FOMO) and were more accepting of the conventional model of relationships. Although open relationships did exist, no one admitted they were in one, and it was kept on the down low. This was the zeitgeist in which Sternberg developed the triangular theory of love.
Yet, despite the change in attitudes and behavior, the theory still holds true. To love and be loved isn’t easy, and the road to get there is not a linear path. The long-term committed relationship model is still the gold standard because studies repeatedly prove it’s the healthiest one for us.
In his 2015 TED Talk, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger discussed what constitutes a good life. On relationships, he said their Harvard study boiled down to one conclusion: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Those with strong social connections are happier, live longer, and have better health than those who are lonely.
Based on Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, healthy romantic relationships should have adequate amounts of intimacy, passion, and commitment. This will complete their love and strengthen the bond. The Waldinger study proves that achieving this winning trifecta is obtainable and worth the search.
Although Millennials and Gen Z choose to stay single for longer than the generations before, they mostly do it for the right reasons.
According to a study by the dating app Tinder, they’re choosing to stay single longer because they don’t want to commit to an incompatible partner.
They also want to ensure they are at a stage in their life where they are ready to invest in relationships and not doing it when they’re growing their careers and still achieving financial security.
In the context of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, it’s clear that younger generations, unlike older ones, are conscious daters, placing more importance on self-development — a key ingredient for a happy long-term relationship where all three love components are present.
The triangular theory of love is a valuable blueprint to navigate feelings and decisions around relationships, despite the shallow and fickle nature of current dating culture.
The seven types of love based on Sternberg’s triangular theory
The three components above interact and create different types of dynamics in a relationship. Your experience of love will depend on the presence or absence of these components.
There are seven types of love based on the combination of the three components in Sternberg’s Triangle of Love model:
This type of love involves intimate feelings of closeness, warmth, and bonding with another person. It does not include passion or commitment. We feel this way towards our friends and acquaintances and other platonic connections.
Infatuated love is pure passion — that intense emotion you experience when you look at someone who takes your breath away. There’s a high degree of psychophysiological arousal from increased heartbeat and hormonal activity. Love at first sight, puppy love, lust, and relationships that are not serious yet fall into this category. Passion does not last very long if intimacy and commitment do not develop in a relationship.
3. Empty Love
Empty love is where two people are in a committed relationship without passion and intimacy. This bond is common in long-term connections where a couple no longer feels for each other. For whatever reason, the love has deteriorated, and there’s no desire. Empty love is common in the last phases of long-term relationships (that aren’t going well) but can also be the first stage of certain kinds of relationships, like an arranged marriage.
4. Romantic Love
Components: Intimacy and Passion
Romantic love is the intense bond between two lovers. Unlike passion, there is a degree of familiarity in the relationship because of the presence of intimacy. This is common in the early stages of connection before the couple has committed to a long-term relationship. Romantic love is also present in love affairs, friends with benefits, and open relationships where commitment is not on the cards for the involved parties.
5. Companionate Love
Components: Liking and Intimacy
Companionate love is the type of love you see in partners who have been together for many years. While the passion might no longer be present, they still deeply like each other and are committed to staying together. The kinship, affection, and comfort from knowing each intimately make the couple more like companions than lovers. Even if the spark has gone, a relationship can last if it has large amounts of intimacy and commitment.
6. Fatuous Love
Components: Commitment and Passion
Fatuous love is the stuff of whirlwind courtships, where two people commit without knowing much about each other. Driven by their passion and an ardent desire to be together, these partnerships often don’t work out in the long run. For a relationship to last, it needs the stabilizing elements of intimate involvement, which takes time. This type of love is often seen in movies and pop culture portrayals of love. Older Disney movies like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty also model fatuous love.
7. Consummate Love
Components: Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment
Consummate love is the highest octave of love that has all three elements of love. While it needs consistent effort and care, it is worth striving towards because of the immense happiness it brings. Couples in consummate love cannot imagine being with anyone else and are committed to overcoming challenges together. To the outside world, they look like the “perfect couple,” who are an ideal match for each other.
How the triangular theory of love can help you know what you want in relationships
Sternberg’s theory may seem overly simplistic, but it is a useful early guide when navigating relationships. Here are four benefits of knowing the triangular theory of love:
1. Familiarizing yourself with the different types of love can give you an idea of what’s out there and help you choose the types that feel right for your current life stage.
2. If you’re in a relationship, you and your partner can work towards strengthening each area and move closer towards consummate love. For instance, if the connection is centered on companionship and the spark is missing, it’s something that they can consciously work on reigniting.
3. The types of love can change as a relationship evolves. For instance, a connection might start with passionate and romantic love and then eventually progress to a state of companionate love. Knowing this will make it easier to view changes in dynamics as natural.
4. It removes the illusion perpetuated by fairytales that perfect love is built only on passion. The theory shows that passion can only take you so far. Without the dedicated effort, shared values, and emotional investment that comes from intimacy and commitment, the partnership won’t last.
There are some caveats to keep in mind when using Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. First, the triangle is focused on feelings and not behaviors. Sternberg says that even the greatest of loves can die if we don’t know how to express love consistently in a way our partner understands.
Second, the triangle does not take into consideration the nuances that are present in each relationship. This leads to limitations in real-life applications. For instance, if one component is missing, the idea that the other two will diminish or are at risk of diminishing seems dramatic.
We also don’t know how much weight each element carries for the model to work. Do we need more intimacy than passion, or should all three components of love need to be present equally? Given that it’s impossible to quantify them, every couple must determine and decide the best balance for them. There’s no one way to love, and it looks different for everyone.
In the movie Titanic, Rose, as an elderly lady, says that “a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” This poignant line does not refer to secrets to deceive others. Instead, her yearning for loyalty, love, and friendship is the secret. When she knows how to recognize and honor her desires, she can unlock and reveal the secrets in her heart to the right person — someone who treats her with the tender care and dignity she deserves.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: If you’re currently in a relationship, what type of love characterizes the bond you share with your partner? If you’re not, what type of relationship would you like to create?
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