What is love?
It’s the question that relationship therapists, psychologists, and songwriters all have on their minds. Love isn’t just one act, feeling, or state of mind. Love can be expressed or felt in many ways. It exists in friendships, partnerships, in families, and in marriages. Despite this one idea being at the center of stories, songs, crimes of passion, and political campaigns, it is hard to break down what love “is” and what makes a relationship a loving one.
Robert Sternberg made an attempt to break down love with his triangular theory of love.
What Is the Triangular Theory of Love?
The Triangular Theory of Love does not suggest that all love exists within a perfect, equal triangle. As you will see, the different aspects of love may appear or not appear in a loving relationship. The idea of a triangle, says Sternberg, is merely a metaphor.
Sternberg's theory attempts to explain what is present in love, how love can be defined, and how feelings of love may change or evolve over time. Ultimately, we all feel love differently, but this theory helps to narrow down the ways in which we approach and identify our love for another person.
About Robert J. Sternberg
Robert J. Sternberg is an American psychologist and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. He has written many books on the subjects of love and intelligence. His most famous theories on this subject all have one thing in common: the number three. In addition to his Triangular Theory of Love, Sternberg has written about the Triarchic theory of intelligence and The Three-Process View, which describes different forms of insight.
Three Aspects of Love (aka Triangular Model of Love)
Let’s talk about these three aspects of love. These aspects may or may not appear in your romantic, platonic, or familial relationships. Sternberg believes that the three aspects of love are intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment.
Intimacy does not necessarily refer to physical intimacy. In this definition, intimacy is more about closeness. If you feel a close connection to a friend, family member, or partner, you experience intimacy with them. This is a good, warm feeling that many of us seek in and outside of romance.
Passion is the aspect that refers to more physical closeness. This is the drive that leads us to be physically attracted to someone and want to engage in sexual activity. But not all motivation or arousal has to be of a sexual nature for two people to experience passion.
Last but not least is decision/commitment. When you enter into a relationship with someone, you may decide that you love them. You may feel a commitment to stick by that person and continue the relationship in the long-term. Not all relationships have decision and commitment. You may decide that you love someone, but not commit to spending your whole life loving them. You may decide that you are committed to having a relationship with someone, but you do not necessarily love them.
Eight Types of Love
We all experience relationships that have one, two, or all three of these different aspects of love. Not all of these aspects are felt in the same capacity, but they still influence the way that we treat the other person or label the relationship.
Sternberg labeled eight different types of love based on which aspects exist within the relationship.
If a relationship is devoid of intimacy, passion, or decision/commitment, Sternberg says the relationship is actually nonlove. One of these aspects must exist for a relationship to have love.
Liking may not seem like love - intimacy is present to some degree, but passion and decision/commitment are not there. You may like your coworker and feel that you can trust them at work, but you may not feel any passion. You may not have decided that you love them either, and don’t want to commit to the relationship outside of work.
Infatuated love occurs when passion is present, but intimacy or decision/commitment is not. You may meet someone at a bar and be instantly attracted to them, but you do not feel warmth or closeness. No decisions or commitments are made, either.
Empty love occurs when decision/commitment is present, but intimacy or passion is not. Maybe you decide to say that you love an estranged family member, even though you have not felt any warmth from them in a long time. Couples who have been married for a long time, and are only saying together for the children, may experience periods of empty love.
Romantic love occurs with the presence of intimacy and passion. Let’s say you start to get to know the person from the bar a little better. Your passion drives a desire to become more intimate with them, and the intimacy continues to stoke the flames of passion. Things start to get romantic!
Companionate love occurs when intimacy and decision/commitment are present. This could be the relationship of two very good friends who feel close to each other and have committed to being best friends in the long term. They act as companions, rather than lovers.
Fatuous love occurs when intimacy is missing, but passion and decision/commitment are present in the relationship. I’ll go back to the example of the person at the bar. Let’s say, instead of truly getting to know this person, you decide to follow your passion and elope to Vegas shortly after meeting each other. There is no real intimacy or sense of warmth in the relationship, but you’ve made a commitment and the passion is still there!
Finally, we come to consummate love, also known as complete love. If all three aspects of love are present in the relationship, congratulations! You have reached a complete love.
Shapes May Change Over Time
The presence or absence of these three aspects is just one way to classify or describe a relationship. Within these descriptions is a lot of wiggle room. The amount of passion or satisfaction that you may experience in one romantic relationship may be different than the amount of passion that you experience in the previous romantic relationship. These aspects may also change over time. We have all seen, heard, or experienced a love story that started out as a friendship. Maybe you did not have the intention of turning companionate love into a passionate relationship - but once that passion enters the relationship, there’s no denying that the relationship and love have changed.
Aspects of love may also fade out over time. A couple experiencing complete love may find themselves engaging in sexual activity less and the passion dying out. They are still committed to each other and have a warmth that keeps them together, but temporarily (or permanently) they just don’t experience that arousal or motivation to be physically intimate.
Dr. Sternberg says that while it can be easy to achieve complete love with someone, the real challenge comes when you have to maintain it. Couples who have been married for years know this to be true. Love is not just a feeling; Dr. Sternberg says that it’s a verb. You have to work and work to maintain the “spark” and the commitment to each other through different trials and tribulations.
In addition to “triangles of feeling,” Sternberg says that love can be experienced in “triangles of action.” Be aware that these two triangles are very different. You may feel passionate toward someone, but if you are not acting upon that passion, that passion may not serve to increase the other two aspects of the relationship.
Define What Is Best For You
When does infatuated love become romantic love? When does romantic love become complete love? What will it take for you to maintain complete love with someone? The answer depends on you. You must be the one to define what kind of love you want to experience and how that love is expressed or felt. We all have different “love languages,” for example, that categorize the ways that we share love with others. For someone, words of affirmation may be a sure sign of intimacy or decision/commitment. For others, words of affirmation are not recognized in the way that acts of service or gifts are recognized.
Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love Today
When Reddit user CarsonF asked, "How much credence is still given to sternbergs triangular theory of love?" many users responded. One user said, "I can say, as a college level psychology teacher - It is still definitely taught in the textbook for introduction to psychology. Not sure about application in the lab or real world though." You can read the whole conversation here.
How do you make your idea of love known to your friends, family, and partner(s)? Communicate! Get to know yourself. Talk to a therapist if you need to. This is a lifelong process that, like loving relationships, may change over time. Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love is a great place to start analyzing and reflecting on how you identify and maintain love in different types of relationships.