Psychology continues to struggle with the question of how to define love, and after decades of research, is no closer to the ultimate answer. However, the triangular theory of love proposed by University of Wyoming Robert Sternberg provides a fascinating and useful framework. The triangle here is not a true "love triangle," but instead is the shape used to represent love's three main dimensions.
It’s easiest to understand the theory by looking at this figure. Each point of the triangle represents the extreme of one of the dimensions of love. At the top of the triangle is the extreme of intimacy, which is the extent to which your relationship is characterized by feelings of closeness, connectedness, and strong emotional bonds.
The commitment pole reflects your decision to stay in the relationship. People who are strongly committed to their relationship make a vow to stay in that relationship through thick and thin, and therefore are willing to work hard to keep it going even if the thin outweighs the thick.
Finally, passion reflects the intensity of your sexual desire toward your partner. This desire may take the form of romantic attachment as well as strong sexual attraction and a desire to be with your partner.
Sternberg’s model predicts that as your relationship ripens, passionate love mellows into companionate love. If you're lucky, the flames of passion remain alive, though, and you experience consummate love.
Strong sexual attraction helps spice things up, but more important for relationships to last are commitment and intimacy. The feelings of sharing, having mutual goals, and enjoying your time together in a quieter and more reflective way are what build lasting emotional bonds.
Returning to the triangular model, Sternberg’s theory describes a total of 7 types of relationships:
Consummate (the highest form): High on all three dimensions (represented by a point in the middle of the triangle)
Infatuated High on passion only
Fatuous High on passion and commitment
Empty High on commitment only
Companionate High on intimacy and commitment
Romantic High on intimacy and passion
Liking/friendship High on intimacy only
Now that you have this framework in mind, you’re probably wondering how your closest relationship measures up along these dimensions. Read these brief descriptions, and for each one, see which comes closest to your closest relationship. Don’t peek at the ratings until you’re done:
1. You have been together for several years, still feel very close and connected emotionally, but do not always feel the same passion toward one another as you once did.
2. You have a strong sexual drive and a need for physical and romantic contact with each other, but do not feel very close to each other. You have not planned for your future together, and in fact have not even thought about any form of long-term commitment.
3. You have been married or cohabiting for a long time and still verbally proclaim your love for each other, but admit to having lost much of the emotional connectedness, as well as the sexual desire that you once had.
4. After more than 6 years together, you are as “in love” as ever. You remain close and connected, very sexually and romantically in sync, and are completely committed to each other and to your relationship.
5. You have been together for only a couple of months, and although you feel you have become close and are connected emotionally, you have yet to become passionately involved or think about your future commitment.
6. You are in love and have a strong sexual desire for one another, are very close and connected emotionally, but have yet to discuss any future plans that would include a decision to commit only to each other.
7. You have been together for a while and are planning on staying together. You continue to maintain a healthy and satisfying sex life, but say you do not feel very closely connected where emotion is concerned.
1. Companionate Love
3. Empty Love
4. Consummate Love
7. Fatuous Love
How did your relationship rate? It’s possible that you don’t fit completely into one category, as these are the extremes. You can use that triangle to plot your relationship’s exact point. Higher on intimacy and passion but not quite ready to make a commitment means that you’re starting to move from romantic love and into the consummate region.
This example shows that just as it can be useful to find out where your relationship fits in the triangle, it’s also helpful to remember that relationships are rarely static over time. You don’t have to give up on a relationship that’s fatuous or empty because the relationship lacks either intimacy, passion, or both. At least one study, though conducted on undergraduates (Madey & Rodgers, 2009), suggests that intimacy and commitment contribute to relationship satisfaction. Research on long-term relationships suggests, further, that passion in the form of wanting to be near your partner continues to predict a couple’s satisfaction. You can dial up or down the dimension that’s in need of adjustment by working on that function of your relationship.
If you want to take this even further, ask your relationship partner to take this quick quiz. Perhaps you’ll be surprised to find out that what you think is an empty love is one that your partner finds has more passion and intimacy than you realize. Or you may find out that the relationship you think is consummate is one that your partner finds lacking in one of the three crucial dimensions.
Your partner’s happiness, as well as your own, can benefit from a candid discussion of where you feel you need to make those adjustments. Relationship education, though intended for premarital counseling, can also help long-term couples gain skills and knowledge to prop up their ways of handling communication and conflict resolution.
Psychologists may still not have the ultimate definition of love, but the framework provided by triangle theory can give you a practical tool to maximize the fulfilling you receive out of your closest ties.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Madey, S. F., & Rodgers, L. (2009). The effect of attachment and Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love on relationship satisfaction. Individual Differences Research, 7(2), 76-84.
Sternberg, R. J., & Weis, K. (2006 . The new psychology of love. New Haven, CT US: Yale University Press.