- Relationships comprise the three elements of passion, intimacy, and commitment.
- Some rare relationships have all three core pillars, but many lack one or more.
- Sometimes relationships, which start as purely passionate, have to evolve and develop the other pillars if they are to endure and flourish.
As we all know, love can take many forms. That is because loving relationships are complex. In his triangular theory of love, psychologist Robert Sternberg suggested that good, loving relationships rest on three pillars–intimacy, passion, and commitment.
- Intimacy is the feeling of closeness that we have for our partners; how much we feel “connected.” Partners who trust each other have higher levels of intimacy. Importantly, it takes good communication to develop and maintain intimacy.
- Passion is the second pillar. As you might imagine, passion is the level of sexual attraction between partners. Passionate couples can be consumed by feelings for their partner, a desire to be with them, they think about their partner constantly, and high arousal levels.
- Commitment is the third pillar. It is less emotional and more cognitive. It involves partners deciding to continue the relationship, they believe in the relationship’s value, and they make the conscious decision to avoid looking for other partners.
Because relationships vary in the strength of these three pillars, Sternberg has suggested that there are eight different types of love relationships. By looking at the levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment and the interaction between them, we can determine what type of love relationship we are in:
- Consummate love is the title Sternberg gives to those rare, almost perfect relationships. Partners share all three of the pillars. The couple is intimate, knowing each other well, they are able to sustain their passion for each other, and they are deeply and seriously committed.
- Romantic love is when the pillars of intimacy and passion are present, but there is a lack of commitment. In the early stages of many relationships, there is romantic love–lots of intimacy and passion, but the relationship has not moved (or may never move) to commitment.
- Fatuous love includes high levels of passion and commitment, but intimacy is missing. This is the sort of “whirlwind” relationship where a couple becomes enthralled with one another, and they quickly move to commit, often by moving in together or by getting married. But unless intimacy develops over time, the relationship may be doomed to failure.
- Infatuation is the type of love that is all passion; there is little intimacy or commitment. There is a high degree of arousal when in the presence of the other, but unless the other pillars develop, it is difficult to maintain a purely passionate relationship.
- Liking/friendship is when there is intimacy–feelings of closeness and “s/he gets me!”—but without passion or commitment, this type of relationship is really a friendship.
- Companionate love is when the pillars of intimacy and commitment are strong, but the relationship lacks passion. Early research by Berscheid and Walster 1974 suggested that there were really two types of love, companionate and passionate, and those passionate relationships may become more companionate as the passion in the relationship dies.
- Empty love has the pillar of commitment, but intimacy and passion are lacking. This might be the case in an “arranged marriage,” or when the couple feels as if they should marry in a sort of calculated fashion (“there’s no one else who wants me,” “we’ve been together so long, we have to get married”).
- Nonlove is a relationship where none of the three pillars are present. These are typically brief, casual transactional interactions without emotional depth.
Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1974). A little bit about love. Foundations of interpersonal attraction, 1, 356-381.
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological review, 93(2), 119-135.