How Do I Love Thee?
The Triangular Theory of Love
Throughout our lives, we’ve all been exposed to different types of relationships, both personally and through media. We have acquaintances, coworkers, companions, friends, lovers, wives, husbands, and every combination in between. While all these relationships are important, the people we love tend to have a special place in our hearts and minds.
But even amongst those we ‘love,’ there are a number of different relationships. Some relationships are short, passionate flings based solely on attraction or lust. Others, though lacking in physical attraction, are deep, intimate friendships formed through ongoing interaction and conversation. Others are simple marriages of convenience with a firm commitment, but little passion or intimacy.
Although these relationships might seem to be very different, the people involved might still call the emotion they share ‘love.’ This suggests that we’re using a single term to describe what may be several different emotions. Because of this, it can be difficult to come to a mutual understanding of what the word love really means.
Intimacy + Commitment + Passion
Psychologist Robert Sternberg has described human relationships in terms of three forms of love.
Forms of Love
- Passion (Infatuated Love)
- Intimacy (Friendship)
- Commitment (Empty Love)
Passion is based on aesthetics. We’re passionately attracted to certain people because of how they look, sound, smell, feel and taste. These aesthetic cues communicate information about health, reproductive fitness, fertility, and social status to potential partners. We generally evaluate these cues automatically without conscious consideration.
If a relationship had Passion but lacked Intimacy and Commitment, it would be called Infatuated Love, or lust. This form of love would describe the quick fling or one-night stand. According to Sternberg, relationships based solely on Passion tend to burn out quickly. We tend to be attracted to people who are about as attractive, wealthy, and educated as ourselves (i.e. those who are similar to us).
Sternberg defines Intimacy as Friendship, rather than sexual intimacy. Achieving Intimacy usually requires repeated conversation and interaction over time. You don’t really get to know someone well without spending time together in a variety of situations.
When we engage in conversation with another person, we make both unconscious and conscious evaluations of them. We judge whether our styles of interaction are complementary and comfortable, or similar and conflicting. Does the other person constantly interrupt when you’re talking? Are you always butting heads over who’s in charge? Does he or she give you the amount of respect you feel you deserve?
If all you had with another person was Intimacy, you’d probably be very close friends. However, you’d likely not feel much passion or sexual attraction. If someone has ever told you that they love you, but aren’t “in love” with you, it’s likely that they were talking about feeling Intimacy without passion.
Commitment is a mutually agreed upon agreement. In marriage, an individual consciously enters into a public contract with another person. Even in long-term relationships outside of marriage, the majority of couples in the western world still commit to an exclusive partnership. And yet, without Passion or Intimacy, Commitment is merely an empty agreement. If the only thing you had with someone was a Commitment, without any Passion or Intimacy, you’d have what Sternberg calls “Empty Love.”
Depending on the context, one or more of the three forms of love can occur at different times in a relationship. In the western world, Commitment usually comes after we’ve had a chance to evaluate our levels of Passion and Intimacy. At that point, we’ve hopefully decided whether the other person’s personality is a good fit for our own. In other parts of the world this may not be the case. Arranged marriages are one example of a relationship that begins with Commitment, with the expectation of Passion and Intimacy developing later.
The Triangular Theory
– Robert Sternberg
The strengths of your Intimacy, Commitment and Passion allow you to see where in the triangle your relationship currently sits.
High levels of intimacy and commitment but no passion? You are experiencing companionate love.
High passion but no Commitment or Intimacy? You’re infatuated.
The 7 Types of Love
Sternberg says that this is friendship where one enjoys the company of another but does not feel sexually passionate toward them or indeed feel any long-term commitment to them as one would with a family member.
(Intimacy + Commitment)
Long term romantic relationships tend toward Companionate Love. There is Intimacy and Commitment but no sexual passion. Most people feel Companionate love toward their family members. There is more commitment than in a simple friendship. Feeling companionate love for a person does not stop you being annoyed or irritated by that person. Indeed, that irritation and resentment can often be the cause of the loss of passion. Often cantankerous older couples have strong companionate love for each other even though they argue all the time.
In empty love there is commitment but no passion or intimacy. Relationships where couples are leading separate lives under the same roof. A relationship can slip toward Empty Love when a couple stay together for family reasons.
(Commitment + Passion)
Commitment and Passion with no Intimacy are the hallmarks of Fatuous Love. When a couple fall in love seemingly instantly and marry with haste they will often find themselves in the trouble of Fatuous Love. Without intimacy or friendship the reality of the dream life that the couple thought they would lead can come as a shock. The relationship can still make it but it will be hard work since the couple don’t really know each other.
Infatuation is love at first sight. It’s passion without intimacy or commitment which explains why it can dissapear as suddenly as it appeared. The reality of life with another human being is very hard on Infatuation. There’s nothing wrong with Infatuation as a starting point in a relationship, many relationships start that way but the relationship won’t last unless it can become grounded in some Intimacy and/or Commitment. This helps to explain why our passion cools after a while – it has to in order to enable to relationship to survive.
(Passion + Intimacy)
This is the one we think we all want, passion and intimacy bound up together. Passionate love gives us that sensation of “fusion” with our lovers so that we seem to become one. Unfortunately it isn’t grounded in commitment. As described by Dr Sternberg Romantic Love is a whirlwind of intense emotion and bonding but it can fall apart if the emotional high is not maintained through a lack of commitment or stickability.
(Passion + Intimacy + Commitment)
According to Dr Sternberg this is the “perfect” form of love that can be found right in the center of the triangle. In it Intimacy, Commitment and Passion are all equally strong. This is the true love that can last the whole lives of the couple and allow them to survive the inevitable ups and downs of life. A couple experiencing Consummate Love can truly say that their lover is their best friend. They are true life-partners, committed, passionate and intimate with each other.