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Poets and philosophers, singers and scientists: they’ve all had a crack at explaining how and why we fall in a little thing called love. Among the many interesting takes is one from Professor Robert J Sternberg. His theory – known as the Triangular Theory of Love – says that, actually, there isn’t just one definitive thing we can call ‘love’. In fact, there are seven different types of love…
An Overview of Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love
Robert J Sternberg is a renowned psychologist and professor of human development at Cornell University. Over his career, he’s developed many ideas about human interaction, and one of the most enduring is the Triangular Theory of Love, developed during his time teaching at Yale.
So, what is the Triangular Theory of Love? In a nutshell, it’s a theory that says there are three components at the heart of all human relationships: commitment, passion, and intimacy. Taken on their own, or put together in different combinations, they form seven different versions of love.
The three most basic versions of love come from these components taken on their own: where there’s just commitment, you get Empty Love; where there’s nothing but the passion you get Infatuation; and where there’s only intimacy you end up with Liking. As Sternberg puts it, these three types of love form the three points of a triangle.
Three more complex forms of love form when you start combining the different components: commitment mixed with passion forms Fatuous Love; passion combined with intimacy forms Romantic Love, and intimacy plus commitment forms Companionate Love. These are the sides of the triangle.
Finally, we get to the center of the triangle and the final form of love: Consummate Love. Formed by combining passion, intimacy, and commitment, this is considered by Sternberg to be the ideal form of love, and the key to unlocking a healthy relationship. Interestingly, Sternberg says that love can still be Consummate, no matter what proportion of each component you have (i.e. there is no need for the triangle to be equilateral). The important thing is that a Consummate Love relationship needs at least an element of commitment and passion and intimacy.
The Triangular Theory of Love Infographic
If you’re not already familiar with the Triangular Theory of Love, or with the explanations behind the Seven Types of Love, the above is interesting – but it can all sound a bit jargon-y. So, we dove deeper and discovered what terms like ‘Fatuous Love,’ ‘Romantic Love’, and ‘Consummate Love’ actually mean.
Empty Love [Commitment]
Commitment gives you a sense of belonging with another person, and it is a vital part of a lasting relationship. Yet, when it’s just commitment alone, it can feel like your relationship has more to do with duty than with love. Without the fire of passion or the closeness of intimacy, you’re left with the point on the triangle deemed Empty Love. It’s common for marriages that end in divorce to pass through Empty Love first, but it’s not always so final: arranged marriages often go the other way, beginning with commitment and working up to a more a complex love.
Passion. It’s the butterflies in the stomach, it’s the feeling of not being able to eat or sleep for thinking of another person, it’s the zest that makes a relationship feel special. However, passion on its own leads to shallow love. Without the mutual support that comes from commitment and the deep knowledge that intimacy brings, you’re left with a feeling most often described as Infatuation.
The seven types of love aren’t exclusively for romantic relationships. An example is intimacy – when present on its own, it’s far more likely to be applied to a close friendship than a lasting romance. That’s doesn’t dull its importance; as the component that helps you truly know a loved one, it’s responsible for you feeling like you can be yourself in someone’s company. However, without passion’s physicality, nor commitment’s promises, it’s most likely to be a platonic relationship, aka Liking.
Fatuous Love [Commitment & Passion]
Combine any two of the three simplest kinds of love and you get one of the more complex types that form the sides of the triangle. First up: Fatuous Love, the love formed by combining the heat of passion and the steadfastness of commitment. With this love, you desire the person and you’ve made a promise to them – but you don’t know them that well. Often, this is the type of romance that can’t last yet it’s also difficult to break up, which means (unsurprisingly), examples of Fatuous Love in action can be seen at many Vegas wedding chapels!
Romantic Love [Passion & Intimacy]
Another side of the triangle is Romantic Love – the love of teenage dreams, romance novels, and, interestingly, most new relationships. It’s that part of a relationship when you’re first falling in love with someone when you can’t keep your hands off each other (passion) and you want to spend all your time together, learning everything there is to know about the other person (intimacy). It’s a wonderful feeling – but, to become long-lasting, Consummate Love, it needs an element of commitment too. Without that sense of loyalty, most Romantic Love relationships eventually just burn out.
Companionate Love [Intimacy & Commitment]
Where Romantic Love lives for drama, the third side of the triangle – Companionate Love – is far more mellow. This is a very supportive love, often formed when a couple’s closeness is based on years of shared intimacy and commitment. The passion may be waning, which is why Companionate Love relationships often lack a physical element, but this isn’t necessarily a signal of the end. In fact, Sternberg himself emphasizes that most long-term relationships have a Companionate stage.
Consummate Love [Commitment & Passion & Intimacy]
And so we come to the seventh type of love, which many views as the ideal: Consummate Love. Now, it’s important to note that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about any of the other six types of love. In fact, over the course of a typical relationship, you’re likely to experience at least one of these forms of romance. It’s also important to note that a relationship’s type isn’t fixed – the Triangle of Love Theory says that love can shift around from point to point over time.
Yet, if you’re after ‘true’ love, Consummate Love is the most likely match.
That’s because Consummate Love combines the trust of commitment with the thrill of passion and the closeness of intimacy. With all three components present, this is the type of love that’s worth looking for (or, perhaps, trying to recover). It forms a togetherness that’s hard to shake; it’s the kind of love that means you remain happy and adoring in each other’s company year after year. And, happily, it’s the kind of grand love that it’s never too late to find.
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