What Is Sternberg's Triangular Theory Of Love?

Updated August 25, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Love is a complex human emotion that psychologists have studied for a long time, and many theories have come to light as a result. One such theory is known as Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love. This isn't to be confused with a love triangle, which is when two people are fighting for another person's affection. In this post, we'll explain more about the triangular theory of love and how it can help improve aspects of your own relationship.

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Who Is Sternberg?

Robert Sternberg is a psychologist who has studied many aspects of human psychology including intelligence, wisdom, thinking patterns, leadership, hatred, and love. Besides the triangular theory of love, he has other theories, including a triarchic theory of intelligence. Studying such a complex human emotion and creating a graph that explains it sounds like a difficult task, but with Sternberg's theory of love, he accomplished just that.

The Triangle

When it comes to explaining concepts, humans often love to use shapes. Be it graphs or pyramids, they can help explain complicated ideas to the public in an easy-to-read and attention-grabbing manner. In Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love, he uses a triangle to illustrate his philosophy. The three points of the triangle each contain a component of love. At the top, there is intimacy. At the bottom left, there is passion. At the bottom right, there is commitment. Let's unpack these three points first before we explain more about the theory:

  • Intimacy And Friendship:Being intimate with someone means there is a feeling of closeness to them. It doesn't necessarily have to involve love. You could be intimate with someone emotionally, sexually, physically, intellectually, spiritually, and so on. You can be intimate with your friends, family, or coworkers. However, if you want to be in love with someone, you need to have a strong connection with them and some form of intimacy. If only intimacy is present, you may only be friends with someone. However, many lovers start as friends, so often, the triangle can build itself from the top-up.
  • Passion And Infatuation: When you're in love with someone, there is often a swarm of strong emotions felt in your core. This is your passion, and you need it to be in love with someone. With passion, you usually can't stop thinking about the person, and every time you're with them, you have unexplainable feelings that you don’t feel for anyone else. Alone, passion is typically just infatuation. You may have feelings for someone but never act upon them and, because of this, your infatuation might be short-lived.
  • Commitment And Empty Love: Commitment is when you deliberately stay together with someone and make conscious plans for the future. Alone, your relationship is an empty love, where your relationship lacks a connection and a passion. After all, why would you choose to commit to someone without loving them? In many cases, empty love can result from a long marriage, where the two of you did have intimacy and passion at one point, but that is now gone. However, the two of you might still be together, be it for financial reasons or for the kids you’ve had. Arranged marriages can end up being empty love as well.
  • Nonlove: This is when your relationship has none of the points. It can come in the form of an acquaintance or coworker you talk to but don't have any real connection with.
Getty/AnnaStills

When Points Combine

We’ve explained the points and what happens when a relationship only contains one point of the relationship. Now, let's look at what happens when the two points connect and make a side.

Passion + Intimacy = Romantic Love

This makes up the left side of the triangle, and it is how many relationships begin. Two people meet, have a connection, then realize they have feelings for one another. This turns into a romance. The romance tends to be fiery, but because it's new, it lacks commitment. The two of you are probably not making life plans just yet, and commitment either comes later, or the romance ends before it can happen.

Intimacy + Commitment = Companionate

When there is no passion, but the two of you have a connection and a commitment to stay together, this is companionate. A companionate can describe many relationships. It can describe an old marriage where the fire is gone, but the couple still loves each other and wants to live together. It can describe families or close friendships where the two of you are roommates. This makes up the right side of the triangle.

Passion + Commitment = Fatuous Love

This makes up the bottom side of the triangle, and it's an interesting one. This is when two people have strong feelings for each other and want commitment, but they lack that intimate connection that keeps the marriage going strong. This can come in the form of a shotgun or a rushed marriage. Due to the lack of intimacy, these types of marriages may fall apart just as quickly as they come together.

Intimacy + Passion + Commitment = Consummate Love

When all sides combine and form a triangle, this is consummate love. A relationship that has an intimate connection, passionate emotions from both parties, and a commitment to making it work are said to have the highest form of love. A long-term relationship with all three traits is theorized to still be able to maintain their bond even years down the road. After much time has passed, they may still have a fulfilling sex life, an ability to easily resolve conflict, and an intimate connection with one another. 

With that said, Sternberg believes that this form of love is hard to maintain. You can achieve this form of love early on but keeping it that way may be difficult. He believes that couples need to have effective communication with each other still and have a passion for making things work.

Is He Correct?

With all these psychology theories, they are easily scrutinized, and Sternberg's theory is no different. The triangular theory can explain many aspects of love, but it may be too simplistic. Everyone has their own definition and views of love, and Sternberg's theory tested younger couples rather than older ones. As such, it may not be the perfect, monolithic way to describe love, but can still be a helpful way of measuring it for some couples.

If you're in a long-term relationship, you may have a little of all three elements, or a lot of one and some of the other. The triangle may have more shades than sides, depending on the relationship. This theory may be an effective way to describe your relationship, but at the end of the day, you're the one who knows your relationship best.

Getty/MoMo Productions
Does Something Feel Like It's Missing In Your Relationship?

Online Counseling With Regain

All relationships can go through ups and downs, even if both partners feel happy with each other. Still, it’s never too late to make improvements and create a stronger foundation for the relationship to grow from. One way you could enhance the quality of your relationship is by speaking to a counselor. Regain provides counseling options online for both individuals and couples. They can help you and your partner set and work toward goals together whether it be more effective communication, conflict management, or increased intimacy—all from the comfort of home. Restoring the different points of the triangle in your relationship could help it thrive in new ways, setting you both up for a healthier, happier partnership. 

The Effectiveness Of Online Counseling 

Online counseling has been shown to be a viable resource for couples struggling with different aspects of their relationship. One study found that a web-based intervention improved couples’ communication, helped them problem-solve more effectively, and enhanced the positive elements of the relationship. Many of the couples also reported experiencing less anxiety and depression. These outcomes were maintained when researchers followed up 10 months later. 

The Takeaway

Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love can provide couples with a framework for assessing the quality and health of their relationship. While this theory can be a predictor of a relationship’s long-term success, there are many other factors that can influence what keeps a couple together. If you’re worried about the status of your relationship or want to find more security in it, speaking with a relationship counselor could be beneficial. A Regain therapist can equip you and your partner with tools to help your relationship grow in the areas that you’d like to improve in and maintain those parts of it that are already flourishing.

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