What Is Sternberg's Triangular Theory Of Love?

Updated April 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

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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 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.

Who Is Sternberg?

Robert Sternberg is a psychologist who has studied many aspects of human psychology. He has studied intelligence, wisdom, thinking patterns, leadership, hatred, and, most importantly, to this article, love. Besides the triangular theory of love or just theory of love, he has other theories, including a triarchic theory of intelligence.

Studying a complex human emotion and creating a graph that explains it sounds like a difficult task, but with Sternberg's theory of love, he did it.

The Triangle

When it comes to explaining concepts, we love to use shapes. Be it graphs or pyramids; they help explain complex ideas to the public in an easy-to-read and attention catchy graph.

The three points of the triangle are components 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 can be intimate with your friends and family. However, if you want to be in love with someone, you need to have a strong connection with them and intimacy.

If a relationship has intimacy, it's more than likely just a friendship. However, many loves start as a friendship, so often, the triangle will build itself from the top-up.

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Passion And Infatuation

When you're in love with someone, there is a fire burning in you or a swarm of strong emotions. This is your passion, and you need it to be in love with someone. With passion, you can't stop thinking about the person, and every time you're with them, you have unexplainable feelings.

Alone, passion is just infatuation. You have feelings for someone, but you never act upon them. Because of this, your infatuation tends to 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. Now, why would you be committed to someone if you didn't love them?

Usually, empty love results from a long marriage, where the two of you did have intimacy and passion at one point, but that is gone. However, the two of you are still together, be it for financial reasons or the kids. Arranged marriages can end up being empty love as well.


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 them.

When Points Combine

We 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 aside.

Passion + Intimacy= Romantic Love

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This makes up the left side of the triangle, and it's 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 want 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 rushed marriage. Because of the lack of intimacy, this marriage usually falls apart and crashes down into an explosion.

Intimacy+Passion+Commitment=Consummate Love

When all sides combine and form a triangle, this is consummate love. A relationship that has a strong, intimate connection, fiery emotions from both parties, and a commitment to make it work are said to be the best form of love possible.

A marriage with all three traits will still have an amazing sex life far into the marriage, will be able to resolve conflict more easily, will plan everything together, and the intimate connection will still be strong.

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 is difficult. He believes that good couples need to have good 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 is simplistic. Everyone has their definition, and Sternberg's theory tested younger couples rather than older ones. As such, it's not the perfect, monolithic way to describe love, but it is a good way of measuring it.

Other Theories Of Love

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Sternberg isn't the only psychologist who has developed a theory that explains how love works. Here are some other ones.

Color Wheel

Psychologist John Lee believed love to be like a color wheel. Love has three primary colors, and they can mix and match. The first color is Eros, which is passion. Then, there is Ludos, where the love is playful but doesn't have intimacy or commitment. Then, there is Storge, which is affection. You can see this from friendships and families. These colors can combine or have shades of each. It's quite an interesting theory.

Passionate vs. Compassionate

Psychologist Elaine Hatfield came up with a simplistic model of love, divided into two forms. Compassionate love involves respect, trust, attachment, and affection. This is when you respect and understand someone else. You can compare it to intimacy if you will.

Passionate love is when you have intense emotions and a sexual attraction to someone else. If the feeling is mutual, both people feel satisfied, while unrequited passionate love makes you feel upset. Passionate love without anything else may only last a few months to a few years.

Hatfield believes that a relationship rarely has both. Even if the two of you have a good sex life, you probably aren't as passionate as you were when you first met. Elaine believes that the ideal situation is when your passionate love changes into compassionate love. This is something where there may be various shades. You may have a little passion and some compassion, or vice versa.

To Summarize

Love is complex, and many psychologists have tried to simplify it. Many of their theories have similarities, such as the themes of passion and intimacy, but they don't agree on anything. Maybe there is truth to all their theories, or perhaps everyone is wrong, and love is even more complex than we thought.

If you're married, 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.

These theories can be a good way of describing your relationship, but at the end of the day, you're the one who can best describe your relationship.

Seek Help!

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The goal of the theory of love is to have one complete triangle, but many relationships lack all the sides needed. There is hope, though. Sternberg believes that a marriage can be repaired if there is strong communication. Many marriages do fail due to a lack of communication, and this is a shame.

Thankfully, there is hope. One way you can repair your marriage is by speaking to a relationship counselor. They can help you and your partner communicate more appropriately by teaching different communication skills, figuring out the underlying reason for your fights, and help restore all points of your triangle. There is no shame in seeking therapy for your relationship; it can help maintain your triangle and build it to be even stronger. Talk to a therapist today.

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