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Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love

You would think that after thousands of years people would have figured out exactly what love is. This is not the case, though. In fact, it seems the more we know scientifically, the less we actually know about love and how it works.

It should be simple. Almost everyone loves someone, and almost everyone is loved back, yet it remains as much of a mystery as if we just discovered it right now.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg came up with a theory that he calls the triangular theory of love to explain how this complex emotion works. His theory consists of three parts that make up the components of love. These are intimacy, passion and commitment.

Intimacy in a loving relationship consists of the following feelings: closeness, attachment, bondedness, and connectedness. Passion includes sexual attraction and limerence, which is a term coined by Dorothy Tennov in 1977 to describe the involuntary romantic attraction one feels, and the need to have it returned.

Finally, commitment is defined by the initial need to stay with the other person, and later is shown by the couple’s desire to make long-term plans and have experiences together. All three of these components are equally important in Sternberg’s theory.

There are seven different kinds of love, all with between one and three of the above components. The first of these is friendship, which contains just intimacy. Infatuated love only contains passion, which means that while the pull might be strong, it could disappear in a second because of the lack of commitment. Empty love only has commitment, which often develops in a longer relationship, when the other two components slowly dissolve.

Romantic love is a combination of passion and intimacy without commitment. Companionate love contains intimacy and commitment, but no longer has the element of passion. Marriages that have lasted a long time often could be described this way, as could relationships between close family members.

Fatuous love is a combination of passion and commitment. This often happens when two people meet and decide to get married quickly, or move in together after only a few weeks of knowing one another. Consummate love is the final category, and is the ultimate form of love, containing all three components.

This is what everyone is trying to achieve. Even if this goal is reached, passion can disappear after years if both parties do not continue to act on the three components. The key to a strong relationship seems to be working on all three of Sternberg’s components equally through communication and action. If either party does not do this, a consummate love could easily devolve into companionate love, or even one of the other types.

While Sternberg’s triangular theory of love does not explain the scientific and chemical processes involved in the process of love, it does go a long way in explaining the different categories that love can be placed into. Love may be a mystery, but theories like Sternberg’s can help us to make a little bit of sense out of the greatest of human emotions.