Triangular Theory of Love Definition
The triangular theory of love characterizes love in terms of three underlying components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. People love each other to the extent they show these three components, and different combinations of the components yield different kinds of love.
The Three Components
The three components of love are each different in nature. Intimacy is characterized by feelings of caring, concern, understanding, trust, and closeness between two partners. Intimate partners are good friends and support each other in times of need. Intimacy is primarily emotional in nature. Passion is characterized by intense desire, feelings of longing, need of the partner, and joy at the thought of seeing the partner (and anxiety or worry at the thought of separation). Passionate partners crave each other’s presence, much as do people who experience an addiction. Passion is primarily motivational in nature. Commitment is characterized by cognitions of the long-lasting nature or even permanence of a relationship, the stand that one will stay with the partner, despite any hardships that may evolve, and the confidence that the relationship is the right one to be in. Committed partners view themselves as in the relationship over the long term. Commitment is primarily cognitive in nature.
Time Courses of the Three Components
The three components show somewhat different time courses. Intimacy usually develops somewhat slowly, over the course of time. In relationships that succeed, intimacy continues to develop; in those that fail, intimacy may go up and then start to go down. However, in many long-term relationships, high levels of intimacy may be difficult to sustain over periods of many years. A good test of intimacy is whether, when there is some disruption in a relationship, the disruption brings the partners closer together or further apart. Passion usually develops quickly but also may fade quickly. It shows a course similar to that of addictions. After a while, the “high” of the relationship is less rewarding than the “low” of the thought of termination of the relationship seems punishing. Commitment typically develops slowly and may continue to increase in successful relationships and fade in unsuccessful ones. Fading of commitment can be caused by problems in the relationship or by the entrance of competition to the relationship.
Kinds of Love
According to the theory, different combinations of intimacy, passion, and commitment yield different kinds of love.
- None of the components = nonlove.
- Intimacy alone = friendship. This is the type of love experienced by good friends. It is a limiting case of love.
- Passion alone = infatuated love. This is the kind of love one experiences in love at first sight. It is a limiting case of love.
- Commitment alone = empty love. This is the kind of love one experiences when all that holds a couple together is the cognition that one should stay in the relationship. It is characterized by the beginning of arranged relationships and marriages and the (emotional) end of relationships that have failed over time.
- Intimacy + passion = romantic love. This is the type of love experienced by those who fall in love with each other but who are not ready to commit for the long term, such as students whose future lives are yet uncertain.
- Intimacy + commitment = companionate love. This is the kind of love that often develops over the course of many years, when the passion begins to flicker. Many long-term, stable relationships are based on companionate love.
- Passion + commitment = fatuous (foolish) love. This is the kind of love, sometimes seen in movies, in which partners commit to each other on the basis of passion without even truly getting to know each other. These kinds of relationships do not have a good prognosis.
- Intimacy + passion + commitment = consummate (complete) love. This is the kind of love to which many people aspire: It is difficult to attain and even more difficult to maintain. People generally have to work at relationships and mutual growth to maintain consummate love.
Origins of the Components
The origins of the components are in stories one develops about what love should be like. In the United States, there are about two dozen common stories. Examples are a fairy-tale story, in which partners view each other as a prince and a princess; a travel story, in which partners see themselves traveling through life together over a sometimes rocky road; a business story, in which partners view the relationship as a business, much like any other business; the pornography story, in which love is viewed as exciting to the extent it is “dirty”; and a horror story, in which one partner terrorizes the other.
Data Regarding the Triangular Theory of Love
Empirical tests of the theory have yielded several interesting findings. For example, it has been found that higher levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment all tend to be associated with greater happiness and satisfaction in relationships. The patterns of the three components also play a role in happiness and satisfaction. Partners whose patterns of intimacy, passion, and commitment are more similar (e.g., both needing high levels of intimacy, or neither caring much about commitment) tend to be more satisfied that partners whose patterns differ (e.g., one needing a high level of intimacy and the other caring much more about the level of passion). In addition, different loving relationships, such as with father, mother, lover, sibling, show quite different patterns of intimacy, passion, and commitment. Stories also have been shown to have effects on relationships. For example, partners with more similar stories about relationships tend to be happier than partners with less similar stories (e.g., two partners with a fairy-tale story will be happier, on average, than one with a fairy-tale story and the other with a business story). However, stories do not in and of themselves predict happiness, independent of match to the partner’s story, but certain stories are associated with unhappiness, such as the horror story and the pornography story.
- Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Cupid’s arrow. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Love is a story. New York: Oxford University Press.