Triangular Theory of Love: How Does Love Develop?

The Triangular Theory of Love was developed by Robert Sternberg in 1986. It states how love can be described in three components which form a triangle. The components stand as a generic combination of feelings that give rise to different types of love. Although there are various types of love we can experience, having these three components mean that a complete relationship has formed.

Triangular Theory of Love
Triangular Theory of Love

What is Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love?

Everyone’s thoughts on what makes them drawn to another person are different. The attachment that we feel towards another person is based on a physical and emotion connection. This connection is difficult to explain since there are a number of factors that may influence how strong the bond is. People wonder why some flings fizzle out while others develop deep and meaningful connections. We all want to maintain the love we have so that it can last forever. Distinguished psychologist Robert J. Sternberg created a theory that will forever be the three keys to relationship and marriage success. Between the years 1986-1988, Sternberg comprised his “Triangular Theory of Love” which he states are the necessary elements for a “complete love.” The theory discusses how both parties must have three components of love: an intimacy component, a passion component, and a commitment component. While some lovers may have fallen in love at first sight, it is unlikely they will be fulfilled without these three golden rules.

Triangular Theory of Love: What makes love so important to our human nature?

Whether we accept it or not, we all strive to have a deepening soul connection with another human being. Loving someone makes us happy and it brings us to love ourselves as well. Many chemicals are released when we are falling in love and it is important to understand that love is a basic need for our biological nature. It’s healthy and strong supportive social ties improve life satisfaction and reduce stress and depression more than ambivalent or weak ties (Uchino, Holt, Smith, & Bloor, 2004). People choose who they want to be with based on physical attraction which then turns into lust, passion, and attachment. Romantic love comes afterwards and strengthens the connection and bond even more. Studies that involved neuroimaging and romantic love have shown activation in regions of the brain such as: the amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, hypothalamus, and ventral tegmental area (VTA). These structures are part of the reward circuitry that is linked to sex, food consumption, and drug use. Jacqueline Olds, a Harvard Medical School professor says that when we are falling in love, chemicals associated with this circuit produce a variety of physical and emotional responses, such as: racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, anxiety, and intense feelings of passion.

Being love-struck also releases high levels of dopamine, a chemical that “gets the reward system going,” said Olds. It is widely known that the neuropeptide, oxytocin is released during love and sex. The hormone has a role in pregnancy and nursing and is released during sex making couples feel closer to one another. Regions that induce vasopressin are also activated during love and is often linked to behavior that produces long-term, monogamous relationships. Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University believes that oxytocin and vasopressin interfere with the dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, which might explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows.

Triangular Theory of Love: The Three Components of Love

The top vertex of the triangle marks ‘intimacy,’ the feeling of attachment, closeness, connectedness, and bondedness that can occur in (any) relationship. The left-hand vertex of the triangle is ‘passion’ which refers to the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and other related feelings. The last, ‘decision/commitment’ is at the right-hand vertex of the triangle. Sternberg believes this element is vital as it is the decision that one loves someone else, and in the long term, the commitment to maintain that love. The cognitive elements related to making that decision about the existence and long-term commitment to a loving relationship are important in maintaining a lasting love. Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love focuses on the amount of emotion, passion, fascination, trust, and commitment we have with our partners. The amount of love within the triangle depends on the strength of the components relative to one another. From one point of view, the intimacy component might be viewed as the “warm” one, the passion component as a “hot” one, and the decision/commitment component as a “cold” one.

Triangular Theory of Love: The ‘Warm’ Component

The intimacy branch is considered not strong enough to be classified as long-term relationships or commitment. A true friendship or close friend can easily fit into this category. It naturally derives from being emotionally invested in a person. Being able to have trust and form a close bond with your partner is important for fully developing intimacy.

A list of feelings associated with intimacy are:

(a) Desire to promote the welfare of the loved one

(b) Experienced happiness with the loved one

(c) High regard for the loved one

(d) Being able to count on the loved one in times of need

(e) Mutual understanding with the loved one

(f) Sharing of one’s self and one’s possessions with the loved one

(g) Receipt of emotional support from the loved one

(h) Giving of emotional support to the loved one

(i) Intimate communication with the loved one

(j) Valuing the loved one in one’s life

These feelings are only a subset of the overall feelings associated with intimacy. These feelings differ from one person to another and are usually not experienced independently. The three components of love also differ in their commonality across loving relationships. The intimacy component appears to be at the core of many loving relationships.

Triangular Theory of Love: The ‘Hot’ Component

The passion component of love is comprised of the motivational steps and other sources of arousal that lead to the experience of passion. It derives from the motivational involvement of sexual attraction and romantic attraction. Passion combined with love will almost always be highly reciprocally interactive with intimacy. If the relationship meets a persons needs for passion, then it is likely to expand into intimacy. This component is also the first to develop with the opposite sex while intimacy helps sustain the bond. An example of passion happening without the intimate connection and emotional support would be two close friends developing a physical attraction, but not an intimate one. A certain level of intimacy needs to be achieved for both to develop on an intimate and passion level.

Triangular Theory of Love: The ‘Cold’ Component

Sternberg believes that the cognitive component of decision making and commitment along with intimacy is relatively more stable than passion. This component may play no role at all in short term relationships but a large part in long term relationships. It derives from cognitive decisions that a couple must figure out as they are planning their futures. There are two aspects to decision/commitment that may look like a simple equation, but is actually one of the reasons why relationships turn into failure on both ends. The short term is the present and is referred to as the decision that one loves the other. The long term (future) has to do with the commitment to maintain the love. These two added together mark the present and future of the decision/commitment component of the theory.

Triangular Theory of Love: Sternberg’s Eight Subsets of Love

Triangular Theory of Love
Triangular Theory of Love

We often wonder if there are multiple types of love that we could experience. Our love stories often vary between these three components of love. According to Sternberg, there are eight different subtypes of love that are interchangeable with his three main components. Relationships that are based on just one element or component of love have a lesser chance to survive than relationships based on two or all three elements of love. The triangle of love should been seen as a metaphor rather than a strict model or chart. It is important to know how they interact with each other to show the various styles of love that we experience throughout our lifespan.

Triangular Theory of Love: Non-Love

The absence of all three components of love. Casual relationships with others (friends, coworkers) are mostly in this category which do not include passion. Someone who you are not close to, such as an acquaintance whom you say hello to at the coffee shop every day just because you both show up at the same time, is considered non-love. Non-love means that the relationship is strictly casual and  never escalates any further.

Triangular Theory of Love: Liking

+ Intimacy

Also could be friendship. This type is simply the intimacy part without passion and decision/commitment. In other words, a person will feel close and bonded to the other without intense passion or thoughts of commitment. Sometimes liking someone could manifest into passion if intense feelings start to characterize the overall experience you have every time you come into contact with one another.

Triangular Theory of Love: Infatuated Love

+ Passion

This steamy form of love happens only when passion is present. It is ‘love at first sight’ and is highly bounded by carnal desires and nothing else. Both liking and commitment is absent since it is based on physical matters such as the person’s appearance. Initial attraction to a potential mate is highly associated with physical attractiveness. Many researchers have found this physical trait to be a major determinant in the dating and relationship process. Others can ‘spot’ a passionate couple easily because they are usually so physical. A high degree of psychophysiological arousal with somatic symptoms such as increased heartbeat, hormonal secretions, erection of genitals, and so on.

Triangular Theory of Love: Empty Love

+ Commitment

Originates from the decision that one loves the other and has committed but does not share intimacy and passion. This love is sad, the kind found in stagnant relationships that have been going on for years. There will be a lack of emotional involvement and physical attraction in empty love. The flames of passion have died down and caring for the partner are absent. However, empty love may be the first stage of long-term relationship (Ex. arranged marriages). Other forms of love can be attained while the two get to know each other better since empty love is initially their first stage.

Triangular Theory of Love: Romantic Love

Intimacy + Passion

Romantic love is a combination of intimacy and passion. Partners are physically drawn to each other and also bonded emotionally. The only thing is, commitment is never discussed. Many couples experience a break-up because one person does not want to commit, or in some cases both refuse commitment and have a long relationship without marriage.

Triangular Theory of Love: Companionate Love

Intimacy + Commitment

This style is the combination of intimacy and decision/commitment components of love that sustain the relationship. The passion has fizzled away, but the strong friendship and element of commitment is present. An example would be a long-term committed friendship, such as a marriage in which physical attraction has died down.

Triangular Theory of Love: Fatuous Love

Commitment + Passion

Fatuous love is the combination of passion and decision/commitment with the absence of intimacy. Just leaving it at that, most of these relationships do not last a year. A commitment is made on the basis of passion without increasing or developing intimate bonds. This could include celebrities who stay together just to gain publicity. Intimacy takes time to develop and this is a dangerous one since it can lead to divorce.

Triangular Theory of Love: Consummate Love

Intimacy + Passion + Commitment

Complete Love. The kind of love we all strive to have. Attaining this has no guarantee that it will last, however it is the goal for most people in relationships.

Triangular Theory of Love
Triangular Theory of Love

Sternberg further explains that relationships based on just one element or component of love as described above, is less likely to survive than relationships that are based on two or all the elements or components of love.

The geometry of the triangle explains a lot about the components we should first be developing in our relationships. The greater the amount of love in one area should be equal to the other two. Balanced love means that all three areas are filled and complete.

You can test the level of your love right now by using this quiz on Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love!


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