The Triangular Theory of Love in Relationships

The Triangular Theory of Love in Relationships

In recent times, a lot of research work has gone into trying to identify and differentiate the varieties of love. Besides several others, the work of Robert Sternberg, The Triangular Theory of Love, has made remarkable attempts at categorizing love.

The quest to understand love and what it takes to develop and keep it has been intensified by various scholars. This quest has led to the development of various models, scales, and theories. Their overall goal is to enable us better understand and more explicitly delineate love.

Most of the works so far on love have proposed various typologies for the varieties of love. Most of them start with distinct systems based on sexual drive and on the attachment system. The categorization of the different typologies generally reflect whether they can (or cannot) combine into one relationship.

One very influential categorization focuses on “love styles” and was originally a model based on historical conceptions and systematic analysis of interview reports by Alan J. Lee.[1]

However, most research applications make use of the measure developed by Hendrick and Hendrick.[2, 3] This measure treats Lee’s earlier styles as six relatively independent dimensions.

  • Eros (romantic, passionate love)
  • Ludus (game-playing love)
  • Storge (friendship love)
  • Pragma (logical, “shopping-list” love)
  • Mania (possessive, dependent love)
  • Agape (selfless love)

The Triangle of Love

Another influential categorization of romantic love is the one developed by Robert Sternberg.[4] Sternberg’s work is an attempt to integrate existing psychology models and available related literature.

His triangular theory conceptualizes love in terms of intimacy, passion, and commitment. The Triangular Theory of Love treats these three components as ingredients that in various combinations define types of love.

Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love is the focus of this post. Sternberg’s intention is to create a better understanding of the basic components that drive the concept of love and make it truly work.

The focus on Sternberg’s theory is largely because of his categorization of the three love components which appears to correspond reasonably well with the latent dimensions of lay conceptions of love.[5]

A Convergence of Theories

Interestingly, Sternberg’s idea of the three love component has also been validated by another significant research based on Prototype Theory.

Beverly Fehr, in numerous studies,[6, 7, 8] developed a prototype theory of love and also various measurement devices. Fehr’s prototype approach is basically another way of studying people’s lay conceptions of love.

The participants in such studies usually fill out either list types of love (e.g. friendship, romantic, mother) or attributes for such kind of love (e.g., caring, candlelight dinners, taking walks). Other studies also focus on the ratings of these attributes.

Aron and Westbay factor-analyzed all 68 features originally used by Fehr in postulating the Prototype Theory. Through their analysis, they were able to identify three underlying dimensions consisting of passion, intimacy, and commitment.

Thus, Aron and Westbay’s research on Fehr’s Prototype Theory suggests a convergence between Fehr’s work and Sternberg’s triangular theory.

A significant point here is that the approaches of Fehr and Sternberg differ widely in concepts. Also of interest is the difference in the various methods used by both researchers. Thus, Aron and Westbay’s discovery of such convergence is quite remarkable.

The Triangular Theory of Love

In his Triangular Theory of Love, Robert Sternberg “holds that love can be understood in terms of three components that together can be viewed as forming the vertices of a triangle.”[4]

The theory basically suggests that there are three basic building blocks that combine to form different types of love. Each one of these love components can vary in intensity from low to high.

Robert Sternberg's The Triangular Theory of Love Diagram
FIGURE 1  Robert Sternberg’s The Triangular Theory of Love diagram.

As a result, it’s possible to form triangles of countless shapes and sizes reflecting the degree of love in a relationship. The three components of Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love are intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Most researchers liken the passion in a loving relationship to be the “heat”, while the intimacy as the “warmth”. In contrast, they mostly view the commitment component as “cold” because it reflects more of a decision that may neither be emotional or temperamental at all.


This entails the feelings of connectedness, closeness, communication, understanding, support, and also the sharing that often characterizes loving relationships. It essentially covers the feelings that usually produce the experience of warmth in a relationship.

Among other things, sharing intimacy involves the following:

  • Engaging in intimate communicate
  • Giving and receiving emotional support
  • Sharing of yourself, possession, and time
  • Desiring and promoting the other’s well-being
  • Offering and receiving material support
  • Expressing empathy
  • Valuing and appreciating the other
  • Having mutual understanding with the other

However, it is not necessary to experience all these feelings in order to experience true love. Rather, one can experience intimacy in a relationship by sampling a sufficient number of these feelings. The sufficient number is however something that varies from one person to another.

In an Aron and Westbay study,[5] they found that the features on the intimacy factor were rated as more central to love than features on the other two factors.

Maintaining Intimacy in Loving Relationships

One thing that can easily diminish intimacy in a relationship is predictability. However, there are people who like having a degree of predictability in their relationship. Yet, this has the unfortunate effect of undermining the intimacy in the relationship over the long term.

Thus, couples might need to introduce some elements of change and variation into their relationship to keep it growing. There are various ways couples can individualize and achieve such changes and variations.

However, some common ways to do this is through going on vacations; developing new mutual interests, and probably experimenting with new behavioral patterns in the relationship.


Triangular Theory of Love - Young intimate couple

The passionate component of a loving relationship entail the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and other related phenomena. This is usually “a state of intense longing for union with the other.”

Thus, the passion component involves those motivational and other sources of arousal that lead to the experience of passion. As a result, any strong emotional need that is satisfied by one’s partner can easily fit into this category.

Sexual needs usually predominate in this experience. However, other needs may as well contribute to the experience of passion in a loving relationship. These include needs such as:

  • Self-esteem
  • Self-actualization
  • Affiliation
  • Dominance
  • Submission

Some ways to express passion in a love relationship include but not limited to the following:

  • Hugging
  • Gazing
  • Touching
  • Kissing
  • Making Love

Maintaining Passion in Loving Relationships

In most cases, the passion component is the most difficult to sustain. This is largely because it’s the least that’s subject to conscious control and the most prone to habituation.

There are two possible ways to attempt sustaining and maximizing the passion component over the long term. The first would be to analyze the needs the relationship is fulfilling. Thereafter, one has to ensure to continue fulfilling those needs.

Conversely, it might be necessary to analyze the needs that the relationship is not fulfilling at the moment. After discovering such unfulfilled needs, one has to find and develop ways to start ensuring their continued fulfillment.

The Role of Passion in New Romantic Loves

In the first place, passionate love clearly has an evolutionary perspective to it. It acts as a force that helps to propel the binding of two people together to form a relationship in order to have children and to raise them together.

From a psychological point of view, some researchers suggest that emotions often function when rational solutions are unavailable. The idea is that it is only through having such overwhelming passion that one can find him or herself entering into a mutual plan as momentous as a life-long marriage.

This is obviously the reason why people say that love is blind. To make such a huge leap, the mind often goes blind because of the overriding power of the emotions. In effect, parts of the brain that handle critical reasoning and social judgment are momentarily shutdown.

As a result of this, someone that is passionately in love has less inclination to critically assess the character and personality of their beloved. Thus passionate love often involves a good degree of disillusionment.

So, as a result of the daunting nature of the prospect of forming a new relationship with someone else, nature devised passionate love to blind us to all the possible pitfalls.


The component of commitment in loving relationships entails both a short- and long-term aspect. The short-term aspect is about the decision that one loves someone else. The long-term aspect however has to do with the commitment to maintain that love.

According to the Triangular Theory of Love, the commitment component entails the cognitive elements that are necessary to devote one’s self to a relationship and to make it work.

In general, a decision should normally precede a commitment. However, they don’t necessarily go together. Thus, a decision to love someone doesn’t necessarily mean a commitment to love.

Likewise, commitment doesn’t necessarily imply decision. There are cases where a person might commit to the love of another without actually admitting to loving the person. However, most marriages are a commitment to a decision to love another person throughout one’s life.

It’s inevitable that all loving relationships will have their fair share of ups and downs. At such times, the commitment component is all or almost all that keeps the relationship afloat. The level of commitment to a relationship can be very pivotal in getting through hard times and for returning to better ones.

Commitment is that component of loving relationships that enables one to get through the hard times and also the easy ones. Ignoring or separating it from a relationship can be very fatal during hard times or when having relationship conflicts.

There are various ways to express commitment in a love relationship including the following:

  • Pledging commitment to the relationship
  • Staying in a relationship through difficult times
  • Maintaining high fidelity
  • Becoming engaged
  • Getting married

Maintaining Commitment in Loving Relationships

The commitment component is the one that is most subject to conscious control of the three love components. Thus, it’s the easiest to sustain over the long term.

One of the best ways to sustain commitment is for both spouses to continue prioritizing the importance of the relationship in their lives. Another way would be to maximize the amount of happiness derivable from the relationship.

However, achieving both of these objectives will involve working on the intimacy and passion components of the relationship. It’s also very important to express both of these love components and a commitment to the relationship through practical actions.

The Types of Love

Close friends having a chat

Sternberg’s overall point is to highlight the importance of the components associated with love and how they function together to make love work as a whole.

The theory stresses the fact that love is a multifaceted experience which becomes all the clearer through the combination of the three components of love.

As earlier mentioned, the combination of the above three components of intimacy, passion, and commitment can easily create love triangles of countless shapes and sizes.

It is easier to understand the components of love and their interrelatedness by considering the different combinations they can create.

As a result, based on how high or low each of the three love components are in a given situation, Robert Sternberg was able to identify 8 relatively pure subsets of the various love components. Each of the categorized subsets differ in the kind of love experience they create.

However, it’s important to realize that it may not be possible to experience these type of love exactly the way the theory puts them. Subsequent sections will highlight the reason for this according to Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love.

1. Nonlove (Absence of all three components)

In simple terms, the non-existence of intimacy, passion, and commitment means that love does not exist in such a relationship. Nonlove characterizes the large majority of our relationships as most of them simply involve casual interactions with no love at all.

This is a situation where we mostly have casual, superficial, and uncommitted relationships with people with whom we are probably just acquaintances.

2. Liking (Intimacy without passion or commitment)

Liking occurs in a relationship when there is only intimacy with the other love components of passion and commitment missing. This is typical in friendships where there’s usually real closeness and warmth but where there’s also a lack of arousal of passion and any expectation of the parties spending their lives together.

One can also describe it as a situation where one feels emotionally close to a friend, but the friend doesn’t “turn one on.” Also, the friend does not arouse the feeling that “one loves the friend” nor does it cross one’s mind of loving the friend for the rest of one’s life.

The Absence Test

A simple way to verify if one has a “liking” or not for someone is to use the absence test. If the absence of a friend arouses passion or the friend is seriously missed when he or she is gone, then such a relationship has gone beyond liking and transitioned to something else.

3. Infatuated Love (Passion without intimacy and commitment)

This is what we know as the “love at first sight” phenomenon. Infatuation results from having strong passion in the absence of intimacy and commitment. People experience infatuation when people they don’t know very well arouse them.

While infatuations can be rather easy to spot by other observers, the individuals experiencing them hardly notice the phenomenon. Another feature of infatuation is that they can arise almost instantaneously and dissipate as quickly under the right circumstances.

4. Empty Love (Commitment without intimacy and passion)

People experience empty love when there’s a concrete decision to love another and an upheld commitment to that love. This is usually despite the lack of intimacy and passion the relationship might be experiencing.

This is often the case in stagnant or burned-out relationships where only the commitment is all that is left as they’ve lost both the mutual emotional involvement and physical attraction. For the most part, empty love occurs during the final or near-final stages of long-term relationships.

However, empty love may also be the first stage of a long-term relationship rather than the end. This is often the case in cultures that practice arranged marriages. The spouses normally first start with a commitment to love each other and later develop intimacy and passion.

5. Fatuous Love (Passion plus commitment without intimacy)

Mostly a foolish experience of love that has the elements of passion and commitment while lacking the element of intimacy. Its foolishness derives from the fact that the commitment is due to a passion that lacks the stabilizing effect of intimate involvement.

This happens in whirlwind courtships in which the partners marry rather quickly on the basis of overwhelming passion without having known each other very well. Fatuous love relationships have a high risk of early termination or divorce due to the lack of shared intimacy.

6. Companionate Love (Intimacy plus commitment without passion)

Triangular Theory of Love - Happy elderly Africa-American couple laughing together outdoor

This is the love that evolves from combining intimacy and commitment despite it lacking the element of passion. Companionate love entails closeness, communication, sharing, and substantial investment in the relationship. It’s a relationship in which partners mutually work to maintain a deep and healthy long-term relationship.

This frequently occurs in long-term, committed, and happy marriages in which the couple’s physical attraction has gradually died down.

7. Romantic Love (Intimacy plus passion without commitment)

The experience of romantic love derives from a combination of high intimacy and passion that lacks the element of commitment. Going by the earlier mentioned types of love, it’s easy to see that romantic love is simply a combination of liking and infatuation.

Thus, romantic love is essentially liking someone while at the same time experiencing arousal towards that person. This is usually as a result of the physical attraction and its concomitants. The individuals in a romantic love have physically attraction for each other and also bond emotionally.

However, there are certain differing views about the concept of romantic love. Some feel that there’s no difference between infatuation and romantic love; others believe that people often become committed to their romances; but for Sternberg, commitment is not a defining trait in a romantic love.

8. Consummate Love (Presence of all three components)

Experiencing consummate love is the epitome of the concept of love. It results from a combination of all the three components of love. In fact, consummate love is the dream love all romantic lovers strive for.

Though very alluring to attain, Sternberg however acknowledges the fleeting nature of consummate love as he describes in his Triangular Theory of Love. He compares it to meeting one’s goal in a weight-reduction program. While losing the weight might be easy, it’s a lot more difficult to keep off over time.

Interrelatedness of the Three Love Components

First, while both intimacy and passion are motives or drives, commitment is something more cognitive in nature.

The passion component in loving relationships will almost always be highly and reciprocally interactive with intimacy. One can view intimacy as a function of the degree to which the relationship is able to meet one’s need for passion.

There are also love relationships where the passion component develops almost immediately with the intimacy component developing later on. According to the Triangular Theory of Love, intimacy can also arouse the passion component.

Generally, the passion component is what initially draws individuals together. But the intimacy is what sustains the closeness in the relationship.

Conversely, there are also close relationships where the passion component – especially relating to physical attraction – develops only after the intimacy component.

Usually, the intimacy and passion component of a love relationship will vary from individual to individual and in various situations. However, there will always be an interaction, in one way or another, between the two components in any close relationship.

Also, the commitment component interacts with both the intimacy and passion component of a loving relationship.

So, commitment can result from emotional and other involvement of the intimacy component. It can also result from the motivational and other arousal aspects of the passion component.

At times, it can be the other way round where intimacy or passionate arousal can come after commitment. This is mostly the case in arranged marriages where the spouses commit to each other before truly knowing themselves.

In most of such close relationships, the cognitive commitment to the relationship often determines the degree of intimacy and passion experienced and not the other way around. Thus, the decisional aspect can control the other aspects of a relationship and vice versa.

Controlling the Love Components

Generally, it can be difficult to control the intimacy component of love and exceedingly more difficult to control the passion component. However, one has more considerable control over the commitment component.

The ability to control the commitment component offers an opportunity to prevent the relationship from developing into a full-fledged romance.

Thus, all three components are very important parts of loving relationships. However, their importance differs from one relationship to another and also over time within a relationship.

In Conclusion…

In order to determine whether a love relationship can thrive over the long-term, it’s important to understand certain basic relationship principles, their applications as well as their evolutionary foundations.

Robert Sternberg’s The Triangular Theory of Love has provided us with a very interesting exposition about the fundamental composition and workings of love.

Through the understanding gleaned from the Triangle Theory of Love, individuals and couples can better understand the state of their relationships and get an idea about what they can do to improve their situation.

However, though love can be partitioned this way into its constituent ingredients, it is important not to lose sight of the whole in the analysis of its part. People should enjoy love in its entirety.

If for nothing else, Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love provides at least one step towards better understanding the nature of love in everyday life.