The Triangle of Love

16 Apr, 2010 || by

“Love” is a BIG word, no matter how you look at it.  Ask a hundred people how they would define “love,” and it’s unlikely that you’ll find the same definition given twice.  We need only look at a few quotes about the subject to see that love means many different things:

Love is a wildly misunderstood although highly desirable malfunction of the heart which weakens the brain, causes eyes to sparkle, cheeks to glow, blood pressure to rise and the lips to pucker. ~Author Unknown

Love is what you’ve been through with somebody. ~James Thurber, quoted in Life magazine, 1960

Platonic love is love from the neck up. ~Thyra Smater Winsolow

Infatuation is when you think he’s as sexy as Robert Redford, as smart as Henry Kissinger, as noble as Ralph Nader, as funny as Woody Allen, and as athletic as Jimmy Conners.  Love is when you realize that he’s as sexy as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Ralph Nader, as athletic as Henry Kissinger and nothing like Robert Redford – but you’ll take him anyway. ~Judith Viorst, Redbook, 1975

I learned the real meaning of love.  Love is absolute loyalty.  People fade, looks fade, but loyalty never fades.  You can depend so much on certain people, you can set your watch by them.  And that’s love, even if it doesn’t seem very exciting. ~Sylvester Stallone

The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love. ~Margaret Atwood

Needless to say, when trying to discuss “love” with another person, it’s an iffy proposition as to whether or not you’ll be talking about the same thing.  So how is one to know if it’s love he’s (she’s) feeling for his partner?  Are there different types of love?  Are there different degrees of love?  These are very important questions, not only when there is a question about whether love is present, but also when trying to define the type and degree of love one is trying to find.

During my many years of helping couples, both in pre-marital and marital counseling, there is one theory of “love” I’ve use over and over again to help everyone in the room learn to speak the same language about this ultimately important, yet incredibly confusing word.  This theory, called the “Triangle Theory of Love,” was developed by Dr. Robert Sternberg, a Psychologist at Tufts University.

In a nutshell, the Triangular Theory of Love defines “love” as being composed of 3 qualities, passion, intimacy, and commitment.  These 3 components can be defined as follows:

Intimacy – The friendship or specialness of the relationship.  The feelings of closeness, bondedness, connectedness, trust, and friendship in the relationship.

Passion – The excitement or energy of the relationship.  The feelings of physical attraction, romance, and arousal (particularly sexual arousal) in the relationship.

Commitment – The “business aspect” of the relationship.  This includes all the shared investments, or the “history,” of the relationship, such as decisions, experiences, and adjustments.

Passion tends to develop very quickly in relationships, followed by a gradual deterioration over time.  Intimacy tends to increase somewhat quickly at first, then tapers off, growing more slowly for a time before finally leveling off.  Commitment always starts at ground zero and increases over time for the duration of the relationship.

As can be seen in the picture at the beginning of this article, these 3 components of love can be viewed as comprising the 3 sides of a triangle, with Commitment as the base, and Passion and Intimacy comprising the upper 2 sides.  Depending on how much of each of these 3 components is present, a triangle can either be very small or very large.  Also, although the picture of the triangle shown above depicts love as an equilateral triangle, it is seldom seen in this form.  Depending on how much of each of the 3 components is present, the sides of the triangle are often unequal.  For example, in a brand new relationship, Passion is likely to be the longest side of the triangle while the Intimacy and Commitment sides are likely to be substantially shorter, thus creating an isosceles triangle.

As described above, the 3 sides of the triangle are shortened or lengthened according to the amount of each component present in the relationship.  The 3 components, then, can produce 8 types of love:

1. “Friendship” ~ Intimacy Only (No Passion or Commitment) – Can be summed up as having intimacy with one another, feeling close,  & trusting one another.

2. “Infatuation” ~ Passion Only (No Intimacy or Commitment) – This tends to be a superficial relationship that is one-sided, where the couple are temporarily ga-ga over one another.  In Hollyword, this is known as a “whirlwind romance.”

3. “Empty Love” ~ Commitment Only (No Passion or Intimacy) – This is most often an older relationship where the passion and intimacy have died…like “falling out of love.”

4. “Romantic Love” ~ Intimacy & Passion (No Commitment) – This can be a blossoming relationship where the couple feel like best friends (“friends with benefits”).  As experiences grow with one another, this type of love may develop Commitment.

5. “Companionate Love” ~ Intimacy & Commitment (No Passion) – Again, this usually occurs in older relationships where the couple remain best friends, but no longer feel passion for one another. This type of love can still be very satisfying and long-lasting.

6. “Fantasy Love” ~ Passion & Commitment (No Intimacy) – This is a feeling of love because the couple wants to be in love…but they really have little in common.

7. “Non-Love” ~ All Sides Absent (No Passion, Intimacy or Commitment) – Basically, this type of relationship is of just an acquaintance.

8. “Complete or Consummate Love” ~ (All Sides Present) – The best of all types, the “ideal relationship,” that all couples would like to achieve.

According to Sternberg, couples with Complete or Consummate Love continue to share a deep desire on all levels to be with one another, even after many years.  However, Sternberg also states that maintaining Consummate Love is a lot harder than achieving it in the first place.  He stresses that it is essential for a couple to put all the components of love into action…after all, actions speak louder than words. “Without expression” (of the components), Sternberg warns, “even the greatest of loves can die.”

In next week’s article I will further explain the Triangle of Love, as well as ways in which couples can work with their triangles to improve the quality of their love.

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4 Responses to “The Triangle of Love”

  1. Great article! So useful and illuminating! ThAnk you!

  2. Great article. Thank you.

  3. Thanks. VERY insightful and pragmatic.


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