Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love
What is love made of?
9 minutes read - 1725 words
Robert Sternberg thinks that we can best describe love as composed of three “primary” components that combine to produce all the kinds of love that we observe around us: intimacy, passion and decision or commitment. These can be combined to produce the “mixed” forms: companionate love (intimacy and commitment), romantic love (intimacy and passion) and fatuous love (passion and commitment). If all components are balanced, we get consummate or “perfect” love.
Sternberg’s triangle of love
Many theories have tried to explain what love exactly is and what different kinds of love exist. From Plato and Aristotle to Erich Fromm and John Alan Lee, thinkers have sliced up the complex phenomenon of love in different ways. One of the most prominent approaches outside of academic philosophy is Sternberg’s “triangular” theory of love.
Sternberg thinks that we can best describe love as composed of three “primary” components that combine to produce all the kinds of love that we observe around us: intimacy, passion and decision or commitment. These can be combined to produce the “mixed” forms: companionate love (intimacy and commitment), romantic love (intimacy and passion) and fatuous love (passion and commitment). If all components are balanced, we get consummate or “perfect” love.
Sternberg thinks that we can best describe love as composed of three “primary” components.
The first component is what he calls “intimacy.” This is a bit misleading because Sternberg uses the word to mean the emotional component of love (“how it feels”), rather than what we would today call “being intimate,” that is, having sexual relations. For Sternberg, intimacy means warmth, closeness, connection and bondedness — all feelings that one would have in a close friendship. A love that is only composed of this kind of intimacy would be pure “liking,” what Aristotle would call “philia,” friendship, and it is printed in black in the picture above.
The second component is “passion”. Now, this is “eros” in the words of Plato: romantic, physical, sexual attraction. Sternberg describes this as a “motivational” component of love, which means that it is that component that motivates us to act, to pursue the object of our love, to call, to send flowers, to invite them to dinner and to a weekend on the beach. But a love that’s only passion, without the other two components, is a purely sexual infatuation — a temporary loss of our sanity. But it won’t be stable and it won’t really be emotionally satisfying if it lacks intimacy and commitment.
The third essential part in Sternberg’s theory of love is the commitment, the decision that we make to be in love with this particular person. It sounds a bit strange to say that a rational decision can be part of something as crazy as love — but obviously, a cool decision must at some point be part of love. A couple who are married for fifty years cannot build a stable relationship like that on pure sexual attraction or friendship. At some point, the sexual attraction will be gone, and there will also be many moments of disagreement, of frustration, of quarrels. The only way to get through that and to achieve a life-long love is through sheer commitment. It is no accident that marriage vows typically emphasise this aspect of love: you will stay with your spouse “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” That’s not sexual attraction speaking, and that’s not friendship. That’s sheer force of will. Again, this alone would not be sufficient. A relationship built only on an abstract decision lacks actual, well, love. And so Sternberg calls this “empty” love.
A timeline of the concept of love, from Plato and Aristotle, through early Christianity, courtly love and Christian mysticism, to romantic love and love towards robots.
Intimacy, passion and commitment
The three components of Sternberg’s theory of love differ in many respects. For example, they differ in how stable they are: Intimacy and decision/commitment more stable over time than passion.
They also differ in how much they can be consciously controlled: Commitment is a purely rational decision, and so is most easy to control of the three; intimacy somewhat less; and passion least of all. This has practical consequences. You cannot blame someone for not feeling passion for their spouse any more; but you can very well blame them for not honouring their commitments.
The three components also differ in how much the lovers are aware of them: Passion is usually quite obvious to the subject. We either feel sexual attraction or we don’t, and it’s easy to tell which it is. But intimacy or commitment may not always be consciously perceived in everyday life. We might not realise that we’ve lost a good friend until they’re gone. Or we might not realise how strong our commitment to our relationship is until it’s tested by some external event: an illness, a loss, or a temptation.
We either feel sexual attraction or we don’t, and it’s easy to tell which it is. But intimacy or commitment may not always be consciously perceived.
The types of love
From these three ingredients, Sternberg in his theory of love cooks up a whole menu of different loves. If we have none of the components in a relationship, then it doesn’t deserve to be called “love” at all. This would perhaps describe the relationship towards people we travel with on a bus, or some of our more indifferent colleagues at work.
Liking (intimacy alone) gives a superficial friendship that never develops into something more substantial. As long as it lacks commitment, it can never even be said to be “real” friendship.
Infatuation (passion alone) would be “love at first sight.” Extreme attraction, but it lacks both commitment and any sort of warm, companionate feelings. Perhaps that might describe a purely sexual encounter, a one-night stand.
For Sternberg, empty love (decision/commitment alone) would be what’s often at the end of long-term relationships that have lost both their sexual fire and any strong feelings of friendship or bonding.
These are the basic types. But now we can mix these types and arrive at composite kinds of love.
Romantic love, made of intimacy and passion, would consist of feelings of closeness and connection, together with strong physical attraction.
Companionate love (intimacy and decision/commitment) describes a long-term, stable, and committed friendship: how we’d relate to a best friend or a long term marriage.
Fatuous love would be passion and decision/commitment. It’s a kind of commitment based on passion alone, and it’s typically unstable. I imagine that this must be how fans who are in love with famous pop singers might experience this love: sexual attraction and total commitment to the star, but no friendship, no companionship, no bonding in real life.
And, finally, consummate love for Sternberg is the best, most complete form of love, in which all three components come together in perfect balance.
In Plato’s Symposium, Plato defines love as the desire for the eternal possession of the good.
Is Sternberg’s theory of love right?
Over the years, there’s been a lot of discussion about Sternberg’s love triangle, indicating that perhaps things are not always as neat as the triangle suggests.
First, we must realise that each relationship between two people will probably involve different triangles for each person. The way each participant perceives a relationship might be wildly different. One might say it’s only based on sex; the other might say it is too emotional, and that the sex is never enough. These discrepancies are just the stuff that causes people to seek relationship counselling, and they are very real.
Another difference might be between the way we feel about love in general, and how important particular aspects of it are to our real relationships. For example, most people would say that Romeo and Juliet is a great love story, but most people wouldn’t want to have a relationship like that. Our Western society at this point in its history tends to emphasise the over-sexualisation of love, but again, individual people might not feel that this describes their own feelings and attitudes in a relationship. Surveys might therefore get it wrong when they ask questions about what respondents think about love. Does the question mean what they intellectually think about love, or is it asking how their own relationship is lived (which might be a totally different thing).
Most people would say that Romeo and Juliet is a great love story, but most people wouldn’t want to have a relationship like that.
For example, in the Sternberg (1997) paper, respondents agreed more on what is characteristic in a relationship (in principle), than they agreed on what is important to them personally. This perhaps shows a strong influence of the culture in shaping our expectations of love; but also people’s ability to separate the cultural prototype from their lived experiences.
And finally, it seems that Sternberg’s triangle ratings correlated very strongly with relationship satisfaction. So if a relationship scored high on all three dimensions, then the participants would probably also experience the relationship as satisfactory. Interestingly, satisfaction was correlated stronger with intimacy than with passion or commitment.
One could also ask why some aspects of love are only assigned to particular love types? So, for example, why is the motivation only measured in terms of passion? Could we not be motivated by “intimacy,” for example? Can we not be motivated to act so that we improve our relationship with a good friend, even if we don’t have sexual relations with them?
Sternberg’s theory of love seems interesting, and it is tempting to think that we can easily analyse something so complex as love by using a simple triangle and three components. But, in the end, many questions remain. Next time, we will visit another theory of love, John Alan Lee’s “Colours of Love” and see if that can describe that “thing called love” any better.
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