Love is a Triangle

Theories of love

Love has been studied for centuries, with people trying to define it and developing models to understand its permutations.

First, some caveats: Some may feel uncomfortable labeling, naming, and modeling different forms of love. Putting labels on something as amorphous as love can feel bad to some people, and applying logical thinking to emotional experiences can seem constrictive. On the other hand, some may feel that labeling, naming, and modeling different forms of love feels amazing and putting a word to something they’ve always felt is empowering and uplifting.

Triangle theory of love

Developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, the triangular theory of love was first published in Psychology Review in 1986 and can be boiled down to three different elements to form a triangle:

  • Intimacy: feelings of attachment, closeness, bonding, and familiarity.
  • Passion: enthusiasm, physical and emotional arousal, attraction, longing.
  • Commitment: decision to stay together, moving toward future goals, decision that you love the other person.

“The amount of love one experiences depends on the absolute strength of these three components, and the type of love one experiences depends on their strengths relative to each other.”

Robert Sternberg

Sternberg also came up with some examples of how different relationships might look when they have different mixtures of the aforementioned three elements:

  1. Liking/Friendship: high intimacy, low passion, low commitment.
  2. Empty Love: high commitment, low passion, low intimacy. A loveless, sexless marriage, or possibly an estranged co-parenting relationship, or certain friendships.
  3. Fatuous Love: high passion, high commitment, low intimacy. Love at first sight, very fast-moving relationship escalation.
  4. Companionate Love: high intimacy, high commitment, low passion. Certain long-term relationships, some family relationships, strong friendships, some chosen family.
  5. Romantic Love: high intimacy, high passion, high commitment. Could be a fling, an affair.
  6. Infatuated Love: high passion, low intimacy, low commitment. Temporary crushes, the beginning of a relationship, possibly a one-night stand.
  7. Consummate Love: high intimacy, high passion, high commitment. Sternberg describes this as an ideal form of love that many people strive for, but also cautions that this state can be temporary and come and go throughout a relationship.
  8. Non-love: Nothing.

Critique of Sternberg

Sternberg’s theory has mixed support from others who study love and relationships. Most of his study is based off of monogamous heterosexual couples, and the data drawn for it was almost all from college students. The majority of Sternberg’s studies also involved only American subjects. In 2020, however, a study was published in The Journal of Sex Research by a multi-national team of 115 researchers and observed over 7000 participants from over 25 different countries. Their findings supported cross-cultural universality to these three elements of love.

In the real world?

After publishing his first study, Sternberg expanded on his model in later studies, pointing out that at any given time and in any given relationship, we may be working with multiple triangles that we’re comparing to each other:

  • The ideal triangle vs. the real triangle: how I’d like the relationship to be versus how it actually is in the moment.
  • The self-perceived triangle vs. the other-perceived triangle: how I perceive the relationship versus how my partner perceives the relationship.
  • The feelings triangle vs. the action triangle: how did we feel the relationship versus what actions we take in the relationship.

It’s also been theorized that with all of these triangle comparisons, the more different they look from each other, the more likely it is that the relationship dissatisfaction will increase.

In the real world:

  • This can be used as a tool for taking the temperature of the relationship for yourself: “Is there a discrepancy between how I’d like the relationship to be and where it’s currently at?”
  • This is a great prompt for a check-in conversation with your partner: “What does our relationship triangle look like?” “How has it looked in the past?”
  • Are there ways I can express my intimacy, passion, and commitment that would help you feel that from me? Are there ways that my partner can express intimacy, passion, and commitment that would help me really feel that from them?



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We offer new ideas and advice for multiple forms of #love: everything from #conciousmonogamy to #ethical #Polyamory and radical #relationshipanarchy.