The triangular theory of love is a theory of love developed by Robert Sternberg. In the context of interpersonal relationships, "the three components of love, according to the triangular theory, are an intimacy component, a passion component, and a decision/commitment component."
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Sternberg says that intimacy refers to "feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships," passion refers to "the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena in loving relationships" and decision/commitment means different things in the short and long term. In the short-term, it refers to "the decision that one loves a certain other", and in the long-term, it refers to "one's commitment to maintain that love."
The three components of love as described in the theory are as follows:
Passion can be associated with either physical arousal or emotional stimulation. Passion is defined in three ways:
Intimacy is described as the feelings of closeness and attachment to one another. This tends to strengthen the tight bond that is shared between those two individuals. Additionally, having a sense of intimacy helps create the feeling of being at ease with one another, in the sense that the two parties are mutual in their feelings.
Intimacy is primarily defined as something of a personal or private nature; familiarity.
Unlike the other two blocks, commitment involves a conscious decision to stick with one another. The decision to remain committed is mainly determined by the level of satisfaction that a partner derives from the relationship. There are three ways to define commitment:
"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." Different stages and types of love can be explained as different combinations of these three elements; for example, the relative emphasis of each component changes over time as an adult romantic relationship develops. A relationship based on a single element is less likely to survive than one based on two or three elements.
Of the multiple different early and later theories of love, there are two specific early theories that contribute to and influence Sternberg's theory.
The first is a theory presented by Zick Rubin named The Theory of Liking vs. Loving. In his theory, to define romantic love, Rubin concludes that attachment, caring, and intimacy are the three main principles that are key to the difference of liking one person and loving them. Rubin states that if a person simply enjoys another's presence and spending time with them, that person only likes the other. However, if a person shares a strong desire for intimacy and contact, as well as cares equally about the other's needs and their own, the person loves the other. In Sternberg's theory, one of his main principles is intimacy. It is clear that intimacy is an important aspect of love, ultimately using it to help define the difference between compassionate and passionate love.
The second, presented by John Lee, is the color wheel model of love. In his theory, using the analogy of primary colors to love, Lee defines the three different styles of love: Eros, Ludos, and Storge. Most importantly within his theory, he concludes that these three primary styles, like the making of complementary colors, can be combined to make secondary forms of love. In Sternberg's theory, he presents, like Lee, that through the combination of his three main principles, different forms of love are created.
Sternberg also described three models of love, including the Spearmanian, Thomsonian, and Thurstonian models. According to the Spearmanian model, love is a single bundle of positive feelings. In the Thomsonian model, love is a mixture of multiple feeling that, when brought together, produce the feeling. The Thurstonian model is the closest to the triangular theory of love, and dictates that love is made up of equal parts that are more easily understood on their own than as a whole. In this model, the various factors are equal in their contribution to the feeling, and could be disconnected from each other.
Sternberg's triangular theory of love was developed after the identification of passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love is focused on the present at the onset of a relationship, while companionate love endures and grows over time with deep meanings in that relationship. Both are different kinds of love but are connected in relationships.
Passionate love is associated with strong feelings of love and desire for a specific person. This love is full of excitement and novelty. Passionate love is important in the beginning of the relationship and typically lasts 3-12 months. There is a chemical component to passionate love; those experiencing it enjoy an increase in the neurotransmitters phenylethylamine and oxytocin. There is empirical research, particularly from Panksepp linking love to the opioid circuit in the brain. These feelings are most commonly found in the most early stages of love.
Companionate love follows passionate love. Companionate love is also known as affectionate love. When a couple reaches this level of love, they feel mutual understanding and care for each other. This love is important for the survival of the relationship. This type of love comes later on in the relationship and requires a certain level of knowledge for each person in the relationship.
Sternberg created his triangle next. The triangle's points are intimacy, passion, and commitment.
Intimate love is the corner of the triangle that encompasses the close bonds of loving relationships. Intimate love felt between two people means that they each feel a sense of high regard for each other. They wish to make each other happy, share with each other, be in communication with each other, help when one is in need. A couple with intimate love deeply values each other. Intimate love has been called the "warm" love because of the way it brings two people close together. Sternberg's prediction of this love was that it would diminish as the relationship became less interrupted, thus increasing predictability.
Passionate love is based on drive. Couples in passionate love feel physically attracted to each other. Sexual desire is typically a component of passionate love. Passionate love is not limited to sexual attraction, however. It is a way for couples to express feelings of nurture, dominance, submission, self-actualization, etc. Passionate love is considered the "hot" component of love because of the strong presence of arousal between two people. Sternberg believed that passionate love will diminish as the positive force of the relationship is taken over by opposite forces. This idea comes from Solomon's opponent-force theory.
Commitment, or committed love, is for lovers who are committed to being together for a long period of time. Something to note about commitment, however, is that one can be committed to someone without feeling love for him or her, and one can feel love for someone without being committed to him or her. Commitment is considered to be the "cold" love because it does not require either intimacy or passion. Sternberg believed that committed love increases in intensity as the relationship grows. Commitment can be considered for friends as well.
Sternberg believed love to progress and evolve in predictable ways; that all couples in love will experience intimate, passionate, and committed love in the same patterns.
Although these types of love may contain qualities that exist in non-loving relationships, they are specific to loving relationships. A description of non-love is listed below, along with the other kinds of love. These kinds of love are combinations of one or two of the three corners of Sternberg's triangle of love.
The three components, pictorially labeled on the vertices of a triangle, interact with each other and with the actions they produce so as to form seven different kinds of love experiences (nonlove is not represented). The size of the triangle functions to represent the "amount" of love—the bigger the triangle, the greater the love. Each corner has its own type of love and provides different combinations to create different types of love and labels for them. The shape of the triangle functions to represent the "style" of love, which may vary over the course of the relationship:
Sternberg's triangular theory of love provides a strong foundation for his later theory of love, entitled Love as a Story. In this theory, he explains that the large numbers of unique and different love stories convey different ways of how love is understood. He believes, over time, this exposure helps a person determine what love is or what it should be to them. These two theories create Sternberg's duplex theory of love.
"Personal relationships that have the greatest longevity and satisfaction are those in which partners are constantly working on sustaining intimacy and reinforcing commitment to each other."
In a study done by Michele Acker and Mark Davis in 1992, Sternberg's triangular theory of love was tested for validity. By studying a population that extended outside the typically studied group of 18- to 20-year-old college students, Acker and Davis were able to study more accurately the stages of love in people. Some criticism of Sternberg's theory of love is that although he predicted the stages of a person's love for another person, he did not specify a time or point in the relationship when the stages would evolve. He does not specify whether the different parts of love are dependent on duration of relationship or on the particular stage that relationship has reached. Acker and Davis point out that the stage and duration of the relationship are potentially important to the love component and explore them.
They find that there are no exact answers because not only each couple, but each individual in the couple experiences love in a different way. There are three perceptions of the triangular theory of love, or "the possibility of multiple triangles". Multiple triangles can exist because individuals can experience each component of love (or point of the triangle) more intensely than another. These separate triangles, according to Acker and Davis and many others, are 'real' triangles, 'ideal' triangles, and 'perceived' triangles.
These 'real' triangles are indicative of how each individual views the progress and depth of his or her relationship. The 'ideal' triangles are indicative of each individual's ideal qualities of his or her partner/relationship. The 'perceived' triangles are indicative of each individual's ideas of how his or her partner is viewing the relationship. If any of these three separate triangles do not look the same as a person's partner's triangles, dissatisfaction is likely to increase.
Sternberg's triangular theory of love may not be as simple as he initially laid it out to be. Sternberg measured his theory on couples who were roughly the same age (mean age of 28) and whose relationship duration was roughly the same (4 to 5 years). His sample size was limited in characteristic variety. Acker and Davis announced this issue as being one of three major problems with Sternberg's theory. Romantic love, in particular, is not often the same in undergraduate level couples as couples who are not undergrads. Acker and Davis studied a sample that was older than Sternberg's sample of undergraduates. Sternberg himself did this in 1997.
The two other most obvious problems with Sternberg's theory of love are as follows. The first is a question of the separate nature of the levels of love. The second is a question of the measures that have previously been used to assess the three levels of love. These problems with Sternberg's theory continued to be studied, for example Lomas (2018).
In a large-scale cross-cultural study published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2020, the cultural universality of the theory was supported.