"What is love?" is the most Googled question ever. Love is essential to our well-being and often makes life worth living. Most of us would have a different definition if asked to define love. Few researchers have put forth a viable theory on the concept of love. The triangular theory of love was developed by psychologist Dr. Robert Sternberg in the late 1980's and has sustained popularity. His theory suggests that people can have varying degrees of intimacy, passion, and commitment at any one moment in time.
The first component of love, intimacy, involves feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness. The second component, passion, involves feelings and desires that lead to physical attraction, romance, and sexual consummation. Finally, the third component, commitment, include feelings that lead a person to remain with someone and move toward shared goals. Finding a balance between needs for sex and needs for love is essential.
The three components in Dr. Sternberg’s theory interact in a systemic manner, “pinging” off of each other. From this, seven kinds of love experiences may occur. "Types" of love may vary over the course of a relationship as well. The types of love represented within the triangle are the following: infatuation, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, and finally (the most ideal type), consummate love.
Infatuation is characterized by lust and passion.
There has not been enough time for a deeper sense of intimacy, romantic love or consummate love in the beginning of the relationship. The other forms of love may eventually develop after the infatuation phase eases up. The initial infatuation was and often is so powerful that people can "carry a torch" for one another, not completely knowing if they have what it takes for a sustaining, deeper and lasting love.
Empty love is characterized by commitment but without passion or intimacy. At times, a strong love deteriorates into empty love. The reverse may occur as well. For instance, an arranged marriage may start out empty but flourish into another form of love over time.
Romantic love bonds people emotionally through intimacy and physical passion. Partners in this type of relationship have deep conversations that help them know intimate details about each other. They enjoy a sexual passion and affection. These couples may be at the point where long term commitment or future plans are still undecided.
Companionate love is an intimate, but non-passionate sort of love. It is stronger than friendship because there is long term commitment. There is minimal or no sexual desire. This is often found in marriages where the passion has died, but the couple continues to have deep affection or a strong bond together. This may also be viewed as the love between very close friends and family members.
Fatuous love is typified by a whirlwind courtship and marriage in which passion motivates a commitment without the stabilizing influence of intimacy. We hear a lot about this amongst celebrities (e.g., Renee Zellweger and Kenny Chesney or Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett).
We may even know of people who have done this in our own circles, making us scratch our head wondering how they could marry so impulsively. Unfortunately, such marriages often don't work out and when they do, we chalk it up to "luck."
Consummate love is the total form of love and represents an ideal relationship. This is the sort of love that we associate with "perfect couples." These couples have great sex several years into their relationship. They cannot imagine themselves with anyone else. They also cannot see themselves truly happy without their partners. They manage to overcome differences and stressors faced together. According to Dr. Sternberg, however, consummate love may be harder to maintain than it is to achieve, as the components of love must be put into action. We have heard that "love is a verb" and this is what Dr. Sternberg means.
Without behavior and expression, passion is lost and love may revert back to the companionate type instead.
Dr. Sternberg’s theory of love is one among many, albeit it is one of the more popular and quoted defining frameworks. Whatever love is or might be, people recognize the value in both loving and being loved, and realize that life is much better with it than without.
Source: Sternberg, R. J. (1986) A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.