What Is Sternberg's Triangular Theory Of Love? A Closer Look

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Expert review by Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST
Clinical Sexologist & Psychotherapist
Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST, is a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist with 12 years of clinical experience. She is a licensed counselor in California, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. She is also a certified sex therapist, certified addiction professional, and president of the Therapy Department, a private practice in Orange County that provides counseling services throughout the United States.
The 3 Components Of True Love, According To One Psychological Theory

There's no question that a relationship will go through many phases over the years and that many emotions are involved in the development of said relationship. There are plenty of theories about the types of love and the emotions that go into it, but according to one theory, there are three main components of love. This theory is known as Sternberg's triangular theory of love.

Sternberg's triangular theory of love.

Developed throughout the '80s and '90s by psychologist and professor Robert Sternberg, Ph.D., the triangular theory of love identifies three main components of love: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Each of the three encompasses different emotions, with all three resulting in what Sternberg calls complete or consummate love.

His original paper on the theory analyzes the works of Freud and other well-known psychologists to come up with the theory of his own. We asked him how he came up with it, to which he replied, "I was at a point in my life in which a relationship I was in was not going all so well. I thought about different relationships I had been in and came to the conclusion that there were three elements that dominated the relationships, at least in terms of love."

And as a matter of fact, his theory was just proved universal through research on over 7,300 people across 25 countries.

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The 3 components of the theory:

1. Intimacy

In Sternberg's triangular theory of love, intimacy in a relationship deals with how close, connected, and trusting one feels toward another, Sternberg tells mbg. It also deals with communication, and namely, how well you can do it. Overall, it's about feelings of closeness and connection, or "how intimate and tied to the other person one feels," Sternberg says.

2. Passion

Passion, as you might have guessed, is about how passionate the relationship is. It encompasses "how excited one gets in thinking about or being with the partner," Sternberg says, or "how much one feels one absolutely needs the partner." And of course, it also deals with sexual attraction. When we have a relationship that feels electrifying and easy to obsess over, that would fall under passion, too.

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3. Commitment

The third element of the triangular theory of love is commitment, or "the extent to which one is in the relationship for good," as Sternberg explains it. And it's the only one of the three that's conscious or intentional. There is a decision component to this in the short term, which leads to long-term commitment. Sternberg describes it as "the level at which one says 'this is it; I don't need to keep looking!'" and chooses to continue the partnership.

How the types of love intersect.

Interestingly (and importantly), the three components can and do interact in different ways, leading to different types of love.

As marriage therapist and certified sex educator Lexx Brown-James, LMFT, recently told mbg, "A relationship without intimacy and passion that solely has commitment is called empty love. These relationships can survive; however, partners might look more like roommates than lovers."

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The eight combinations of love, according to Sternberg:

  1. None of the three = non-love
  2. Intimacy = friendship
  3. Passion = infatuated love
  4. Commitment = empty love
  5. Intimacy + passion = romantic love
  6. Intimacy + commitment = companionate love
  7. Passion + commitment = foolish or fatuous love
  8. Intimacy + passion + commitment = complete or consummate love

Since its inception, though, Sternberg also became interested in how love actually develops, as opposed to focusing on what love is. This led to his theory of love as a story. "Different stories lead to different patterns of love in the triangular theory," he says.

The combos people could have according to the triangular theory of love gave rise to Sternberg's idea of love as a story, or "the idea is that we all have a set of stories of love." According to him, these ideas we have of love tell us what we think a relationship should be and thus govern how our relationships play out. "Examples of stories are the fairy-tale story, the business story, the travel story, [etc.]," he notes. "Each story has two predefined roles. For example, the roles in the fairy-tale story are a prince and a princess, and in a business story are two business partners."

How can I tell what type of love I have?

It's worth noting that every relationship will have their own balance of the three components. But according to Sternberg, "different relationships highlight different aspects. If you feel like friendship dominates, you may be specializing in intimacy. If you feel like sex dominates, you may be experiencing infatuated love, and so forth."

To figure out which of the eight combinations you have, consider the three components and to what degree they are present in your relationship. How much intimacy, passion, and commitment is there?

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The bottom line.

There are countless theories about what constitutes love, and only you can really understand your own feelings and relationships. Sternberg's triangular theory of love, which has now been widely proved, is an excellent tool if you're looking to figure out the emotions behind your relationship and even where it may be falling short. By working to strengthen the three components of intimacy, passion, and commitment, according to this theory, your relationship will be better because of it.

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