A triangular theory of love

Sternberg, R. J. (1986) A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

In this article, Sternberg proposes that love can be conceptualised as consisting of three primary components: passion, intimacy and commitment. These can be conceptualised as a `love triangle` with the three components forming the vertices.

Passion `the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena` (p. 119)
Intimacy `feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships` (p. 119)
Commitment `the decision that one loves someone else and ... the commitment to maintain that love` (p. 119)

These components may be combined to characterise eight kinds of love.

Kind of love Passion Intimacy Commitment
Nonlove - - -
Liking - X -
Infatuation X - -
Empty love - - X
Romantic love X X -
Companionate love - X X
Fatuous love X - X
Consumate love X X X

Sternberg notes that the relative emphasis of each component changes over time as an adult romantic relationship develops.

Passion Passionate arousal tends to occur at the beginning of relationships, peaks relatively quickly and then reduces to a stable level as a result of habituation. Following relationship termination, an individuals capacity for passion appears to go negative for a period of time, as the individual overcomes feelings of loss.
Intimacy Intimacy tends to peak slower than passion and then gradually reduces to a relatively low level of manifest intimacy as interpersonal bonding increases. Changes in circumstances, however, tend to activate latent intimacy, which can cause the manifest level of intimacy to return or exceed its earlier peak.
Commitment In successful relationships, the level of commitment rises relatively slowly at first, speeds up, and then gradually levels off. Where relationships fail, the level of commitment usually decreases gradually and descends back towards the baseline.

Sternberg goes on to compare his theory with existing research and to consider a how partners love triangles could be compared, that an individual may have both ideal and real triangles, self and other triangles and interactions between all these.

This model of love is primarily of interest here as it was used by Levy and Davis (1988) when investigating adult romantic attachments.  

Document Summary - Copyright © 2003 Richard J. Atkins
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