Sternberg's Triangular Theory and the 7 Types of Love

Intimacy, passion, and commitment all have a role in relationships

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Love is essential to our well-being. Though most have experienced it in their lives, they would have differing responses when asked to define love. Few researchers have put forth a viable theory on the concept of love. The triangular theory of love, developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Dr. Robert Sternberg, however, tries to do just that. His theory suggests that people can have varying degrees of intimacy, passion, and commitment at any one moment in time.

Three Components of Love

In Dr. Sternberg's theory, the concept of love is introduced as a love triangle that is made up of three components:

  • Intimacy, which involves feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness
  • Passion, which involves feelings and desires that lead to physical attraction, romance, and sexual consummation
  • Decision/Commitment—feelings that lead a person to remain with someone and move toward shared goals

Finding a balance between the physiological need for sex and the need for love is essential, and the complete absence of all three components is categorized as non-love.

Types of Love

The three components of love interact in a systemic manner, working off of one another. The presence of a component of love and a combination of two or more components create seven kinds of love experiences.

These types of love may vary over the course of a relationship as well.

Friendship

This type of love is when the intimacy or liking component is present, but feelings of passion or commitment in the romantic sense are missing. Friendship love can be the root of other forms of love.

Infatuation

Infatuation love is characterized by feelings of lust and physical passion without liking and commitment. There has not been enough time for a deeper sense of intimacy, romantic love, or consummate love at the beginning of the relationship. The other forms of love may eventually develop after the infatuation phase eases up. The initial infatuation is often 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

Empty love is characterized by commitment 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

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

Companionate love is an intimate, but non-passionate sort of love. The intimacy or liking component and the commitment component of the triangle make up companionate 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

In this type of love, commitment and passion are present while intimacy or liking is absent. Fatuous love is typified by a whirlwind courtship and marriage in which passion motivates a commitment without the stabilizing influence of intimacy. Often, witnessing this leaves others confused about how the couple could be so impulsive. Unfortunately, such marriages often don't work out and when they do, many often chalk them up to "luck."

Consummate Love

Consummate love is made up of all three components and is the total form of love. It represents an ideal relationship. Couples who experience this kind of love 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 face stressors together.

"Love Is a Verb"

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.

Without behavior and expression, passion is lost and love may revert back to the companionate type instead.    

Your Relationship Is Unique

Dr. Sternberg's theory is dependent on the fact that the importance of each component may differ from one person to another and from one couple to another. Yes, all three components are required for the ideal romantic relationship, but the amount of each component required will differ from one relationship to another, or even, over time within a particular relationship. Knowing how these components interact with one another may help highlight areas that may need improvement.

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Article Sources
  • Sternberg R. A triangular theory of lovePsychol Rev. 1986;93(2):119-135. doi: 10.1037//0033-295x.93.2.119

  • Love. Robert J. Sternberg. http://www.robertjsternberg.com/love/. Published 2018.