Sternberg’s Triangular Theory and the 7 Types of Love

three components of love

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

Though most have experienced it in their lives, defining love is challenging. Few researchers have put forth a viable theory on the concept of love. One exception is Sternberg's triangular theory of love, developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Robert Sternberg.

This theory suggests that people can have varying degrees of intimacy, passion, and commitment at any one moment in time. Research has emerged to confirm the value of Sternberg's theory. A 2021 study offered empirical support for the universality of the triangular theory of love.

This article discusses the three components of love that Sternberg described. It also covers the seven different types of love and the components of each type.

Sternberg’s 3 Components of Love

In Sternberg's theory, the concept of love is a triangle that is made up of three components. Some of these types of love are focused on the love between two people in a romantic or sexual relationship, but these types of love also apply to other forms of interpersonal relationships.

The three components are:

  • 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, which involves 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.

What Is a Love Triangle?

A love triangle is not the same thing as the triangular theory of love. In a love triangle, three people may either be involved in a polyamorous relationship or two people may compete for the love of a third person.

7 Types of Love

The three components of love interact in a systemic manner. The presence of one component or 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. For example, a relationship could begin as passionate love, progress into romantic love, and then eventually reach a state of companionate love.

Friendship

Components: Liking

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

Components: Passion

Infatuation 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 to develop. These may eventually arise after the infatuation phase. The initial infatuation is often very powerful.

Empty Love

Components: Commitment

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

Components: Intimacy and Passion

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 sexual passion and affection. These couples may be at the point where long-term commitment or future plans are still undecided.

Companionate Love

Components: Liking and Intimacy

Companionate love is an intimate, but non-passionate sort of love. It includes the intimacy or liking component and the commitment component of the triangle. It is stronger than friendship, because there is a long-term commitment, but there is minimal or no sexual desire. 

This type of love is often found in marriages where the passion has died, but the couple continues to have deep affection or a strong bond. This may also be viewed as the love between very close friends and family members.

Fatuous Love

Components: Commitment and Passion

In this type of love, commitment and passion are present while intimacy or liking is absent. Fatuous love is typified by a whirlwind courtship 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. When they do, many chalk the success up to luck.

Consummate Love

Components: Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment

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 Sternberg, 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.  

A Word From Verywell

According to Sternberg, the importance of each component of love may differ from person to person and couple to couple. 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 relationship.

Knowing how the components interact may help highlight areas that may need improvement. For example, recognizing that the passion has gone out of your relationship can help you look for ways to rekindle the spark.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Based on Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, who is most likely to have a companionate marriage?

    Couples who have been together for a long time are the most likely to have companionate love. While the initial passion may have faded, the relationship is still marked by deep intimacy and long-term commitment to one another.

  • In Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, what distinguishes liking from compassionate love?

    Compassionate love is another term for companionate love. According to Sternberg, liking and intimacy are the two components that make up this type of love. It is the lack of passion that distinguishes companionate love from passionate love.

  • How does Sternberg’s triangular theory of love pertain to dating?

    Understanding the seven types of love that Sternberg described can help give people who are dating greater insight into their relationships. Being able to recognize which type of love a person is experiencing can help them decide if the relationship has long-term potential.

  • What type of love is love at first sight?

    Love at first sight would qualify as infatuation in Sternberg's triangular theory of love. It is characterized by an immediate and intense attraction to another person. This type of love includes passion, but it lacks the liking and commitment components of love.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sternberg RJ. A triangular theory of love. Psychol Rev. 1986;93(2):119-135. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.93.2.119

  2. Sorokowski P, Sorokowska A, Karwowski M, et al. Universality of the triangular theory of love: adaptation and psychometric properties of the triangular love scale in 25 countries. J Sex Res. 2021;58(1):106-115. doi:10.1080/00224499.2020.1787318

  3. Sternberg RJ. Liking versus loving: A comparative evaluation of theories. Psychol Bull. 1987;102(3):331-345. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.102.3.331

  4. Sternberg RJ. Cupid’s Arrow : The Course of Love through Time. Cambridge University Press.