A Series on Love: The Triangular Theory

In my counseling practice, it’s typical for half of my cases to be couples and the other half to be individual clients. No matter who is in my office, I find myself often talking about attachment, love, sex, and the ways they affect all our lives. Although we’re still 6 months out from Valentine’s Day (yep… I’ll wait while you check your calendar), love is always a topic on my radar. So I’m launching a blog series on love: summarizing some great theories, starting some practical conversations, and (hopefully) setting you on a path for a really great V-Day in a few months!

Love is complicated. I mean, sometimes it’s pretty simple, but usually only when our brains are experiencing an emotional high. One of my most-used diagrams is of the Triangular Theory of Love. Robert Sternberg looks at loving relationships using three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment.


Intimacy is the closeness, connection, bond, and general friendship in a relationship. When a relationship only contains intimacy, it is referred to as Liking/Friendship. Passion is the arousal state that leads to romance, physical attraction, and sexual tension and consummation in a relationship. When a relationship only contains passion, we call it Infatuated Love. Commitment can be both the choice to love and the decision to maintain that love over time. When a relationship only contains commitment, we call it Empty Love.

If a relationship doesn’t contain any of the three components, it’s Non-Love, and Sternberg developed the term Consummate Love for when all three components are at play. But look at all the combinations! Romantic Love is when a relationship lacks commitment. Fatuous Love is when a relationship lacks intimacy. Companionate or Friendly Love is when a relationship lacks passion.

It’s normal for relationship to go through ebbs and flows, but the levels of each component in a relationship at any given time allows us to assess where we need to grow as individuals within out relationships. Think of a significant relationship in your life. Where are your strengths? Weaknesses? Think about where you can take some initiative, how you can verbalize your emotional needs, and where you need to draw the line in what’s important for your heart.

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