Saturday, October 17, 2009

Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love

I've mentioned another of Robert J. Sternberg's theories about love here already, but since I've been asking what the truth is about love, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Sternberg's triangular theory of love, illustrated in graphic form above. He tried to answer a number of questions:
What does it mean "to love" someone? Does it always mean the same thing, and if not, in what ways do loves differ from each other? Why do certain loves seem to last, whereas others disappear almost as quickly as they are formed? (119)
His response was the triangular theory which
holds that love can be understood in terms of three components that together can be viewed as forming the vertices of a triangle. These three components are intimacy (the top vertex of the triangle), passion (the left-hand vertex of the triangle), and decision/commitment (the right-hand vertex of the triangle). (The assignment of components to vertices is arbitrary.) Each of these three terms can be used in many different ways so it is important at the outset to clarify their meanings in the context of the present theory.
The intimacy component refers to feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships. [...]
The passion component refers to the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena in loving relationships. [...]
The decision/commitment component refers to, in the short term, the decision that one loves someone else, and in the long term, the commitment to maintain that love. The decision/commitment component thus includes within its purview the cognitive elements that are involved in decision making about the existence of and potential long-term commitment to a loving relationship. (119)
These three kinds of love can be appear in different combinations and quantities in any given relationship, so for example if only the passion component is present, Sternberg would classify this as "Infatuated love. Infatuated love is "love at first sight." Infatuated love, or simply, infatuation, results from the experiencing of passionate arousal in the absence of the intimacy and decision/commitment components of love" (124). On a different point of the triangle we find "Empty love [...] the kind of love one sometimes finds in stagnant relationships that [...] have lost both the mutual emotional involvement and physical attraction that once characterized them" (124) but "in societies where marriages are arranged, the marital partners may start with the commitment to love each other, or to try to love each other, and not much more. Such relationships point out how empty love [...] can be the beginning rather than the end" (124).

For Sternberg, the "kind of love toward which many of us strive, especially in romantic relationships" (124) is "Consummate love. Consummate, or complete, love results from the full combination of the three components" (124). Unfortunately, some romance novels may fail to convince readers that all three components are present in the central relationship. Although the couple may seem passionately attracted to each other and have made a commitment to marry by the end of the novel, this may not be sufficient to ensure that the reader believes in the happy ending. Or, to put it in Sternberg's terms, the reader may not be convinced that the couple are experiencing "consummate love." Rather, the reader may feel that the couple are in the throes of
Fatuous love. Fatuous love results from the combination of the passion and decision/commitment components in the absence of the intimacy component. It is the kind of love we sometimes associate with Hollywood, or with whirlwind courtships, in which a couple meets on Day X, gets engaged two weeks later, and marries the next month. It is fatuous in the sense that a commitment is made on the basis of passion without the stabilizing element of intimate involvement. (124)
Of course it is possible for "fatuous love" to develop into "consummate love" and some readers may be happy to assume that it will, but other readers may well want to be given evidence that "consummate love" exists before they will believe in the happy ending. Snitow, writing about romances in the late 1970s, wrote that
After one hundred and fifty pages of mystification, unreadable looks, "hints of cruelty" and wordless coldness, the thirty-page denouement is powerless to dispell the earlier impression of menace. Why should this heroine marry this man? And, one can ask with equal reason, why should this hero marry this woman? These endings do not ring true. (250-251)
I'd suggest that perhaps they did not "ring true" for Snitow because the "thirty-page denouement" rapidly converted "infatuated love" into "fatuous love" but left her entirely unconvinced that the couple had the necessary intimacy to achieve "consummate love."1

Cohn, however, has suggested that often sexual responses are intended to be read as proof of a deeper, emotional connection:
The formulaic discovery that the heroine's sexual response to the hero proves her love for him is critical to the strategies of romance fiction. For one thing, it provokes an a posteriori moral alibi for her earlier eroticism; her response to the hero was, after all, a response out of love. More important, it enlists sexuality under the banner of love, subduing sex itself to the ends of love. Female sexuality, though it may have been elicited by male sexuality, has its own character as handmaiden to love. (Cohn 29)
More recent romances have, in general, become rather more explicit about the passionate aspects of romantic relationships. In fact, in a review at AAR of Julia James's Just the Sexiest Man Alive the reviewer commented that, "in a shocking twist, there’s no sex – and I really mean that – and I definitely felt the lack. For a book being marketed as a romance, it’s an odd choice." Other reviewers also felt the need to warn readers about this aspect of the novel: "I feel I should warn you that there isn't ANY sex in the book. I mean, it's mentioned but we get no details" (Rowena, at The Book Binge). Clearly a lot of modern romance readers want to have detailed proof that the characters are not merely experiencing "Companionate love. This kind of love evolves from a combination of the intimacy and decision/commitment components of love. It is essentially a long-term, committed friendship" (Sternberg 124).

But explicit or not, and whether a romance features a sexually experienced heroine or a virginal one who's awakened to her sexuality by a mere kiss, there can be a tendency for passion to be read as an indicator of True Love in a way which obliterates the distinction between emotional and sexual intimacy and reminds me of Betty Everett's Shoop Shoop song:

I'm not convinced that intimacy can be detected "in his kiss" or even in the most intense of multiple orgasms, and far from being easy to write, the equilateral triangle of "consummate love" poses a considerable challenge to authors.2

  • Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.
  • Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P., 1983. 245-63.
  • Sternberg, Robert J. "A Triangular Theory of Love." Psychological Review 93.2 (1986): 119-135.

1 This suggestion is strengthened by Snitow's statement that "When women try to imagine companionship, the society offers them one vision, male, sexual companionship" (252). In other words, the intimacy required for consummate love is lacking in these representations of romantic relationships, but passion is not.

2 As Sternberg points out, there can be a lot of variations in the triangles produced:
The geometry of the love triangle depends upon two factors: amount of love and balance of love [...] differences in area represent differences in amounts of love experienced [...]: the larger the triangle, the greater the amount of experienced love. [...] Shape of the triangle. [...] The equilateral triangle [...] represents a balanced love in which all three components of love are roughly equally matched. [...] a scalene triangle pointing to the left side, represents a relationship in which the passion component of love is emphasized over the others [...] By varying both the area and the shape of the triangle of love, it becomes possible to represent a wide variety of different kinds of relationships. (128)

Graphic from Wikipedia.


  1. Love is in the doing/action. If I love you, I take care of your heart, that's it. In love one can only answer for self so love openly and don't put up with anyone who is reckless with your heart even if that person is you. For we are often the the ones most reckless with our hearts. I like your blog and will visit again very soon.

  2. I first heard about Sternberg's triangle six or seven years ago, Laura, from a student who didn't explain it terribly well. The way you've described it here makes the description seem quite useful, although I think that his overlay of short-term and long-term commitment is a bit confusing. (Practically speaking, it strikes me that there's a significant difference between "the decision that one loves someone else" and "the commitment to maintain that love.") Could one have a "consummate love" without that "commitment to maintain that love"? How long does a relationship have to be to qualify for "consummate" status?

    Your use of this triangle to talk about romance novels reminds me of a conversation I had last night with An Goris about Laura Kinsale's novel "Prince of Midnight." In this novel, the declaration of love comes quite early, at least from the hero, and it's repeated quite often--but the novel insists on the radical insufficiency of the declaration, and even of the emotions behind it. They signal a love that is passionate and intimate and committed, at least in the short term. However, this first sort of love is essentially something that happens within the lover, not (as it were) BETWEEN the hero and heroine, as a love with a deeper or longer commitment would inevitably be. It's a novel, therefore, where the "betrothal" element (in Pam Regis's terms) has the kind of importance that Lisa Fletcher ascribes to the "I love you" declaration--the "I love you" statement isn't the crucial one, but rather the commitment to "you and I, together."

    Sorry if that's a bit confused--I'm trying to factor in the new terms, and not being terribly eloquent about it!

  3. I suppose that should be "commitment to 'you and me, together," to get the syntax right. But you get the idea!

    One fascinating side-note with "Prince of Midnight": the novel offers a recurring parallel to human companionate love in the relationships between people and animals they've trained: in this case, horses (and one trained wolf). I noticed an article on oxytocin not long ago that talked about a spike in that hormone's level in the bloodstream after people play with their pets, so the novel may be on to something!

    One piece on the study is here:

  4. "I think that his overlay of short-term and long-term commitment is a bit confusing. (Practically speaking, it strikes me that there's a significant difference between "the decision that one loves someone else" and "the commitment to maintain that love.")"

    Yes, there is a difference, and I think that's why Sternberg separates out short-term and long-term commitment.

    I think perhaps we also need to distinguish between formal, legal "commitment" and emotional "commitment." Sternberg's not referring to legal commitments such as betrothal or marriage when he writes about long-term commitment. He's really only describing the emotions (though they may lead to actions, such as marriage): "The decision/commitment component refers to, in the short-term, the decision that one loves someone else, and in the long term, the commitment to maintain that love" ("A Triangular" 119).

    Here's what he has to say about the decision/commitment component in a slightly later essay:

    The Decision/Commitment Component. The decision/commitment component of love consists of two aspects, one short term and one long term. The short-term one is the decision that one loves someone. The long-term aspect is the commitment to maintain that love. These two aspects of the decision/commitment component of love do not necessarily go together, for the decision to love does not necessarily imply a commitment to that love. Nor does commitment necessarily imply decision, oddly enough. Many people are committed to the love of another person without necessarily even admitting that they love or are in love with that person. Most often, however, decision will precede commitment. (121)

    It sounds as though in the novel you mention the hero may have made the short-term commitment, but the heroine needs to be convinced that he has also made a long-term commitment. In Heyer's The Grand Sophy the poet who's in love with a secondary character seems to have made the short-term commitment to her, but he doesn't think ahead to any kind of future commitment. Conversely, as Sternberg says, you can find heroes who behave as though they're committed for the long-term, but who take a while to admit to themselves that they are in love. You also have arranged marriage/marriage of convenience stories where the formal long-term commitment is in place, but the emotional aspects, both long and short-term, aren't there. In a sense, those novels begin with what looks like a commitment, legally speaking, but in relationship terms isn't necessarily a very real commitment at all.

    So I'd think that in a romance novel, for a relationship to reach the ideal on this point of Sternberg's triangle it requires both the "I love you" (short-term decision/commitment) and a "betrothal" which has an emotional commitment. Thinking about it, I have the feeling that when characters in romances enter into arranged marriages/marriages of convenience, there's usually a point at which they reaffirm those vows, or in some other way really commit to them in the sense that Sternberg's calling "long-term commitment."

    I really don't know how all this would relate to particular chemicals such as oxytocin that are mentioned in that article, but some of the relationships that can be plotted on the triangle include friendships and relationships with family members, so I don't see any reason why it couldn't also be used to help describe relationships with pets.


    Sternberg, Robert J. "Triangulating Love." The Psychology of Love. Ed. Robert J. Sternberg and Michael L. Barnes. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. 119-138.

  5. "Love is in the doing/action"

    Sternberg has something to say about this, too:

    Thought Versus Action Triangles. It was noted [...] that the triangle representing the way an individual feels toward another may differ from the triangle perceived by the other. There can be any number of sources of this discrepancy in perceptions, but one of the most powerful is the failure of many individuals to express their love fully in action. It is one thing to feel a certain way, but another to express these feelings; often the feelings fail to be communicated because of the inability or unwillingness of the individual to translate the three components of love into actions. [...] The actions that convey each of the three components of love differ. For example, intimacy might be expressed through communication or doing something concrete to support the other person. Passion might be expressed through hugging or making love. Commitment might be expressed through fidelity or some tangible symbol, such as a ring. ("Triangulating" 135)

  6. Sternberg seems like a very reasonable thinker about love, which I admire. I'm not surprised that he distinguishes between short and long-term commitment (as you say, not necessarily legal commitment); the potential confusion, I think, comes from the
    diagram rather than the theory, since the difference isn't as clearly visible from the triangle graphic as it is from the actual wording of the article.

    It's fascinating that you use the poet sub-plot of Heyer's The Grand Sophy as a point of comparison, since one thing the heroine of Prince of Midnight repeatedly says to the hero, before his final commitment to her, is that he should have been a troubadour. It's as though both novels are distinguishing between poet-love (which may be passionate and even committed, in a certain way, but not passionate, intimate, and committed, long term) with some other kind of love that romance novels espouse.

    "I really don't know how all this would relate to particular chemicals such as oxytocin that are mentioned in that article..."

    --I was thinking here of the discussion of oxytocin in the comments to your earlier post, "Tell Me the Truth About Love."

    When David Cox bemoans the fact that "the hypothalamus spoils the party by releasing a hormone called oxytocin, which puts something of a damper on things," it strikes me that he's saying something very odd indeed. As a hormone that underwrites long-term affection, oxytocin doesn't "put a damper" on passion--it simply adds another side to the triangle, the companionate side.

    Similarly, I note that what Cox calls "true love," or at least what he says that romantic comedy MOVIES call "true love," is closer to what Sternberg calls "romantic love" or even "fatuous love." When he says that "true love" doesn't last, he's being deliberately provocative, but if we take it that he really means "infatuation doesn't last," or even "fatuous love doesn't last," the statements strike me as both truer and much more banal.

    (As for the idea that companionate love precludes passion, because of oxytocin or anything else, that strikes me as untrue--but maybe I'm just extrapolating from my own happy experience?)

  7. The thing I see missing from that representation is a visual representing the most basic and important truth I know about love--or at least about committed love--which is that it moves in and out of different states over time.

    This useful information came to me from a book called The Day I Became an Autodidact and it was stated something like this: "People fall in and out of love with the same person all the time. The people who don't understand this are the ones who get divorced." Luckily I read that just a few years into my now 18 year old marriage and it has proven true many, many times. -- willaful

  8. "As a hormone that underwrites long-term affection, oxytocin doesn't "put a damper" on passion--it simply adds another side to the triangle, the companionate side. [...] I note that what Cox calls "true love," or at least what he says that romantic comedy MOVIES call "true love," is closer to what Sternberg calls "romantic love" or even "fatuous love.""

    Yes, and I suppose if someone's concept of love is a bit like that of the troubadours then it's based around not knowing or having emotional intimacy with the other. It's about feeling passion for a mysterious other. In that case, anything that increases intimacy would tend to "put a damper" on passion, since that person's passion derives from a lack of intimacy.

    "The thing I see missing from that representation is a visual representing the most basic and important truth I know about love--or at least about committed love--which is that it moves in and out of different states over time."

    Willaful, again, to borrow Eric's words,

    "the potential confusion, [...] comes from the diagram rather than the theory, since the difference isn't as clearly visible from the triangle graphic as it is from the actual wording of the article."

    Maybe he'd have had to make the graphic animated and three dimensional to get closer to the complexities of love. And he'd need to include more than one triangle since there are the differences between one person's concept of their own triangle of feelings, and how the other person perceives the original person's triangle of feelings. So in any relationship between 2 people, you'd actually have 4 triangles, all moving and changing over time. He also mentions other triangles, which are what people would ideally like to feel (or ideally like the other person to feel). So representing all this visually would be very complicated.

    In his articles he does say quite a bit about the way that triangles change over time. He suggests that "The three components have different time courses, practically guaranteeing that relationships will change over time. Part of the success of these relationships depends upon the adaptability of the people involved to these changes" ("Triangulating" 137).

    He thinks that "Attaining consummate love can be difficult, but keeping it is even harder" (129) and he suggests that "Most romantic love relationships that do, in fact, survive eventually turn into companionate love relationships: the passion begins to melt, but the intimacy remains. Passion may be replaced over time by long-term and deeply felt commitment." (127)

    Eric's "happy experience" may be different, though, and there has been some more recent research which suggests that some couples do retain consummate love over a very, very long time. Eric mentioned this a while ago. Apparently scientists

    from Stony Brook University in New York scanned the brains of couples who had been together for 20 years and compared them with those of new lovers. They found that about one in 10 of the mature couples exhibited the same chemical reactions when shown photographs of their loved ones as people commonly do in the early stages of a relationship.

  9. For me, this is a satisfying explanation for what I'm looking for from a HEA in a romance novel. I think all three elements you've set out have to be there to satisfy me. I've previously thought of it as two elements: a marriage of minds (intimacy) and a sexual connection (passion), but actually, yes, it is more than that. The commitment is part of it too, and interestingly, with the classic 'rake' hero, is often the longest-withheld, perhaps because it's easier to deliver than the other two in that final 30pages?

  10. When does loving someone become using someone for material things, ex. the man asking money from a woman whom they claim that they love. Also he calling the person little woman, after they have consumated their love, sexually, changing all the promises that he made to the woman after two months of intense passion. Only maintained relationship when he asked money from the woman. When the woman refused to give money that she had promised, but later changed her mind. Then he refuses to see or talk to her until she "honors her promise". How does this fit into Sternberg's Love theory. The woman is very passionately in love with him and have difficulty letting go. She knows that he is using he but still cannot let go... and wishes she can change him... and have a consumated love with him..

  11. When does loving someone become using someone for material things

    Well, according to Sternberg's theory, there has to be at least one of passion, intimacy and commitment for a person to be feeling any of the kinds of love he describes. If someone is only interested in "using someone for material things" then they probably aren't feeling passion, there probably isn't much intimacy, and any commitment would appear to be to the material things, rather than to the relationship itself.

    If the other person, is feeling passion, then they're experiencing "infatuation."

    I'm no expert on Sternberg's research on love, but as far as I know, Sternberg doesn't offer any advice on what the infatuated person should do. However, given that he thinks it's difficult to maintain consummate love even in the best of circumstances, I'm not sure he'd offer much hope that the relationship in this scenario would ever transform itself into consummate love.

  12. i think that this theory is very interesting. I am studying psicologhy and I like it a lot. However it doesn't appear the types of triangle comparations. I can't understand this. It's very dificult. Excuse me, I don't know speak English a lot. I expect that you understand me.

  13. The way I understand the triangles is like this. Each side of the triangle represents one of the 3 aspects of love: intimacy, passion, commitment. If you don't have all three sides, your can't properly finish drawing the triangle.

    Only "consummate love" is a proper triangle with three sides. All the other kinds of love have only one or two sides, which means they're not full triangles.

    Does that make sense?

  14. who have the ebook of this robert triangular book??

    1. It's an academic article and you can buy it from here but I don't know how much that would cost. A lot of academic libraries are probably subscribed to the journal, so then it would be free to students/staff at the institutions attached to those libraries.