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.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).
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)
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.