If Love Had a Shape: Writing About the Triangular Theory

Writing romance? See where your characters fit in to Sternberg’s triangular theory, then mix and match elements to create maximum conflict in your couple’s lives.

What type of love style do your characters have?

Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, the focus of the last Psychology & Storycraft post, combines intimacy, passion and commitment in varying ways to form eight kinds of love style. Now let’s look at how we can use those in our stories.

Forming Love Styles

Maybe you don’t have a clear image of your character’s love style in mind. That’s okay—through combining high and low levels of intimacy, passion and commitment, you can work out the love style that matches her best.

Think about your character’s personality and her partner’s and consider how the three basic components of love apply to them. In case you’ve forgotten, let’s recap:


This concerns the emotional investment in a relationship. Has your character known her partner for a long time? A close friend, perhaps? Are there feelings of warmth and connectedness between them? This will affect their level of intimacy.


This concerns the motivational and physical elements of love. Are the two physically attracted to each other? Have romantic intentions? If so, their level of passion is likely to be high.


This concerns the cognitive decision to commit to a relationship. Does your character want to love her partner? Is she dedicated to maintaining a relationship, either because she wants to or feels obliged to? When the relationship is a long-term one, commitment will be increased.

Keeping your character and her partner in mind, decide which components are high in their relationship and which are low. Once you know, consult the list of Sternberg’s love styles and find the one that matches them best. This can guide you when writing about their relationship and possibly highlight a few areas of conflict that you can exploit.

Dissecting Love Styles

Working from the opposite direction, if one particular love style sticks out to you, you can use the varying degrees of its components to figure out what factors in to this relationship type. Once you know that, you can match your characters with the perfect obstacles to overcome.

Example: You know you want your protagonist to have a whirlwind romance that later turns sour. Using Sternberg’s theory, you work out that she has a fatuous love style, which is characterised by high levels of passion and commitment and low levels of intimacy.

Now that you know what elements make up this love style—lots of physical attraction and dedication to a romance, with a relative lack of emotional closeness—it’s clear in your mind what this relationship is going to be like. It also opens up several avenues for complicating or developing the relationship

Mismatched Components

What happens if one character feels highly committed to a relationship, but her partner doesn’t? What about a character who has a strong physical attraction to another, a feeling that isn’t returned?

By mismatching the three basic components of love, you can create barriers to forming a relationship, obstacles to overcome while in a relationship, and possible reasons for the dissolution of a relationship—perfect ammunition for a writer looking to torture her characters a little.

Evolution of Love

Love styles don’t have to be permanent. Just because a relationship begins as one type, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Example 1: Your character’s marriage is arranged for her and her relationship with her partner begins as empty love—high levels of commitment, with low levels of passion and intimacy. Over time, the couple get to know each other, grow closer emotionally, and eventually passionate love might develop.

Example 2: At the start of the story, your character has high levels of all three components of love: intimacy, passion and commitment. She grows complacent or is distracted, however, and her consummate love style regresses to compassionate or empty love. She may try to remedy this or attempt to end the relationship altogether. Either way, let’s not make things easy for her!

Over the course of the story, develop your characters’ relationships, positively or negatively—just don’t let them stagnate without consequences! We love to read about characters who are changed by their journeys, so keep things interesting and fresh by introducing new twists and turns to their interpersonal relationships.

Want to see a different approach to love styles and what they involve? Check out John Lee’s six colours of love.

A Final Treat

Want to see a visual guide to Sternberg’s triangular theory? I’ve created a workbook just for you. Pop over to the Secret Library to download a copy!


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