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Where Do Your Characters Fit in the Triangular Theory of Love?

Is your character one half of a couple? Let’s find out which sides of Sternberg’s triangle feature highly in their romance and what that might mean for the future of their relationship.

If love had a shape, what would it be? According to Robert Sternberg, a triangle. (Yes, it’s a love triangle. No, not that kind.)

So far in our exploration of psychologically grounded relationships, we’ve seen love portrayed as a swirl of colours that blend together to make six unique styles. This time, let’s picture love as a shape—one that can be perfectly balanced, solid in its foundation and secure on two other fronts, like an equilateral triangle; or one that has disproportionate sides, prone to toppling when it meets opposition.

This, my friend, is how I envisage Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. Shall we find out where your characters fit into it?

As you probably surmised from the name, this particular theory claims that three basic elements make up love:

Intimacy

How close you are to your partner; how connected and warm you feel towards them; the strength of the bond between you—all of these feature in the intimate component of love. If you care about your partner’s happiness and feel very close to them, chances are your relationship has high levels of intimacy.

This component is fairly stable in a loving relationship, though not necessarily consciously acknowledged. You may not recognise those warm feelings you have towards someone, but you feel them all the same. When you are aware of them, this element of love becomes far more controllable, giving you a degree of influence over how intimate you feel towards someone.

Passion

This component is all about the fire in a relationship—physical attraction, arousal and romance. While intimacy is concerned with feelings of warmth, passion is hot, hot, hot. It’s also very influential in short-term relationships.

Like ‘love at first sight’, passion can fade or increase over time, making it an unstable element of love. It’s also an uncontrollable component at a conscious level—it’s very hard to decide who you fall in love with or are attracted to, though once you feel that passion, it tends to be easily identifiable.

Commitment

Where intimacy and passion are ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ components respectively, commitment is the ‘colder’ aspect of love. It’s a decision, in the short term, to love someone and, in the long term, to maintain that relationship. Along with intimacy, commitment is a major feature of long-term relationships.

Because it’s a relatively conscious decision, commitment is highly controllable and stable in close relationships. However, the level of commitment you feel in a relationship may not become apparent to you until something challenges it.


Want to give your characters’ relationships a psychological basis? See where they fall in Sternberg’s triangle here.

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Types of Love

These components—intimacy, passion and commitment—make up the three sides of Sternberg’s triangle. Combine them in different quantities and tip the balance one way or another and you get eight distinct “love styles”. These are:

Non-Love

This is the most common type of relationship we have and lacks all three components of love. Essentially, it describes the casual, non-romantic relationships we have with others, such as acquaintances.

Liking

This love style features intimacy, but passion and commitment are absent. It can apply to non-romantic friendships, which have high degrees of closeness, warmth and bondedness, without the passion or long-term commitment to love someone present in other styles.

Infatuated Love

Think of ‘love at first sight’ and you have infatuated love. High in passion, but lacking in intimacy and commitment, this type of love is comparable to Lee’s ‘Eros’ love style, with psychological and physiological arousal playing a large part. Infatuated love tends to happen suddenly and fade away with equal haste.

Empty Love

Here, commitment to a long-term relationship is high, but passion and intimacy aren’t present. This could be because the ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ feelings have faded from relationship, signalling its approaching end, or because there were never any of these feelings there to begin with. An example of the latter might be an arranged marriage. Just because intimacy and passion don’t feature in the relationship at the start, however, doesn’t mean they can’t develop over time.

Romantic Love

Intimacy and passion are the key elements of romantic love, whereas commitment plays less of a role. It’s the emotional closeness and physical attraction between partners that characterises this love style, which is commonly seen in film and literature (e.g., Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet).

Compassionate Love

Featuring high levels of intimacy and commitment, compassionate love often appears in long-term relationships in which passion has diminished. The feelings of closeness and dedication remain, however, meaning the partners in this love style are usually very good friends.

Fatuous Love

This love style is characterised by passion and commitment without the steadying influence of intimacy. In these cases, couples may fall passionately in love and commit to a long-term relationship over a very short timespan, possibly weeks or even days. Without those bonds of closeness, however, it’s very easy for the relationship to break down. (Think of whirlwind romances that sputter and die away or shotgun weddings that end in divorce.)

Consummate Love

The last of Sternberg’s love styles involves all three components of love: intimacy, passion and commitment. This is often seen as the ideal type of relationship, featuring feelings of closeness, physical attraction and the long-term commitment to love someone. But just because you have a consummate love style doesn’t mean it’s a permanent thing—maintaining all three elements of love is something to work at continuously if you want to have a consummate love style!


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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