What is Sternberg’s triangular theory of love
In 1984, Tina Turner released the hit song, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Interesting question with a short answer: Everything!
Love, and the intimacy usually inherent in it, impacts our quality of life.
But there are many types of love—we don’t all love the same and we don’t all express our love the same way.
And there are various types of loving relationships.
J. Sternberg: The Triangular Theory of Love, his Love as a Story Theory, and we will end with his Duplex Theory of Love.
Sternberg first proposed the Triangular Theory of Love in 1986.
This theory starts by identifying three dimensions of loving relationships: Intimacy, passion,
Sternberg later adjusted the dimension of commitment to include decision.
Remember that these are dimensions, meaning your relationship could have no passion to
a lot of passion—and anywhere in between.
Further, the three dimensions can interact with each other: for example, an increase
in intimacy can result in increased passion or commitment.
Once you understand what these dimensions are and how your various loving relationships
score on each dimension, you can then categorize your relationships.
Think of the three dimensions as a little like the x, y, and z axis on a three-dimensional
chart or matrix.
In this visual model, I’ve placed Intimacy on the X axis, Commitment on the Y axis, and
Passion on the Z axis.
With this viewpoint, you should be able to see that you can plot all three components
to show the relationships between them.
We’ll start with Intimacy, which involves the feelings of being connected, close, and
This dimension embodies trust, caring, honesty and transparency, supportiveness, being understanding
We often achieve intimacy through self-disclosure: sharing our feelings and emotions and allowing
others to share theirs with us.
Passion—well, think romance with a capital R. This is what drives us to be romantic:
we are physically attracted to someone, excited and aroused, enjoy a sexual relationship,
and long to be with that person.
Decision/Commitment is the intent to stay with that person and being committed to the
It involves being loyal and devoted, putting the other’s needs above your own, and needing
This could be short-term (you are committed for the moment), but is more often viewed
as long-term commitment, the intention to maintain that relationship.
Notice that I’ve referenced both the person and the relationship, because that could vary.
Sternberg believes that you can decide to commit yourself to the person, but not the
You can also commit to the relationship but not be in love with the person.
Of course, there are blends of these dimensions.
Based upon this theory, you can create eight different components of love.
While I’m going to discuss these as if they are binary states: either you have intimacy
in your relationship or you don’t, remember that these are dimensions: you can have none,
some, or a lot.
Obviously, relationships exist that have none of these components: no intimacy, no passion,
If you accept that, to be love, there has to at least some intimacy, some passion, or
some commitment, then the absence of any of these is non love.
So this is not one of the eight types of love—because there is no love.
We’ll start with the first three one-dimensional types of love.
If you have intimacy only, but no passion or commitment in your relationship, Sternberg
calls that “Liking.”
You enjoy being around each other, share of yourself, but are not romantically involved
or committed to the relationship.
If your relationship is strong in passion, but doesn’t include intimacy or commitment,
you are experiencing “infatuated love.”
You’re enjoying the excitement and/or sexual passion, but that’s about it.
If you have made the decision to commit to the relationship without intimacy and passion,
you would be experiencing empty love.
Think of how many arranged marriages may start out this way or parents who stay together
for the sake of the children or financial reasons but really don’t enjoy each other.
Or those who stay in relationships only because they believe that a promise is a promise.
Now let’s go to the blends.
If your relationship is high in intimacy and passion, but lacking commitment, you are experiencing
There is more to your relationship than just sexual excitement—you enjoy sharing each
other’s company, thoughts, and feelings, but you aren’t really committed to the relationship.
A combination of intimacy and commitment is Companionate love, sometimes called Compassionate
You enjoy each other’s company and you are committed to the relationship, but there is
really no romantic passion or sexual excitement.
When you blend passion and commitment, without intimacy, you get fatuous love.
Fatuous is defined as foolish or inane, or unreal.
Using this definition, you think you are in love because you have the passion and are
committed to the relationship and/or the person, but if there is no intimacy, it is all an
And the love that most of us are searching for includes all of these elements: intimacy,
passion, and commitment, or Consummate love, sometimes called complete love.
I’ve shown this in a chart, but it might be helpful to look at it as Sternberg pictured
it: a triangle with consummate love in the middle as it is composed of all of the elements:
intimacy, passion, and commitment.
Sternberg also addressed the geometry of what he called the “love triangle” as dependent
on the amount and balance of love.
The greater the amount of love, the greater the area, or size, of the triangle.
And if there are differences in balance, for example, greater intimacy and limited passion,
the shape of the triangle will differ.
But truly balanced love, with equal amounts of each component, would result in an equilateral
And, of course, one person in the relationship may diagram their love one way while the other
diagrams it differently.
As a quick follow-up, Sternberg proposed a new theory in 1994, which views love as a
The Theory of Love as a Story acknowledges that we learn about love through the stories
we are exposed to: we watch how others navigate loving relationships, as we are exposed to
people in real or fictional life: in person, on television or in movies, or in written
We also create our own stories based upon our own experiences.
We then judge our existing relationships and choose to initiate, maintain, and terminate
loving relationships based upon the standards we have created based upon these stories.
Way back in 1985 when I did my master’s thesis on impact of Harlequin Romance novels
on perceptions of love and courtship, one out of every ten paperback books sold was
a Harlequin Romance novel.
The most recent figures at the time of this recording come from the Romance Writers of
America which estimate that the romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market is 34%–that
means that one out of every three fiction books sold are telling love stories.
While the Numbers website ranked Romantic Comedies as #7 in market share for the movie
industry, those are just those films marketed as romantic comedy, not including those other
genres that fold in romance as part of the subplot.
Sternberg acknowledges that, because his research has been conducted in the United States, there
is likely some cultural bias in the themes he and his colleagues have found in the love
The list of the 26 most common themes posted on his website is too long to get into here;
suffice it to know that, with this plethora of love story themes, you and those you will
come in contact with will likely have both similar and different stories of what love
should look like.
In 2006, Sternberg merged the two theories into a single theory, named the Duplex Theory
of Love, explaining that the love triangles identified in the Triangular Theory of Love
develop because of the love stories we are exposed to and create.
Regardless of the theory, love definitely has a lot to do with our quality of life.
Some claim it that it is the reason for life.
Civil Rights leader Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying, “Where there is love, there is
life,” implying that without love, there is no life.
So, pay attention to your love and how you communicate it and you will take care of your