Commitment, Passion, And Intimacy: The Robert Sternberg Theory Of Love

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, there are generally three components that can combine to form different types of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment. The absence of these three components may result in non-love, while the combination of all three combinations can create consummate love, often thought to be the highest type of love. There may be six other types of love as well: friendship, infatuation, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, and fatuous love. If you’d like to cultivate more intimacy, passion, and commitment in your relationship, you may wish to consider trying online couples therapy.

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Cultivate commitment, passion, and intimacy in your relationship

The triangular theory of love

According to Sternberg's theory of love, there may be three components of love that can be laid out in a triangle. These three components can include intimacy, which may refer to feelings of closeness and safety, passion, which can refer to romantic attraction and sexual desire, and commitment, which may refer to the desire to commit to a specific person and plan your lives together. 

Each of these three points can combine to form consummate love, often considered the highest and most complete form of love, according to Sternberg. When only one or two points are incorporated, there can be a variety of other types of love that may result, including friendship, infatuation, romantic love, and others.

Intimacy

Intimacy generally refers to the close, intimate bond between two people. People who feel intimate love often have a very strong emotional and intellectual bond. People in intimate love often feel comfortable around one another and aren't nervous or anxious around their partner. 

Passion

Passion usually refers to sexual, emotional, romantic, and physical attraction. When passion is in play, people often feel aroused physically and may experience positive physical sensations from being around the person they love. In addition, they may feel especially happy or excited around their partner and experience strong emotions, both positive and negative, when navigating the relationship.

Commitment

Commitment typically refers to the conscious decision to stick with a partner and make long-term plans for future success and happiness together. Commitment can include promises to complete certain activities, like walking the dog every morning, promises to remain faithful, like a marriage proposal, or a more informal promise of love and exclusivity. 

Compassion vs. passion

When discussing the different forms of love from Sternberg's theory, there can be confusion between passion and compassion. Passionate love, which usually (but not always) takes place at the beginning of a relationship, is frequently characterized by intense emotions and strong sexual desire. Passionate love is sometimes described as a whirlwind-like feeling and is primarily what people experience when they describe "falling in love". 

Compassion, on the other hand, usually follows passion and can be characterized by deep affection, stability, and a sense of being comfortable in the relationship. While passion is often responsible for beginning relationships, compassion can help them flourish even when that initial passionate spark wavers.

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Forms of love

There can be varying types of love that result from different combinations of the three components of love. Sternberg usually identifies each of these types with a place somewhere on the love triangle. The last type, consummate love, typically represents the center of the love triangle and is often considered the highest form of love.

Non-love

Non-love can refer to the absence of a loving relationship. It usually does not contain any component of love. In non-love, there is typically no significant connection between people.

Friendship/liking

Friendship can include the intimacy point of the triangle, but not passion or commitment. Intimacy with friends is often less intense than intimacy that also incorporates other points of the triangle, but it can be just as strong as other forms of love. 

Infatuation

Infatuation typically includes the passion point of the triangle, but not intimacy or commitment. Infatuated love may refer to feelings of love that are not reciprocated, love at first sight, or other intense passionate feelings in the early stages of a relationship. To progress into a long-term relationship, most people must move beyond infatuation and develop deeper love that includes other points of the triangle. If intimacy and commitment are never developed, the relationship may die once the initial spark of passion is gone.

Empty love

Empty love usually includes the commitment point of the triangle but does not include the passion or intimacy that other forms of love have. Empty love may characterize a relationship like an arranged marriage, where both parties agree to commit to one another but do not yet feel any passionate or intimate feelings toward each other. 

Empty love may also describe a relationship where intimacy and passion have gradually faded, but both partners still reaffirm their commitment to one another by living in a household, raising children, or having other joint projects together. Throughout the course of long-term relationships, it can be common for passion and intimacy to ebb and flow, and in these circumstances, the commitment of empty love may be the foundation that holds a relationship over until passion and intimacy can grow again.

Romantic love

Romantic love often includes the points of passion and intimacy, but not commitment. Romantic love may refer to a casual relationship in which both parties haven't fully committed yet, an affair where one party is already committed to another person, or a short fling or one-night stand where partners become emotionally and physically close, but aren't yet ready to commit to one another.

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Cultivate commitment, passion, and intimacy in your relationship

Companionate love

Companionate love generally includes the points of intimacy and commitment but not passion. While it can be similar to friendship in many ways, companionate love is more often centered on a commitment to another person, in addition to intimacy. 

Fatuous love

Fatuous love usually includes the points of passion and commitment, but not intimacy. Fatuous love might refer to a "whirlwind romance" in which two people quickly fall in love and marry, despite not yet knowing one another very well. Over time, fatuous love may develop into other kinds of love, such as consummate love, or may fade into empty love if the passion fades or lacks intimacy long-term.

Consummate love

Consummate love typically includes all three points of intimacy, passion, and commitment. According to Sternberg, this is generally characterized as the ideal version of love, and one that makes for healthy, happy, lasting relationships with another person. 

While consummate love may make for the ideal relationship, in practice, it may be hard to sustain indefinitely. Instead, many couples may slip in and out of consummate love as other areas of the triangle wax and wane. Although consummate love may be the ideal, couples may not consistently experience consummate love. Instead, they may experience companionate love, romantic love, fatuous love, and empty love over the course of their relationship while also achieving consummate love at times.

Strengthen the components of love in therapy

Cultivating consummate love between yourself and your partner can be a worthwhile and rewarding goal, but it can also be challenging at times. A licensed couples therapist may help you work through any conflicts or difficulties that may arise in your relationship. They may also offer effective strategies for better communication, which can contribute to improved intimacy, passion, and commitment. If traditional therapy isn’t for you or doesn’t fit into your schedule, online therapy may be a more convenient and customizable option. The ability to get the professional help you deserve from the comfort of your home can be empowering.

A recent research study looked at the effects of online couples therapy on 15 couples. Although many of the couples had initial doubts, they were generally able to form strong therapeutic alliances with their therapists. Many participants reported that the online therapy process was positive and beneficial for their relationships.

Takeaway

According to Robert Sternberg, the three components of commitment, passion, and intimacy can combine in various ways to create different kinds of love. These may range from non-love (the absence of these three components) to consummate love (the presence of all three components), as well as six types of love in between: romantic love, fatuous love, companionate love, infatuation, empty love, and friendship. Online couples therapy can be a helpful tool if you’d like to work toward embodying consummate love with your partner.
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