Commitment, Passion, Intimacy: Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love

By Margaret Wack|Updated March 31, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

Philosophers have shared a variety in opinions on love over time, from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. A well known one is the Triangular Theory of Love. Robert Sternberg, a Professor of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and Honorary Professor at Heidelberg University, Germany, is a recent contribute to the field with his Triangular Theory of Love. Sternberg developed the Triangular Theory of Love while teaching and researching at universities, including Oklahoma State University, Tufts University, and Yale University.


Along with this theory of love, Sternberg has a variety of other theories about human experience and emotions on topics such as intelligence, creativity, wisdom, leadership, thinking styles, ethical reasoning, love, and hate. Well-respected in his field, Sternberg is one of the most significant psychologists and thinkers working today, especially in regard to his theory of love.

The Triangular Theory Of Love

According to Sternberg's theory of love, there are three main components of love, which can be laid out on a triangle. The components are intimacy, which refers to feelings of closeness and safety; passion, which refers to romantic attraction and sexual desire; and commitment, which refers to the desire to commit to a specific person and plan your life together. Each of these three points informs Consummate Love, the highest and most complete form of love, according to Sternberg. When only one or two points are incorporated of types of love, there are a variety of other types of love that may results, including friendship, infatuation, and romantic love.


Intimacy in the theory of love refers to the close, intimate bond between two people. People who feel intimate love may share their deepest feelings with one another, and 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. In addition, intimate love may refer to a very close relationship between friends or family members that includes a long-term commitment to each other's wellbeing.


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


Commitment in the theory of love refers to the 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, or even just an implicit attitude of working with someone toward shared goals and desires. Commitment can be present in romantic relationships, but can also be a characteristic of very close relationships between friends and family members who commit to support each other through thick and thin of life.

Compassion Vs. Passion In Theory

When discussing the different forms of love on Sternberg's triangle, there is a common confusion between passion and compassion. Passionate love, which usually but not always takes place at the beginning of a relationship, is 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 is characterized by affection, stability, and a sense of being comfortable in the relationship. While passion is often responsible for beginning relationships, compassion helps them flourish even when that initial passionate spark wavers.


Forms Of Love

In The Triangular Theory Of Love

In addition to the three main points of Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love, there are a variety of sub-types that result from this configuration. Sternberg identifies each of these types with a place somewhere on the triangle. The last type, consummate love, represents the center of the triangle, and is considered the highest form of love.


Non-love in the theory of love refers to the absence of a loving relationship. It does not contain any point on Sternberg's triangle. In non-love, there is no significant connection between people and no positive relationship.


Friendship in the theory of love includes the intimacy point of the triangle, but does not include passion or commitment. Intimacy with friends is often less intense than intimacy that also incorporates other points of the triangle, but can at times be just as strong as other forms of love. Friendship can include close friendships, but may also refer to more casual friendships with acquaintances, as well as new friendships.


Infatuation in the theory of love includes the passion point of the triangle, but does not include intimacy or commitment. Infatuation may refer to feelings of love that are not reciprocated, or intense passionate feelings at the beginning of a relationship, when the love is still underdeveloped. In order to progress into a long-term relationship, most people need to 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 in the theory of love includes the commitment point of the triangle, but does not include passion or intimacy. Empty love may characterize a relationship such as an arranged marriage, where both parties agree to commit to one another but do not yet feel any passionate or intimate feelings. Empty love may also describe a relationship or marriage where intimacy and passion have gradually faded, but both partners still reaffirm their commitment to one another in sharing a household, raising children, or other joint projects. Throughout the course of long-term relationships, it's 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 in the theory of love includes the points of passion and intimacy, but does not include 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 even just a short fling or one night stand where partners become emotionally and physically close, but aren't yet ready to commit to one another.

Companionate Love

Companionate love includes the points of intimacy and commitment, but does not include passion. While it is in many ways similar to friendship, companionate love is centered on commitment to another person as well as intimacy. Companionate love may characterize a long-term relationship that is no longer sexual, as well as strong, committed relationships between friends or family members.

Fatuous Love

Fatuous love includes the points of passion and commitment, but does not include 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 and/or lacks intimacy long-term.

Consummate Love

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

Duplex Theory Of Love

Sternberg elaborated upon his Triangle Theory of Love in his Duplex Theory of Love. In the Duplex Theory, Sternberg theorizes that love and story share a powerful and complex relationship, often at the influence of one another. Stories that we're exposed to may condition or determine our ideas about love, and may lead to us desiring certain types of love over others. In addition, we can more easily categorize the love that we experience by relating it to certain types of stories that we identify with.

Love Theory: Sternberg

Types of stories that Sternberg identifies as being particularly influential when it comes to love include addiction, art, business, cooking, fantasy, games/gaming, gardens/gardening, government, history, horror, humor, mystery, religion, sacrifice, science, theater, travel, war, and education. People in love often use the metaphors inherent to each of these types of stories to describe their relationships. They might describe love as a mystery and entirely incomprehensible, or as a game in which both parties play to win according to specific rules. Ultimately, according to Sternberg, stories can have control of the way we conceptualize love.

Determine Which Type Of Theory Love You Feel

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