What Are The Three Parts Of Sternberg's Triangular Theory Of Love?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Sternberg's triangular theory of love, developed by psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, posits that relationships comprise three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. The people in a relationship can express different types of love, such as companionate love or romantic love, based on the components present in their relationship. The ideal relationship goal is often to experience consummate love, which encompasses all three components: deep intimacy, physical passion, and long-term commitment. Utilizing this theory of love may help strengthen your relationships over time.

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Sternberg's theory of love

Sternberg's triangular theory of love isn't the only theory in social psychology that looks to explain loving relationships. However, it does explain what love could be and why we might choose it. It was published in 1986 in Psychological Review (Cambridge University Press), a journal that publishes theoretical contributions to scientific psychology.

Who is Sternberg?

RJ Sternberg is a professor in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and an honorary professor at Germany's Heidelberg University. He has also served as a university president and a provost and held the chair of ethical leadership for the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

A well-respected psychologist, Sternberg has been the president of the American Psychological Association and editor of perspectives for the Psychological Bulletin. He has contributed much to the field of social psychology.

Sternberg's triangular theory of love is only one of his interests. Sternberg has also been a part of developing theories and educating his students and the public on intelligence, creativity, wisdom, leadership, thinking styles, ethical reasoning, and hatred.

What is Sternberg's triangular theory of love?

Sternberg's triangular theory of love is based on the image of a triangle. The triangle represents the concept of love, and each point is a different aspect of love. Sternberg states that you don't need all three elements in any one relationship, but the totality of the concept of love includes all three points of the triangle.

According to Sternberg's triangular theory, the three aspects of love are intimacy, passion, and decision or commitment. Like a triangle, the love represented by these components may have different dimensions and different types of balance.


At the top of the triangle in Sternberg's triangular theory of love is intimacy, one of the three potential components of love in close relationships. Intimacy may bring feelings of warmth, deep affection, and closeness. You may gain intimacy as you emotionally invest in the relationship. While you might have some control over the intimacy you feel, you often don't wholly control these feelings.

Sternberg described intimacy as the feeling of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in a relationship. Each of these components of intimacy might add to the love you feel for someone. However, Sternberg states you don't have to have all these feelings to achieve intimacy in an ideal relationship.


The left point of the Sternberg triangle is passion. When you feel passion, it may lead you to experience romantic love, physical attraction, and sexual desire. Passion can include motivation for loving as well as other sources of arousal. It's a physiological experience that creates intense feelings and may result from genetic and cultural factors.

Humans may be built for physical experiences of passionate love in close relationships. Through the vast expanse of human experience, arousal has often been important as a gateway to reproduction. Cultural factors, such as arranged marriage, play a role as well. Aspects of culture may not only tell us who's attractive but may also teach us socially acceptable ways to show our sexual passion in relationships.

Your passion for someone might involve the following love components:

  • Romance: A feeling of general excitement and mystery associated with a partner or a relationship
  • Physical Attraction: Arousal that comes from recognizing the body, facial features, or physical movements as desirable
  • Sexual Desire: Needs vary depending on the individual and type of relationship


Decision-making is the thought process we typically use when we choose whether to show the expression of love in the short term. By making decisions to love in the here and now, you may move closer to a long-lasting commitment in your relationships. On the other hand, you may prefer to keep the relationship casual, enjoying it for the moment without thinking about what lies ahead.

The commitment component in social psychology is a long-term decision to maintain the relationship over time and space. Most relationships are without challenges of some kind. You may experience times when your passion for your partner decreases or you feel less affection for each other.

Philosophers may disagree about how many choices we have in life. Some say we control our destinies, while others say we're helpless to choose who we are and who we love. Of course, others feel that choice is real, but the actions of others limit it.

For Sternberg and many other psychologists, loving someone comes from a decision or a commitment. You can like the way someone looks. You can want to be close to someone. If you decide not to follow through by expressing your love and feelings, a loving relationship will most likely not develop. One's commitment often determines the types and lengths of relationships that result.

Further studies show that commitment may only be effective in increasing marital satisfaction in relationships that have high levels of healthy communication as well, indicating that commitment may not be enough on its own for some individuals.


Commitment can carry you through hard times and keep you together in good times. You may make a different decision every day, but when you decide to make or break a commitment, it can significantly impact your well-being and relationships.

How do the three parts work together?

Sternberg emphasized that, although love may be composed of the components of intimacy, passion, and decision, the pieces work together to form a complete whole.

How do the three parts work together? Sometimes one component plays the most crucial role, while the others add to the overall experience of love.

For example, your commitment to love and care for your child may be the most critical aspect of your love for them. Because you are typically responsible for them as they grow, you may feel a profound need to be there for them and stay in the relationship. You may also feel passion for the potential that's within them. A parent's love may be considered consummate, companionate, or other types of love, depending on the individual relationship between parent and child.

One component of love often increases another element. Imagine that you appreciate someone's physical beauty. This attraction might prompt you to connect with them on an emotional level. At that point, you might decide whether to appreciate the connection in a singular moment or commit to them in the long term.

The three components of different types of love

The three components of love work together differently in various types of love.

  • In liking, you experience intimacy without passion or commitment.
  • In infatuation, you feel passion but not intimacy or commitment.
  • In empty love, you commit to the relationship without feeling intimacy or passion.
  • In romantic love, you feel passion and intimacy.
  • In companionate love, you feel closeness and commitment, as in a lifelong friendship.
  • In fatuous love, you feel the passion and commit without feeling intimate, such as in a quick courtship.
  • In consummate love, you experience an unconditional love that combines all three components, including sexual consummation.

How can you maintain love in a relationship?

Studies estimate that the current rate of divorce in America is between 50% to 67%. These figures may only tell part of the story since many couples stay together for a time without ever marrying.

Long-lasting loving relationships often require more than a verbal commitment. A decision to stay in the relationship with loving actions that maintain the three components of love may also be necessary.

How to maintain intimacy

To maintain intimacy, it's often helpful to spend quality time together. Stagnation may lead to the end of a long-term relationship. To keep the experience of love fresh and immediate, varying when and how you show your love might be effective. Leaving space for the relationship to change over time could increase your likelihood of staying together in the long term.

Making a concerted effort to work on both your physical and emotional intimacy (depending on your and your partner's needs and preferences) can have quite an impact. Small actions like discussing your day together, sitting down for dinner without your phones, or scheduling regular date nights may facilitate intimacy.

How to maintain passion

Because you may have less conscious control over passion, it can be the most challenging component in maintaining a long-term relationship. Passion is a motivation that often comes from need.

To maintain passion, it can be effective to be mindful of your and your partner's needs and how you can fulfill them within the relationship. In many cases, passion tends to increase when both intimacy and commitment are present.

How to maintain commitment

Of the three components of love, you may have the most control over your commitment to the relationship. The commitment often remains strong when you make the relationship an essential part of your life. Your commitment can keep you in the relationship longer and make it possible for you to remain devoted to the tasks of increasing intimacy and passion.

If you're dissatisfied with your relationship at any time, a helpful strategy could be to assess the strength of each of the three components of love between yourself and your partner. You could then take action to increase your commitment and make efforts to improve intimacy, possibly allowing passion to come more naturally.

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Online couples therapy may help you to maintain love

It can be normal to experience challenges in relationships, but if you're having a hard time maintaining love, you may choose to seek help from a mental health professional. Online therapy may be one effective way to do this.

Suppose you and your partner have busy schedules. In that case, a potential benefit of online therapy is that you can schedule sessions at times that would be considered before or after hours at a traditional therapist's office.

Many people wonder whether online therapy will be as effective as in-person therapy. A study from 2020 followed numerous couples as they went through the process of online couples therapy. Many expressed doubts initially, but after experiencing the process, they found it practical and beneficial for their relationships.

If you’ve decided that therapy would benefit you, you might consider an online platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. Online options offer a large database of counselors with up-to-date research and resources.

Read below for counselor reviews from online therapy users who have sought help for similar concerns.

Counselor reviews

“Dr Paula has been a great therapist for me. She was readily available when I needed her. She was supportive of me and my partner and I thoroughly enjoyed her as my therapist.”

“Such an insightful therapist. He gets right to the point. I felt like such a terrible person, and he made me realize that I have a good heart and my situation is not an unusual one. I learned with my partner that I cannot own her stuff. We all have to take ownership of our own insecurities and life challenges. We can’t pass those onto our partners.”


One of the key components of Sternberg's triangular theory of love is that there are various kinds of love made up of three parts: passion, intimacy, and commitment. For many romantic relationships, the goal may be to experience consummate love, a combination of all the components, including friendship love.

You might use Sternberg's theory to improve and deepen the love in your relationship, even navigating the complexities of a love triangle, by focusing on two or more components. Another tool that could increase relationship health and satisfaction is online couples therapy, which may allow you and your partner to talk through issues and strengthen your bond at first sight or beyond.

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