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

By Nadia Khan|Updated October 4, 2022

It Can Be Hard To Know How To Promote Mental Wellness

To some, the academic pursuit of a theory of love seems frivolous. Is it really important to find out what love is all about? Considering the potential of love to improve our lives, it's probably extremely important to understand this basic facet of human existence and the types of close relationships they form.

If understanding for the sake of being self-aware isn't enough for you, consider these benefits of a theory of love. A general theory of love can help us to:

  • understand our feelings better
  • choose love behaviors wisely
  • avoid or learn from negative love experiences
  • enjoy and appreciate the love for what it is
  • sustain love

Sternberg's Theory Of Love

Although Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love isn't the only theory in social psychology that looks to explain loving relationships, it does give a thorough explanation of what love is and why we choose it. It was published in 1986 in Psychological Review. Psychological Review is a notable journal that publishes important theoretical contributions to scientific psychology.

Who Is Sternberg, Anyway?

R.J. Sternberg is a professor in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, as well as an honorary professor in Germany at Heidelberg University. He has also served as a university president and a provost, and he held the Chair of Ethical Leadership for the George Kaiser Family Foundation. A well-respected psychologist, he's been the President of the American Psychological Association and is the Editor of Perspectives for the Psychological Bulletin. (The Psychological Bulletin is a renowned journal in the field.) He’s contributed quite a bit 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 theories of intelligence, creativity, wisdom, leadership, thinking styles, ethical reasoning, and hate. He edited the Handbook of Intelligence, which was published by Cambridge University Press, and wrote Love Is a Story, published by Oxford University Press.

What Is Sternberg's Triangular Theory Of Love?

The Sternberg 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. You don't need all three aspects in any one relationship, but the totality of the concept of love includes all three points of the triangle or components of love.

The three aspects of love, according to the Sternberg Triangular Theory of Love, are intimacy, passion, and decision. Like a triangle, the love it represents can have different dimensions and different types of balance. What determines the exact proportions of the triangle for any relationship are the amount of love and the balance of love.

Intimacy

At the top of the triangle is intimacy, one of the three components of love in close relationships. Intimacy brings feelings of warmth and affection. You gain intimacy as you emotionally invest in the relationship. You have some control over the intimacy you feel, but not total control over these feelings.

Sternberg described intimacy as the feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in a relationship. Each of these components of intimacy can add to the amount of love you feel for someone. You don't have to have all of these feelings to achieve intimacy. What matters is that you create intimacy in your combination of:

  • Closeness: Can be both emotional and physical in some sense
  • Connectedness: A feeling that you're both together in the relationship, rather than two people completely out for their enjoyment and benefit
  • Bondedness

Passion

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

Humans seem built for physical experiences of passionate love in close relationships. Through the vast expanse of human experience, arousal has been important as a gateway to reproduction. Cultural factors are important, too. The culture not only tells us who's attractive but also teaches us acceptable ways to show our passionate feelings in relationships.

Your passion for someone might involve the following features:

  • 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
  • Sex: Need varies depending on individual and type of relationship

Decision/Commitment

Philosophers disagree about how much choice 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 to not 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.

Decision

Decision-making is the thought process we use when we choose whether to show expression of love and loving action 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.

Commitment

Commitment in social psychology is a long-term decision to maintain the relationship over time and space. No relationships are without challenges of some kind. You may have to deal with poverty or illness together if you commit to each other. You'll probably have to get through times when your passion for someone cools off for a while or when you feel less affection for each other.

Commitment carries you through hard times and keeps you together in good times. You can make a different decision every day, but when you decide to make or break a commitment, it has a much greater impact on your well-being and your relationships.

How Do The Three Parts Work Together?

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

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

For example, your decision to love your child may be the most important aspect of your love for them. Because you're responsible for them as they grow, you would be a very poor parent if you decided not to love them anymore. At the same time, you might feel emotionally very close to them. You may also feel passion for the potential that's within them. A parent’s love can be consummate love, companionate love, or other types of love, depending on the relationship between parent and child.

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

The Three Components In Different Types Of Love

The three components of love work together differently in different kinds 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, such as a lifelong friendship
  • In Fatuous Love - You feel the passion and commit without feeling intimate, such as a whirlwind courtship
  • In Consummate Love - Complete love that's a combination of all three components

How Can You Maintain Love In A Relationship?

Sternberg published his Triangular Theory of Love in 1986. At that time, the divorce rate was almost at 50%. As of 2018, the American Psychological Association quotes the rate for the U.S. as between 40% and 50% for first marriages and higher for subsequent marriages. These figures only tell part of the story, though, since many couples stay together for a time without ever marrying.

Long-lasting loving relationships need more than a verbal commitment. A decision to stay in the relationship with love actions that add up to maintain the three components of love is also needed.

Maintain Intimacy

To maintain intimacy, you need to spend time together.Stagnation can spell the end of a long-term relationship. So, to keep the experience of love fresh and immediate, you need to vary when and how you show your love. Leaving space for the relationship to change over time increases your likelihood of staying together in the long term.

Maintain Passion

Because you have less conscious control over passion, it can be the hardest component to maintaining a long-term relationship. Passion is a motivation that comes from need. So, to maintain passion, you need to be mindful of your needs and how you can fulfill them within the relationship.

Maintain Commitment

Of the three components of love, you have the most control over your commitment to the relationship. The commitment stays strongest if you make the relationship an important part of your life. Your commitment not only keeps you in the relationship longer, but it also makes it possible for you to stick with the tasks of increasing intimacy and passion.

If at any time you're dissatisfied with your relationship, you can assess the strength of each of the three components of love. You can increase your commitment and take steps to help intimacy happen, and passion comes more naturally.

It Can Be Hard To Know How To Promote Mental Wellness

Love is a wonderful thing, but it can be a challenging aspect of life as well. When you don't know what to do to improve your unique loving relationship, one option is to talk to a therapist about it. You can discuss it with a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com in convenient online therapy sessions. If you love Sternberg’s Triangular Theory, consider bringing it up in therapy; it could inspire illuminating discussions about your personal relationships and uncover patterns in your short-term relationships and long-term relationships. You may find that professional medical advice and psychological guidance gives you the insight you need to move forward in your relationships. Motivational and other forms of therapy can be very helpful in improving your mental health, relationships, and life in general.

Whatever you do, remember that love doesn't just happen to you. You choose when, who, and how to love. When you understand that concept and how it relates to your friendships and romantic relationships, you can feel more free to move toward the love you want most.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.