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Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love: Definition, Examples & Predictions

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  • 0:05 The Love Triangle
  • 1:23 1-Component Love
  • 3:37 2-Component Love
  • 5:24 The Ideal Type of Love
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
Love is an important and complex topic of study for social psychologists. In this lesson, we begin our discussion about love with Robert Sternberg's triangular theory of love. We define each of his eight types of love and identify real-world examples.

The Love Triangle

What is love? How do we define it? These certainly aren't easy questions to answer. When talking about love with others, you don't always know if you're talking about the same thing. Some think of love as physical passion, and others think of it as long-lasting affection. Some people believe in love at first sight, and others think that it takes years to develop. Because love is such an important and complex topic, we cover several different theories on love in this chapter. In this lesson, we'll focus on a classic idea that deals with a love triangle: Robert Sternberg's triangular theory of love.

According to this theory, love is made up of three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Sternberg identifies eight types of love, which can be described as different combinations of these three elements. For example, non-love, the relationship that you have with an acquaintance, is characterized by the complete absence of intimacy, passion, and commitment. The other seven types of love have at least one component. Let's go over the characteristics of each type.

Types of Love with One Component

The three components of the triangular theory of love
Sternberg Love Triangle

First, picture a triangle. Intimacy is considered the component at the top point of the triangle, while passion and commitment make up the side points. Also represented at each of these points are the types of love that only have one component.

Liking is at the top point of the triangle because it involves intimacy only. Love of this type is characterized by a feeling of closeness and trust. Basic friendship is the perfect example of this type of love because even though you like your friends, the relationship lacks passion and long-term commitment.

Infatuation is at the left point of the triangle and involves passion only. It's characterized by physical attraction and sexual arousal. This type of love often occurs at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, it's usually what people call 'love at first sight.' However, infatuated love lacks emotional closeness and commitment. If neither develops, this relationship is typically short-lived and superficial. Summer flings or whirlwind romances are good examples of this type of love.

Empty love is the next type of love. It's at the right point of the triangle and is characterized by a strong commitment to maintaining the relationship. Because empty love lacks emotional closeness and sexual attraction, examples can usually be seen in one of two circumstances: at the beginning of an arranged marriage where intimacy and passion haven't developed, or in an older relationship where both intimacy and passion have deteriorated. In both of these situations, the commitment is the only thing holding the relationship together.

The types of love that only have one of the triangle components
One Component Love Types

These types of love - liking, infatuation, and empty love - that have only one component are considered to be significantly less stable than the types of love based on two components. Let's look at the characteristics of more stable relationships.

Types of Love with Two Components

First up is romantic love. On the love triangle, it is located on the left side, between the intimacy and passion points. This is because it is characterized by the presence of both sexual passion and emotional intimacy. This is the type of love that a couple feels when their relationship is blossoming; they are drawn physically to each other, but also feel like best friends and enjoy spending time together. As romantic love lacks serious commitment, it is more prevalent in the teenage and young adult years.

Next is companionate love. It is on the right side of the triangle, between the intimacy and commitment points, and is characterized by the presence of both commitment and emotional intimacy. This love is usually found in older relationships, such as long-term marriages, where the passion has died, but the couple still feels a deep emotional bond and commitment. Companionate love is usually long lasting and can be a very satisfying relationship.

The last type of love that is made up of two components is fatuous love. It is located on the bottom of the triangle, between the passion and commitment points. As you'd expect, it is characterized by the presence of both commitment and sexual passion. Fatuous love is also called fantasy love because it's almost like the couple wants to be in love, but has no real emotional bond. A whirlwind courtship and marriage would be a good example, because the couple makes a commitment based on sexual fervor, without forming a deep emotional bond to stabilize the relationship.

Two component love types are considered stronger than infatuation or liking.
Two Component Love Types

The Ideal Type of Love

Finally, we've reached the eighth type of love described by Sternberg's theory: consummate love, which can be found right in the middle of the triangle. This love is characterized by the presence of all three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. This is the cream of the crop; the ideal relationship that most of us strive toward. Couples with consummate, or complete, love share a deep desire to be together on every level, even after many years. It is the strongest and most enduring type of relationship, but Sternberg suggests that it is rare and difficult to maintain. More often than not, this type of relationship loses at least one component. Most likely, it loses passion, as sexual ardor tends to fade with time.

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