Robert Sternberg developed the triangular theory of love to describe Consummate Love– a state of perfection in love. He says it is made up of three building blocks- an intimacy component, a passion component, and a decision/commitment component.
Passion is the sheer physical and emotional attraction felt towards a romantic partner. All love stories begin as passion- beginning sometimes as one-sided and sometimes mutually experienced. Withholding of one’s emotions, physical distance and lack of physical bonding kills passion.
Once we get to know our partners well, when there is openness to speaking our hearts out and showing our vulnerability, we develop intimacy’.
Intimacy is described as the feelings of closeness and attachment to one another; having a sense of ease with one another. We know things about one another that no one really knows. Intimacy is always mutual and a step deeper into love. Secrecy and persistent lying in a relationship destroy intimacy.
Then comes commitment.
Unlike the other two blocks, commitment involves a conscious decision to stick with one another. The decision to remain committed is mainly determined by the level of satisfaction that a partner derives from the relationship. A commitment normally takes the form of exchanging vows between partners and could be solemnised by a church or a legal institution. A commitment is a promise to be loyal to someone despite challenges, distractions or options. Breach of trust weakens commitment.
When a relationship climbs through each of the steps, building on the foundation of each previous block, they reach consummate love, the perfection of love. One need not always follow this logical progression, but irrespective of which route one takes, it can move towards the ideal of consummate love.
The reason many of us never reach consummate love is that we give up halfway, taking any single building block as an end in itself. Some get stuck with passionate love, some with intimacy and some with commitment – without the presence of healthy amounts of all three, the soup of love gets either too hot, too sour or too bitter. To enjoy the soup of love over a lifetime, one needs to grow to the state of consummate love otherwise one will always feel a sense of lacking and crave attention, intimacy or commitment from different partners.
At any point in time, one can either have one, two or all three components in a relationship:
- Liking in this case is not used in a trivial sense. Sternberg says that this intimate liking characterizes true friendships, in which a person feels a bondedness, a warmth, and a closeness with another but not intense passion or long-term commitment.
- Infatuated love is often what is felt as “love at first sight.” But without the intimacy and the commitment components of love, infatuated love may disappear suddenly.
- Empty love: Sometimes, a stronger love deteriorates into empty love, in which the commitment remains, but the intimacy and passion have died. In cultures in which arranged marriages are common, relationships often begin as empty love.
- Romantic love: Romantic lovers are bonded emotionally (as in liking) and physically through passionate arousal.
- Companionate love is often found in marriages in which the passion has gone out of the relationship, but a deep affection and commitment remain. Companionate love is generally a personal relation you build with somebody you share your life with, but with no sexual or physical desire. It is stronger than friendship because of the extra element of commitment. The love ideally shared between family members is a form of companionate love, as is the love between deep friends or those who spend a lot of time together in any asexual but friendly relationship.
- Fatuous love can be exemplified by a whirlwind courtship and marriage in which a commitment is motivated largely by passion, without the stabilizing influence of intimacy.
- Consummate love is the complete form of love, representing the ideal relationship toward which many people strive but which apparently few achieve. Sternberg cautions that maintaining a consummate love may be even harder than achieving it. He stresses the importance of translating the components of love into action. “Without expression,” he warns,
“even the greatest of loves can die”. Consummate love may not be permanent. For example, if passion is lost over time, it may change into companionate love.
The balance among Sternberg’s three aspects of love is likely to shift through the course of a relationship. A strong dose of all three components found in consummate love typifies, for many of us, an ideal relationship. However, time alone does not cause intimacy, passion, and commitment to occur and grow. Knowing about these components of love may help couples avoid pitfalls in their relationship, work on the areas that need improvement or help them recognize when it might be time for a relationship to come to an end.