A Triangular Theory of Love

It appears my last post stirred up some disagreement. To get to the point I was making in that post, today I’m going to step back and discuss the different types of love in a relationship. I didn’t invent this stuff, it comes from a study published in the Psychological Review by Robert J Sternberg from Yale University called A Triangular Theory of Love.

The Triangle of Love

There are three components that form a triangle.

triangular love model

Intimacy (the top of the triangle), passion (the left hand side of the triangle) and decision/commitment (the right hand side of the triangle. Each of these terms can be used in many different ways so let’s define them.

Intimacy refers to feeling close, connected and bonded in a loving relationship.

Passion refers to romance, physical attraction and sexual consummation.

Commitment is a decision to love someone and maintain love over the long term. This is a cognitive (mental) choice we make with our intelligence rather than our feelings.

The Trinity of Bliss

There are many different combinations of these factors that only involve one or two components:

  • intimacy = liking
  • passion = infatuation
  • commitment = empty love
  • intimacy + passion = romantic love
  • intimacy + commitment = companion love
  • passion + commitment = fatuous love

triangular love model 2

Consummate love includes all three. Many people are happy with companion love (without passion), romantic love (without commitment) or fatuous love (without intimacy). But the kind of love I want is the consummate kind. I like to call it the Trinity of Bliss.

It’s out of your control

One has some degree of control over the feelings of intimacy one experiences, a high degree of control over the commitment of the decision/commitment component that one invests in the relationship but very little control over the amount of the passion component one experiences as a result of being with or even looking at another person. — Sternberg, 1986, p120 (my emphasis)

In order to experience consummate love in a relationship, we have to find a way to have intimacy, commitment and passion. As passion is something we have very little control over – how do we do it? It all comes down to the object of your desire, which in this case is your partner. Therefore, for your sexual attraction to increase, the object of your desire needs to do things differently.

When I said you can’t fix it, I was being provocative on purpose. I didn’t mean it couldn’t be fixed, I meant that if passion is waning (if you’re otherwise physically and psychologically healthy) and you want it back, then something needs to happen with the object of your desire. You can’t fix it without his cooperation.

If you want to be unable to keep your hands off him (which isn’t what everyone wants), then you can influence him, guide him and ask him to change things up. I’m guessing if more passion (sexual intimacy) is your goal, he might be a little bit interested in giving it a try. I know some things about re-igniting passion and I’ll share them with you next time.

To be continued …


About KatieP

Embracing my midlife sexy while exploring modern love & relationships • Devoted to all things beautiful • Master of Arts in creative writing & non-fiction writing

11 thoughts on “A Triangular Theory of Love

  1. With all due respect, I see this all as a bit overly complicated. Basically I believe that “what ever the problem, love is the answer.” Perhaps there is just not enough love here, from one or both sides. Just sayin’!

    Passion is from the Latin word to endure, suffer. If there is not enough passion, perhaps the relationship is off track somehow. It is not good to single out and blame one person when the problem usual originates from the relationship system. Blame one person seems to be a recipe for loss of passion and increase of resentment. Neitheris good for the relationship system, which is a different “animal” if you will, from either person individually. Just sayin’


  2. Isn’t this interesting.. my reaction is the exact opposite to Lindy.
    Makes complete and absolute sense to me.. so much so that I find it obvious.
    Have been on this earth long enough to have experienced love in all these guises.. all different. Demonstrably so.

    Romantic love, companion love and fatuous love are relatively easy to find and commonly what people refer to in one of the three forms when they say they are “in love”.

    Consummate love, or experiencing it, kinda takes the glow off the others..
    It is less common and not so easy to find. Makes it hard to settle for less.

  3. In my opinion and experience (10 years with my husband) passion can be influenced by so many factors that it’s difficult to isolate where the problem comes from in the first place – and apportioning blame seems self defeating, especially if you want the relationship to survive. The passion can come and go. There have been times by literally just the sight of my husband annoys me and the thought of having sex with him leaves me cold. I am not talking about minor fluctuations here, I’m talking about not having sex for a couple of months and feeling no desire whatsoever. During this period we are still a partnership, and still connecting and communicating on other levels. This non-desire can be influenced by tiredness, demands of our jobs and children, worries about money, body image (If I am overweight I generally don’t feel too ‘hot’ etc etc. It would be all to easy to dismiss the relationship because we haven’t got ‘consummate love’ but we have children who rely on us to be consistent, reliable and a unit. Whether that unit is full of passion is here nor there. It would be irresponsible and, in fact, selfish of both me, and my husband to break up our family home because we aren’t getting our rocks off!!!

  4. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here. Every relationship is different in what each person will accept or not accept, especially in a long term relationship. Life does sometimes get in the way of passion. But even if you are bone tired etc and nothing has been happening you do realize you still want to sleep next to your partner. This whole thing does make you think, especially if you aren’t exactly happy anymore and may not know why yet…..of course if you are the one dis-satisfied you have to figure out why, if you’ve done the changes and the other person no longer fits into your idea of where your life is at and changes aren’t being done/accepted then things need to go from there. With my last experience, it was him – I wanted to be near him, touch him in some why even if it was as simply as knees touching. I loved just looking at him – he turned me on so much. But when the other person thinks once you are in a relationship – all that “show of affection” isn’t any longer needed then what do you do? I NEED all that. I don’t especially need to hear “I love you” he said that and after awhile the words were just words, no meaning behind them – show me what those words mean. To YOU. Sometimes it is just the little things – Let me look at you, let’s play that shy game were you steal glances at each other until the other person “feels” someone is looking and then divert your eyes. Touch me – it doesn’t have to be in a sexual way, just let me know you like to touch and be touched. Let the person know that even after all this time I still desire you, regardless of what is going on in life at the moment. Ya, I want the consummate love. All.the.time. I want to feel it in myself, no questions asked – no matter if life does get in the way, you can still let your partner know it is there even if you can’t be physical. But again it all begins with what you will accept in YOUR relationship. I have settled for less and I have become the lesser person for it and I can not do it anymore. Why should either one of you have/give less than what you both want. Compromising does work as long as it’s not only one side doing all of the compromising. My relationship couldn’t be fixed because he was unwilling to fix things because he saw nothing wrong with it (deeper problems than just the physical kind) but I kept trying, longer than I should have, but I will no longer settle for less than what I need…it doesn’t have to be fireworks all the time but the thrill that it will be soon has to be there for me. And yes sometimes we all need a few pointers from someone who has successfully ignited passion under their lukewarm lover. So bring it on, Katie! I look forward to reading what has worked for you….

  5. I cannot tell you how many times I have had this discussion with fellow coaches and friends!! In my marriage of 10 years, I lost the feeling of passion and I ended up disconnecting to the point of finding myself in an affair. Not something I am proud of, nor something I would care to go through again. But here is the funny thing, I still feel a great deal of intimacy with my now ex-husband (we also share a child). He remains in my heart, truly my best friend and soul mate and I still love him a great deal. I didn’t realize though that until I found passion and hot sexy lovin again how much I was missing it, how much I needed and also how much sexy lovin was still inside me!!! I was not content with companion love. Obviously. Now I find myself in a relationship with lots of passion but less intimacy. I went looking for a strong physical connection and found it but I now question at times the missing intimacy piece. I find myself asking at times, “Is it too much to ask for all three of the above? for the consummate love? or the “Trinity of Bliss” as you so beautifully out it, Katie. ” Can we have it all?” And how much is it possible to nourish one or more sides of the triangle in order to create the Trinity? These are questions I ask all the time. I don’t pretend to know the answers. I do know that many women I know are having less than passionate relationships with their partners. Many of them have convinced themselves that they are not interested in sex anymore and are just fine without that level of passion and honestly I call bullshit. I think it gets all wrapped up in their own self confidence and body image stuff and also in fear and anxiety around allowing themselves to be that primal and vulnerable to really enjoy a great sex life. Phew! Some of my two cents. Thanks for starting the discussion lovely!!

    1. Great thoughts Lori — if I’m perfectly honest, I haven’t achieved the ‘Trinity’ either — I have passion and intimacy but no commitment (at least not in a formal sense). I’m afraid there’s nothing to keep us together if the going gets tough (although I can’t imagine anything tougher than what we’ve been through already).
      Maybe it IS impossible to have all three in equal amounts …
      Thanks for stirring up the thoughts in my head …

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