Many of the conversations we have around love can be very confusing. Part of this stems from the fact that what we call “love” and what another person calls “love” may very well not be the same thing.
Furthermore, one person can talk about many different kinds of love, all the while using the same word to describe things that are not at all the same. For example, it’s perfectly logical for me to say that I love shoes (because I do) and to say that I love my romantic partners (because I do) but to be talking about entirely different emotional states.
That’s because when it comes to love, English has a linguistic deficiency. While some languages have ready-made ways to differentiate between different forms of love, English does not. Instead, we have one word that’s used in a variety of different ways. In sharp contrast, the Ancient Greeks had words that easily distinguish between different forms of love (anywhere between four and eight words, depending on which expert you ask). They had a word specifically to refer to mature love, pragma; one for playful love where you connect on a hijinks/shenanigans level, ludus, etc.
That would be so handy to have in English. But we don’t. Bummer. What’s a poor anglophone to do?
We can borrow the Greek of course, but wouldn’t it be great if we had ways in English of referring to the same concepts?
Well, thankfully, there are frameworks that function in roughly the same way. For example, there’s Sternberg’s triangular theory of love.
Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love
Researcher Robert Sternberg devised a model of love that breaks it down into three major components (which form the three points of the titular triangle):
- Intimacy. Emotional bonding, a sense of closeness to another person, having shared experiences.
- Passion. The realm of romance, physical attraction, engaging in sexual acts, and/or anything partners relate to erotic love.
- Commitment. Sternberg was careful to specify that this can include either short-term, long-term commitment, or both. A person can commit extensive present resources to a relationship without making future promises that a relationship will continue indefinitely, and conversely a person can make formal promises surrounding future commitment without demonstrating significant present investment. (And obviously a person can do both.) Further, he was clear that there’s a difference between private and public commitment and that a person can commit privately, publicly, neither, or both.
The 8 Kinds of Love in the Triangular Model of Love
Keeping all of this in mind, Sternberg proposes eight types of love that are possible using every combination of the three points of the triangle:
- Non-Love: Neither intimacy, passion, or commitment are present. No connection. Indifference.
- Liking/friendship: Intimacy without passion or commitment. Most friendships and friendly acquaintances typically fall into this category.
- Infatuated love. Passion without intimacy or commitment. Sometimes referred to as “puppy love” or a crush. Romantic relationships often start out this way and turn into romantic love over time. However, this evolution doesn’t always happen and this type of love is also known to sometimes spontaneously end and disappear, leaving nothing else in its place.
- Empty love. Commitment without passion or intimacy. This can happen in instances when someone is desperate for a long-term commitment for other reasons (marriage, children, financial stability, etc.) but doesn’t actually connect with their partner and forces it. It also can be an evolution in a relationship over time that starts out with passion, intimacy, or both but loses those elements.
- Romantic love. Passion and intimacy but no commitment. (When this kind of love is also committed, it’s another type — consummate love. See #8 below.)
- Companionate love. Intimacy and commitment but with no passion. Certain close friendships (best friends, long-time friends, etc.) fall into this category. This category also includes long-term relationships where passion is no longer present, but the members still feel bonded and connected in other ways. The love someone feels for family members that they’re close to also falls into this category.
- Fatuous love. Passion and commitment but no intimacy. Typically this looks like a brief passionate period of New Relationship Energy followed by a serious commitment (marriage, moving in together, etc.) before the people involved have a chance to really get to know one another and bond on a non-passionate level.
- Consummate love. Love that includes all three elements: Intimacy, passion, and commitment. This is the idealized romantic love that is shown to us in books and movies. What we’re inculcated from a young age to consider #RelationshipGoals. In his research, Sternberg found that while this state of love does occur in some relationships, it rarely is sustained permanently and is instead a state that comes and goes even in an ideal relationship, replaced with other forms of love at times when one or more pieces of the triangle temporarily disappear.
A Few Final Notes
While the points of the triangle are a helpful way of organizing different aspects that can go into a loving relationship, Sternberg was clear that they are not always discrete categories in real life application.
Some meaningful aspects of being in a relationship can cross the boundaries between these categories. For example, depending on the way a person conceptualizes kink, whether they find it primarily a sexual or physically gratifying experience, a way to express and build emotional connection, and/or a formal commitment to another person, kink could fall under one of these categories, two of them, or all all three.
In addition, Sternberg has been very clear when writing about his work that intimacy, passion, and commitment do not always simply exist as separate independent unrelated elements. Instead, Sternberg emphasizes a possible interplay between them. For example, greater commitment can actually lead to an increase in passion and intimacy, and increased intimacy can result in amplified passion and commitment. However, this isn’t always the case, and in some relationships, the elements influence one another less.
He also was clear that it’s entirely normal for a single relationship to go through multiple love “phases” and for the dynamic between partners to shift between love types over time — and not in one standard progression but in many different orders (even with repeats).
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.