Psychologist Robert Sternberg developed a theory that helps explain the many ways we experience love. Find out which type applies to your relationship.
Some years ago, I was dating a guy who took his time in telling me that he loved me. He told me he didn’t want to say it until he knew he wanted to say it forever. I was okay with that approach because I knew I wouldn’t say it back unless I felt the same. So when he finally whispered it in my ear on that warm September night by the river, I knew what it meant, and after whispering it back, I asked, “Does this mean I’ll be Mrs. Kleehammer someday?”
He said it did. And 15 years later, I’m still Mrs. Kleehammer.
There’s nothing like hearing those three magic words—I love you—to send waves of fuzzy warmth radiating throughout your entire body. But have you ever been in a relationship where those words were exchanged—but you found yourself wondering if you both meant the same thing?
We tend to use the word love to describe our positive feelings for everyone and everything—from our parents, friends, pets, and romantic love interests to our favorite dessert recipe. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has developed a theory that can help us begin to understand the various ways we experience love. He calls it the “Triangular Theory of Love”—triangular because love consists of three components in combination: intimacy, passion and commitment.
Intimacy is a sense of closeness, friendship, having a bond. Passion is the sensual, sexual attraction, and commitment is the decision and plan to remain committed to the relationship.
We experience different types of love based on the presence and absence of each of these three components.
Nonlove is the absence of intimacy, passion and commitment. It’s what we feel for new acquaintances (at least those that we don’t fall in love with at first sight). Most of the time, nonlove is not even considered an actual type of love at all—for obvious reasons—but I would argue that there can still be love at this level. After all, Jesus wanted everyone to love one another, right? It’s not that he was saying we all need to be intimately and passionately committed to people we’ve never met, but that we are supposed to foster love in the form of good will toward our fellow humans.
Liking is intimacy without passion or commitment. This is the type of love we feel for our buddy who loves to bike with us, or pal who hosts game night every week. It’s even the kind of love we feel for our college bestie, who has been better at keeping in touch and arranging get-togethers than we ever expected. Great conversations, companionship, mutual interests—these are the things that gradually lead to solid friendships. Liking, even though it doesn’t come with passion or commitment, can nurture a close bond. Play cards and share a pizza enough times with the same person, confide a few things in one another, and they’ll inevitably become a major part of your life. Liking is kind of the foundation-like layer of love in your life.
Infatuation is passion without intimacy or commitment. This is the crush that you can’t stop thinking about, or the guy you’ve had a few dates with and are crazy about. It’s the moment when your new guy walks in the room and your heart nearly leaps out of your chest. Many would argue that infatuation should be considered a form of lust rather than love, but those who experience it often do consider themselves “in love.” Sadly, though fun at times, this state is fleeting—it either fades away or progresses into a more substantial form of love. And thank goodness, because who could sustain that amount of sheer heart-thumping craziness for more than a few months? You’d never get anything done, because infatuated people can’t focus on anything besides the object of their attraction. Dishes go unwashed, the car oil stays unchanged, the LinkedIn profile stays un-updated. But it’s sweet while it lasts, right?
Romantic love is intimacy and passion without commitment, describing a state that most serious dating relationships go through before any kind of real plans for the future are involved. This is the heavenly “falling in love” moment—but still the stage when you’re hesitant to mention your sister’s wedding in the fall for fear he’ll think you’re inviting him. Many are content to stay here for a while, and simply enjoy the journey together, but others find themselves in the classic situation of “wondering where the relationship is going.” When this happens, intimacy leads to heartfelt conversations that clarify each other’s feelings. Hopefully, you’re both headed in the same direction.
Conjugal love is intimacy and commitment without passion. This is the kind of love that many married couples find themselves in after several years. Some begin to feel they want to rekindle the passion—hence those “spice it up” articles that come through your newsfeed—while others find they are perfectly content with this type of love. Even some unmarried couples see conjugal love as a strong enough bond to get married. I recently spoke with a woman who was once engaged to a man she was intimate with, but wasn’t passionate about. It didn’t bother her, because she figured that passion would fade eventually anyway. However, when she realized that marrying him would mean she would never experience that passion, with anyone, she couldn’t go through with it—it seemed like “settling.” Eventually, she did meet and marry a man she was very passionate about, and while their relationship has developed into a more conjugal type of love at this point, she says the passion was important in forming the initial strength of their marriage bond. She is thankful she didn’t rob herself of that experience by marrying someone for whom she didn’t feel any passion.
Fatuous love—in contrast to conjugal love—is passion and commitment without intimacy. It’s the serious relationship where the couple is sexually on fire, but does not have a lot of common ground for companionship. These are couples who have a lot of “drama” in their lives, and seem to get a charge out of either fighting or being physically intimate. Since intimacy tends to be the element that carries a relationship through difficult times, couples who experience fatuous love can strengthen their commitment by being more intentional about developing their friendship, practicing empathy, and discovering mutual interests to bond over.
Empty love describes a relationship that has commitment without passion or intimacy. Now, no one hopes to find themselves in this kind of marriage, but it’s not uncommon—people do grow apart even when they’ve taken vows. But note that passion and intimacy are both very fluid, and they can flow just as easily as they can ebb. A few years ago, my husband and I went through a difficult season in our marriage where we would both admit that our passion and intimacy suffered greatly. But we did not give up on each other, and as we grew over time, we were eventually able to re-cultivate both. Now, our passion and intimacy are stronger than ever, as is our commitment. So as long as there is still commitment, and a willingness to grow, there is still hope for the rest.
Consummate love is the Grand Poobah of all loves. This one is ultimately what we’re all hoping for in our “forever” love—the combination of intimacy, passion and commitment. Sternberg refers to it as the “ultimate, all-consuming love.”
Reaching this level of love means allowing the relationship to evolve over time, often passing through other kinds of love along the way. And many times, both members of the relationship may be experiencing different types of love in the same relationship. Perhaps the defining moment for a couple is not necessarily the moment they say those three magic words, but the moment they come to a mutual understanding of what those words mean in the relationship. In the early days of a relationship, it’s unlikely both players are ready for consummate love—that’s totally normal. But if the complete version is what we want, it’s important to know that about ourselves, so we won’t settle, or sell ourselves short. We have to take the time to understand where we’re at in love—and whether or not where we’re at is where we really want to be.
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