♦ LAST UPDATED ON November 2, 2020 ♦
Psychology and religion continue to struggle with the question of how to define love, and after millennia of revelation and decades of research, are no closer to the ultimate answer. “It’s complicated,” they say and I agree.
An ultimate answer seems out of reach anyway. That is because the only thing we really know is that we do not know anything without ambiguity. Human reason thinks along in the chain of cause/effect, and underlying a long chain is what we call premises. And premises, in this general case, are really assumptions that we make about anything ultimate and unknowable.
Do we know what love is? What are our assumptions? Can we know what love is? And even if we do, can we then also find the right words to explain it to others? The word love alone is failing us as all words are just simple representations of a typically much more complex ‘thing.’ Not even a sentence, comprised of words and rules of grammar, can be subtle enough to tell what love is. A book? Well, try Anna Karenina by Tolstoi — if you are the literary type and got time to spare.
Many young people simply listen to love songs, thousands of them and over and over and over again, to inadvertently get the picture. Older folks might prefer opera — the likes of Puccini’s Turandot or Madam Butterfly. Or theatre, the likes of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In addition, I read philosophical books about love.
To many, however, love is just an abstract noun without a corresponding thing outside of man’s perception. Others have experienced something they readily call love, although they find it difficult to put it into words. How can one explain something to another who has never experienced that? My cat, like all cats, is colorblind. How can I explain to my cat that this apple is red?
There are many approaches that help us to come to terms with what love may be, is or is not, or should not even be. There is the philosophical approach, first expounded on by Plato in his Symposium. There is also a psychological approach, and Freud’s and C.G. Jung’s writings (downloadable pdf) come to mind. The religious approach to love, as codified in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 of the New Testament, limits itself to the ethics of interpersonal relationships — at the expense of the vital romantic or erotic aspects of love. And then there is a social, feminist approach as well, espoused by writers like Emma Goldman (downloadable pdf), Simone de Beauvoir, and Shulamith Firestone.
To the rescue comes an appealing Theory of Love
Yes, it can get complicated. Too complicated for most — we are all busy and the show (work, family, etc.) must go on. To the rescue comes the Triangular Theory of Love proposed by psychologist Robert Sternberg. In my opinion, Sternberg provides a fascinating and useful framework that can be grasped handily and without getting into the impracticals of philosophy, psychology, and theology.
Yes, it reads a little weird: a Triangular Theory of Love. But do not let just another theory, with charts and all, throw you off. We are talking about a model of what commonly is and not the Truth or some elitist lamentations. For me, this framework of understanding love makes a lot of intuitive sense in terms of my everyday experience of love, life, and marriage.
The Triangular Theory of Love attempts to explain the notion of love as found in interpersonal relationships. Sternberg’s writings describe types of love based on three different elements:
- passion; and
The following graphic of Sternberg’s conceptions of love should easily evoke your curiosity and enlightenment, especially if you are already — or were — in a bonded relationship. For those seeking the One, this conception is a worthy model of love to be anticipated.
Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal relationship and belonging together. It is a familiar and very close affective connection with another as a result of a bond that is formed through knowledge and experience of the other. Intimacy encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness, connectedness, and bondedness.
Passion is associated with either physical arousal or emotional stimulation. It is a very strong feeling about a person or thing, an intense emotion, a compelling enthusiasm or desire for something. Passion encompasses drives connected to both infatuated love and sexual attraction.
Commitment often involves a promise to do or give something, a promise to be loyal to someone or something, and the attitude of someone who works very hard to do or support something. Commitment encompasses, in the short term, the decision to remain with another, and in the long term, plans made with that other.
Mind these Elements or Not
Different stages and types of love can be explained as different combinations of these three elements.
- 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 relationship 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 maybe 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” (1987, p.341). Consummate love may not be permanent. For example, if passion is lost over time, it may change into companionate love.
Keep these vital Relationship Channels open
Intimacy, passion, and commitment can also be mapped to the notions of love, sex, and family, respectively. I like to think of these three elements as vital relationship channels or basic, shared interests between two partners. Keeping these channels open, that is keeping these interests at least in discussion, goes a long way in maintaining a loving and lasting relationship.
Again, it is important to recognize that a relationship based on a single element — either intimacy (love), passion (sex), or commitment (family) — is less likely to survive than one based on two or more.
Also, be prepared that the balance among the three aspects of love is likely to shift through the course of a relationship. Humans are not static, unchangeable automatons. C.G. Jung spoke illuminatingly about an identity crisis that most of us go through in mid-life.
Sternberg explains that the amount of love one experiences depends on the absolute strength of each of these three components, and the kind of love one experiences depends on their strengths relative to each other.
A strong mix of all three elements – as found in consummate love – typifies, for many of us, an ideal relationship within which we might experience true love. However, time alone does not cause intimacy, passion, and commitment to occur and grow. Again, even when a consummate love relationship is achieved, there is no guarantee that it also can be maintained over long.
Knowing about these elements and types of love may help promising singles evaluate their prospects with each other during courtship; and 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.
- Sternberg, R. J. (1986) A Triangular Theory of Love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.
- Sternberg, R. J. (1988) The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment, Basic Books (ISBN 0465087469)