Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love

What are the different ways of loving, and on what principle is each romantic relationship based?

The triangular theory of love tries to explain the complex phenomenon of love and loving interpersonal relationships. It was proposed by psychologist Robert Sternberg and describes the different elements that makeup love, as well as the possible combinations of these elements when forming different types of relationships.


It is considered a useful theory, since it helps us understand this complex feeling that, in addition to being very important in our lives, is the basis of many of our interpersonal relationships.

Psychology and love

Love and falling in love is a very interesting topic, as it is one of the most intense feelings that we can experience. Love affects us in every way and when we meet that special person, it changes our lives completely. It significantly modifies the way we perceive reality and causes us to make decisions in a different way than usual, to orient our relationships with others differently, and to reorganize our priorities about what matters in life.


When we fall in love, the intense emotions, and passion that surrounds us affect our mind and our body.

For this reason, psychologists, sociologists, and doctors have tried to understand and explain it from different points of view (biological, cultural, etc.). In recent decades, research in this field has been varied, seeking to understand falling in love, love, attraction, or lack of love.

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Sternberg’s theory of love

One of the best-known theories of love is Sternberg’s triangular theory. Robert Sternberg is an American psychologist, and professor at Yale University, widely recognized for his research. Not only has he been interested in love, but intelligence and creativity have also been objects of interest in his research carried out in the field of Cognitive and emotional psychology. In particular, his contributions to the field of the study of intelligence are well known.


However, this character is known for his theory about love and interpersonal relationships and many experts on this subject have supported his ideas.

Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love

Understanding your theory

For Sternberg, love is made up of 3 qualities that are manifested in any love relationship: intimacy, passion, and commitment. These elements, in practice, intermingle with each other, but knowing how to distinguish them in a theoretical framework helps us understand the phenomenon of love and better recognize its nuances and details. Below you can find a brief explanation of them.

  • Intimacy: Intimacy refers to the feeling of closeness, the connection between the two people who are part of the love story, the trust between them, friendship, and affection.
  • Passion: This component is the excitement or energy of the relationship. Feelings of physical attraction and urge or need to be with the other person and to have intimate relationships.
  • Commitment: It refers to the decision to continue in the relationship despite the ups and downs that may arise. It includes aspects such as the moments lived, the history of the relationship, etc.

These three elements represent the corners of the Sternberg theory pyramid, with intimacy at the highest point and commitment and passion at the sides. Depending on the combinations that occur between these components, love relationships will be different. For example, in a new relationship, passion prevails over intimacy and commitment.

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Possible combinations or types of love

According to the possible combinations, Sternberg affirms that there are different ways of loving. These ways of love can be understood in isolation or as stages:

1. Honey

Affection refers to true friendship. There is only intimacy, but there is no passion or commitment. The members of the relationship feel close and trust each other, but there is no desire for intimate relationships or commitment as a couple.


2. Infatuation

In this way of loving there is a lot of passion, however, there is neither intimacy nor commitment, which makes this type of superficial relationship. It would be a kind of romance but ending soon or the beginning of a relationship, in which there is a lot of desire to have intimate relationships but there is not enough trust or commitment.


3. Empty love

Empty love is characterized by high commitment, without passion or intimacy. This is common in interested or long-term relationships when there is neither trust nor intimate relationships, but there is a commitment to be together.


4. Romantic love

Romantic love is a way of loving in which the members of the relationship feel attraction and excitement, and, in addition, they have confidence and closeness. Romantic love has inspired thousands of novels and movies, it is the love that Romeo and Juliet feel. If this stage continues with great experiences together, it could end up prompting commitment.


5. Sociable love

It usually occurs in long-lasting relationships. There is intimacy and commitment, but not passion. It is the type of love that can manifest itself when the couple lacks desire and excitement towards the other person, but living together, having children and experiences together keep them. This relationship can seem satisfying to the members and last a long time.

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6. Fatuous love

Passion and commitment predominate in fatuous love, but there is no intimacy. Fatuous love can occur because the members of the couple want to be together because there is the desire and excitement to live intimate experiences, however, they do not have many things in common.


7. Consummate love

This is complete love. It is made up of the three elements of Sternberg’s pyramid theory. Consummate love is the main love archetype, it is ideal love and is also called mature love.


You have to work on the three elements to achieve consummate love

Sternberg speaks of “no love” when these three elements are not present in the relationship. The same author affirms that couples with consummate or complete love continue to share intimate desire and passion on all levels, even after many years. However, Sternberg points out that maintaining consummated love is more complicated than achieving it, so couples must work on the three basic elements of his theory. After all, actions speak louder than words.


The balance between these three ingredients can change as a relationship progresses. However, time alone does not result in high intimacy, passion, or commitment. Knowing these three ingredients of love can help actors recognize when they need to improve one of the elements, or it can help them decide to quit. Sternberg concludes that without the expression of all three components, even the most authentic love can die.

What happens in our brains when we fall in love?

Many experts on the subject affirm that love is a complex phenomenon, and despite the many investigations that have been carried out so far, there has not always been a consensus among researchers. Falling in love, attraction and love are complex experiences in which cultural and biological factors interact.