Which of the seven kinds of love are you experiencing in your relationship today? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains the Triangular Theory of Love and the three core components of love that are the pillars of romantic relationships.
A few episodes ago, I talked about the cultural sensation of “love languages” and why people are so drawn to them. Here's the truth about love languages: science doesn't support the idea that tailoring your affections to your partner's preferences will meaningfully impact your relationship. After sharing this research on TikTok and in the podcast, I received a lot of questions about whether there is a better theory out there.
Here’s the thing about love: it's notoriously difficult to research and explore effectively. As the famous song says, “what is love?”, and researchers ask the same thing, too. It's hard to explain to someone else the feelings you have when you love someone.
People experience love differently. The physical, emotional, and cognitive sensations associated with love may differ as people get older, or as their relationship progresses. There are also many cultural expectations on the role of and importance of love in relationships that affect our experience. So, to effectively measure love, our tools would need to account for and accommodate a variety of vastly different experiences—which is not easily conducive to effective research.
The Triangular Theory of Love
With that being said, there are a few theories that identify the different ways in which we experience love. In 1986, Dr. Sternberg developed the Triangular Theory of Love to do just that. He proposed that there are three components to love: intimacy, passion, and commitment.
Intimacy refers to feeling close and connected with our romantic partner. It is typically identified by feelings of wanting your partner to feel good and do good. You hold your partner in high regard and value who they are as a person. You feel like you can count on your partner and they can count on you. You have common goals and have a sense of understanding one another.
Passion refers to a physical connection with your partner. You perceive your relationship as romantic in nature. You are physically attracted to them and find yourself thinking about and idealizing your partner throughout the day. You could describe your relationship as alive or magical. Just the thought of seeing your partner is exciting to you.
Commitment refers to the intentional decision to love, support, and build a life with your partner. You feel a responsibility or obligation to your partner. You may have long-term goals with them that you intend to see out. You feel like you would stay with your partner through difficult times and experiences. Generally, you feel your relationship is stable and will last forever.
Your relationship can center around one of these pillars, can be defined by two of them, or can contain all three. In sum, there are seven types of love that can exist in your relationships according to this theory:
Liking: A liking relationship is one that only includes intimacy. Your partner is important to you, is someone you care about, and is reliable. However, you may not feel a deep physical connection to them or a sense of long-term commitment to them. This type of relationship may seem more like a friendship, but for some people, that is the only kind of connection they are looking for in a partner.
Empty Love: This kind of relationship is categorized by a deep commitment to one another, without intimacy or passion. You have made a decision to be together. You may not like each other all the time, or feel like you can trust them, and you may feel a lack of physical connection toward them. Even through all of that, you are deciding to love them anyway.
Infatuation: Love defined by infatuation is purely passionate. This could be more of a "friends with benefits" situation where you have a physical connection, but no desire to be relied upon or committed. This kind of love can be fleeting or momentary.
Companionate Love: A love that is companionate is both intimate and committed. You like your partner and enjoy their company. They are your friend and your life partner, but perhaps you don't have an intense physical connection with one another.
Fatuous Love: This love is both passionate and committed, but not intimate. You felt strong physical feelings toward one another and got immediately wrapped up in a whirlwind romance. People who experience this type of love may easily get carried away in the moment without developing that intimate connection or bond that would ordinarily help to stabilize the relationship.
Romantic Love: This love is characterized by intense physical and emotional connection through experiencing intimacy and passion, but without commitment. Couples who experience romantic love feel deeply for one another, but may be fairly noncommittal about the future.
Consummate Love: This kind of love is the combination of all three pillars: intimacy, passion, and commitment. It is the all-consuming love that is emotionally and physically connected, and there is a desire to be life partners.
What does this mean for you?
The reality is, most of the research on romantic relationships emphasizes each component identified in these love types. Researchers focus on the impact of intimacy, commitment, and passion on relationship outcomes. We have a fairly robust understanding of each part of this love triangle but not how they interact together in the ways Sternberg identified.
There’s a lot we still don't know. It's possible that you and your partner may start by experiencing one type of love and then progress to a different kind of love as you mature. Part of a healthy relationship is coping with change together and working through emotional and physical changes to how we experience love that may arise as we grow older. However, our scientific understanding of how movement through these types of love may impact our relationship happiness and success remains unclear.
You may think to yourself, “it seems like everyone should strive for a consummate love relationship,” but I caution you from making this your takeaway. Not every person and every partnership will embody all three pillars of love, and that is totally okay.
Any one of these kinds of love may meet your needs and lead to satisfaction in your relationship—it's all based on you and your partner's desires and goals. If you and your partner are satisfied with where you are and where you're going, then your type of love is valid.