I am going through a number of personal events at the moment. I have recently ended a relationship that lasted over half a decade and am beginning a new one. At the same time I am taking a free online lecture course from Yale in psychology. Where do these things intersect? At love. Or, more specifically, what love can be defined as psychologically.
The Love Triangle
Developed by noted psychologist Robert Sternberg, one widely used psychological conception of love used is The Triangular Theory of Love.
According to Sternburg, any permutation of love contains at its root three components. They are:
- Intimacy: Feelings of attachment, closeness, typified by sharing secrets, etc.
- Passion: Feelings of sexual and romantic attraction.
- Commitment: A willingness in the short-term to create and maintain a relationship and long-term plans to sustain the relationship.
Of course, a “perfect” relationship in Sternberg’s view contains all three components, but the various combinations of these psychological aspects of love create eight separate permutations that cover almost all relationships.
In the sake of completeness, each permutation has an accompanying description.
- Nonlove “refers simply to the absence of all three components of love. Nonlove characterizes the large majority of our personal relationships, which are simply casual interactions.”
- Liking/friendship is “used here in a nontrivial sense. Rather, it refers to the set of feelings one experiences in relationships that can truly be characterized as friendship. One feels closeness, bondedness, and warmth toward the other, without feelings of intense passion or long-term commitment.”
- Infatuated love: “Infatuation results from the experiencing of passionate arousal in the absence of intimacy and decision/commitment…like Tennov’s limerance .” Romantic relationships often start out as infatuated love and become romantic love as intimacy develops over time. Without developing intimacy or commitment, infatuated love may disappear suddenly.
- Empty love is characterized by commitment without intimacy or passion. A stronger love may deteriorate into empty love. In an arranged marriage, the spouses’ relationship may begin as empty love and develop into another form, indicating “how empty love need not be the terminal state of a long-term relationship…[but] the beginning rather than the end.”
- Romantic love “derives from a combination of the intimate and passionate components of love…romantic lovers are not only drawn physically to each other but are also bonded emotionally”- bonded both intimately and passionately, but without sustaining commitment.
- Companionate love is an intimate, non-passionate type of love that is stronger than friendship because of the element of long-term commitment. “This type of love is observed in long-term marriages where passion is no longer present” but where a deep affection and commitment remain. The love ideally shared between family members is a form of companionate love, as is the love between close friends who have a platonic but strong friendship.
- Fatuous love can be exemplified by a whirlwind courtship and marriage – “fatuous in the sense that a commitment is made on the basis of passion without the stabilizing influence of intimate involvement.”
- Consummate love is the complete form of love, representing an ideal relationship toward which people strive. Of the seven varieties of love, consummate love is theorized to be that love associated with the “perfect couple.” According to Sternberg, these couples will continue to have great sex fifteen years or more into the relationship, they cannot imagine themselves happier over the long-term with anyone else, they overcome their few difficulties gracefully, and each delight in the relationship with one other. However, Sternberg cautions that maintaining a consummate love may be 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.” Thus, consummate love may not be permanent. If passion is lost over time, it may change into companionate love.
The diligent thing to do, as you are all budding psychologists I’m sure, is to create a list of all the people you know and categorize them on the basis of the type of love you have with them.
Do these conceptions of love fit your relationship? Do you agree with Sternberg? Maybe you will realize your love is more full (or sadly less full) than you expected.
While we are on the subject, we might as well outline a bit more about the psychological study of love.
Contrary to many of our fantasies about how love begins (stranger’s eyes meet across a crowded room and it’s love at first sight), the main predictors of love are much more mundane than many of us think.
The largest predictors of who will be in a relationship are familiarity, similarity, and proximity. Psychologists have found that how familiar you are with a person predicts whether or not you will enter into a relationship with that person. That is to say, it is very unlikely that you will end up dating a complete stranger.
Similarity is also a major factor in predicting who will end up together. Interestingly, much of the psychological research on this factor has found that the old adage “opposites attract” is largely untrue. When you share similar values, interests, philosophies, etc., you are more likely to enter into a relationship with that person.
Lastly, and most surprisingly, proximity predicts who will end up together. For example, studies have been done on college campuses where you can predict who will end up in a relationship together by actually measuring the distance between dorm rooms. The closer you are to someone in distance (you are in class together, you go to the same laundry mat, you live on the same block, etc.), the more likely you are to enter into a relationship with them.
Perhaps this is why are fantasies are so appealing. Psychologically, little agrees with the hot and heavy “stranger across the room” story. But hey, I’d rather live in the reality of love than lament over an unlikely fantasy.
I suppose that as my last relationship was dwindling, we moved out of consummate love and into companionate love. The passion faded. We seemed to stay together out of familiarity and convenience. It soon became empty love.
As I enter into a new relationship, I find myself in romantic love. Sharing and feeling connected and passionate yet not committing to any real relationship. It’s a scary roller coaster to ride, especially if you are more of a long-term relationship kind of guy like myself.
I am very familiar with the other in my new relationship, we share many of the same values, yet we are very far apart. Does this mean that psychologically my new relationship is predicted to fail? The predictors aren’t hard and fast rules, but I’d be a fool to hope against all the statistics to the contrary. Where does that leave me? Without the commitment component to my current relationship, perhaps proximity becomes less important. One can only speculate.
Love is one of those phenomena that is trotted out when science claims to explain most everything. Some say that science cannot explain love. While we don’t have a full theory (chemical, cognitive, physiological) of it yet, we can at least categorize it psychologically. Who knows, putting boundaries on the permutations of love may help you explore your own relationship, and clear a notoriously cloudy landscape which underlies so much of our lives.
- Sternberg, Robert J. (1986). “A triangular theory of love”. Psychological Review 93 (2): 119–135. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119. Retrieved 2007-06-27.
- Sternberg, Robert J. (1987). Liking versus loving: A comparative evaluation of theories. Psychological Bulletin. pp. 331–345.
- Sternberg, Robert J. (1988). The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-08746-9.