The ‘Triangular Love Theory’ Helps You to (Finally!) Define That Impossible Relationship

Photo: Getty Images/Hero Images
Trying to explain what someone means to you in the early stages of a relationship is a verbal trap. ("Um, they're my partner/hookup/intimate friend/boo?") That's why one of the veritable marvels of dating in 2019 is the moment you DTR (define the relationship), all the mist clears, and suddenly you're like, "Oh, there are words for who you are to me!" Before that, the "triangular love theory"—proposed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, PhD, in 1986—comes in clutch for pinning down the emotions fluttering around in your chest (and, ahem, other places).

Don't confuse the triangular love theory for network television's treasured love triangle. Dr. Sternberg's research—to which he has dedicated a life's worth of work—revolves around the interaction (or lack thereof) between the three components of any relationship: passion, intimacy, and commitment. When we meet someone, these three ingredients mix-and-match themselves in different ways and—in the most basic sense—define the relationship without your voluntary input, explains psycholoigist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, on recent episode of her podcast, Savvy Psychologist.

"The three components of love generate eight possible kinds of love when considered in combination," reads Dr. Sternberg's website. You can see how all the different types pan out in theory below. However, it's important to remember that no coupling is just one thing. Nothing will describe what you have with the person (or multiple people) you're seeing with complete and total accuracy. Still, it's fun to piece together the kind of mashup currently occupying your romp with the dating pool. Go for it.

The 8 types of love you can build with the triangular love theory

1. Nonlove

When all three components are missing, sorry, there's no love.

2. Liking

There's intimacy, but no passion or commitment.

3. Infatuated love

There's passion, but no intimacy or commitment.

4. Empty love

There's commitment, but no intimacy or passion. Dr. Sternberg elaborates on his website that, "Empty love emanates from the decision that one loves another and is committed to that love in the absence of both the intimacy and passion components of love." (Cue: dramatic sigh.)

5. Romantic love

There's intimacy and passion, but no commitment.

6. Companionate love

There's intimacy and commitment, but no passion.

7. Fatuous love

There's passion and commitment, but no intimacy.

8. Consummate love

All three types of love are present.

Further questions: What is chemistry? And how do I know that I'm in love?

Loading More Posts...