The triangular theory of love states that the most successful relationships score well on all three metrics: attraction, intimacy, and commitment. Happy couples need to have strong overlap and match in their “triangles” or else work to strengthen their weak points.
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Let’s be a bit more concrete about what we’re saying when it comes to love, commitment and plain physical attraction. Answering the question “what is love?” is a little tricky, but we can identify different kinds of love, or at least what loves looks like in different stages. Robert Sternberg is a psychologist who founded a theory of interpersonal relationships that he called the Triangular Theory of Love. He believed that relationships could play out along three distinct scales:
The problem many people have with arranged marriages is obvious: the commitment and intimacy are there, but the passion can be lacking. With Western-style love marriages, the trouble is that there can be buckets of passion and intimacy, but difficulty around commitment. For Sternberg, a successful relationship is inevitably one that scores highly on as many of these scales as possible—i.e., one that is moderately intimate, passionate, and committed is likely to be stronger than one that scores highly in only one or two areas.
Yes, the relative weight of each different aspect may change according to life stage and indeed individual difference and preference. But Sternberg found the best relationships were those that had enough of all three.
Let’s look more closely:
Passion is all about physical attraction, sex, “chemistry,” and that delightful spark that surrounds all forms of flirting and romance. Intimacy is general emotional closeness, feeling connected and bonded in love to the other person. Finally, commitment is a more active decision about how you will behave in the long term—i.e., to cultivate and nurture that love. It’s as though passion is the first fiery spark or lightning bolt, intimacy is the warm softly glowing fire that results, and commitment is the active decision, over time, to keep giving fuel to that fire to sustain it.
So far, so good. How can we use this theory in our own love lives, though?
Well, good relationships are those that possess as much of each metric as possible, but it’s also a question of overlap and compatibility. To illustrate, imagine that every person’s involvement in a relationship is represented by a triangle. If they experience a high degree of attraction and a lot of intimacy and feel committed, they can be represented by a nice full and balanced equilateral triangle. However, imagine another person who is high on intimacy and passion but low on commitment, so they’re a more lopsided triangle.
Overlay these two triangles on top of each other—the degree to which they don’t overlap represents tension and difficulty. In relationship, these two people may butt heads over the issue of commitment. Their problem will be different from another couple, though, who, for example, have the same broad shape triangle, only one is much bigger than the other—this couple is likely to have one partner feeling more emotionally invested and in love than the other.
Fundamentally, every couple will have their own unique struggles, but Sternberg’s theory shows that ultimately these struggles come down to three broad areas of what we call love, as well as a mismatch between where each partner is on that scale.
Arranged marriages can be very successful.
Love marriages can be very successful.
Yet each has a different strategy for finding and maintaining “love.”
Sternberg would say that neither approach is necessarily better, but that truly successful partnerships have a balanced and matched combination of attraction, commitment, and intimacy.
In an arranged marriage where intimacy and commitment are high, the couple may nevertheless completely lack passion and work together more as a platonic team raising children and managing a domestic life. This setup can work, but it’s naturally going to be less resilient than one that has the intimacy and commitment and a rock-solid sex life!
When you are dating someone new, you might be tempted to rate them on only one scale or maybe two—attraction and intimacy. But a relationship based on this alone is less likely to survive long term. Ask yourself:
What does my “love triangle” look like?
What does my partner’s look like?
How do we compare and overlap?
What could we do to offset and improve on some of our weaker areas?
This last question is interesting. Some people would say that the most important aspect of the above three is physical attraction, since it’s the only one that can’t be faked or summoned up by will alone, whereas the other two are conscious choices that are easier to control. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that consciously nailing down commitment and intimacy will allow attraction to flourish—otherwise, all friendships would tend toward romance with time, and that isn’t the case.
At any rate, breaking down the love experience into these three categories can give you insight and help you talk about the vague and difficult to measure “love” in a more concrete and useful way. When you say you’re in love with someone, what do you mean? What do they mean? How do those perspectives line up with one another? Getting a clearer picture on these questions may spell the difference between a failed relationship and a mutually satisfying one.