What Is The Triangular Theory Of Love, And How Can You Apply It To Your Relationship?

Love is patient, love is kind... but love is pretty complicated. Whether you're newly single or totally off the market, it is important to understand what kind of love you are looking for. Not all types of love are the same — even two people who have loved each other for a long time might not have all the elements that lead to a happy and healthy partnership. If you're looking for a sign that your relationship will last a lifetime, it might be time to consult the triangular theory of love.

In 1986, psychologist Robert Sternberg created the triangular theory of love, a visual representation of the elements present (or not present) in different types of relationships. Triangles may have three sides, but the triangular theory of love actually defines eight different types of love, based on the presence or absence of the three different relationship elements: intimacy, passion, and commitment. According to Sternberg's website, the shape of the triangle is also based on the "amount of love and balance of love" present within the relationship. 

From consummate love to nonlove, this theory analyzes the different dynamics between two people in a partnership, providing a model of what Sternberg believes is the foundation for a long-lasting, successful relationship.

The three elements of a successful relationship: intimacy, passion, and commitment

When it comes to complex relationship dynamics, you may have heard the saying "love isn't enough." But according to psychologists and relationship experts, love is actually made up of multiple different elements that need to be present for a relationship to have the best chance of survival.

Robert Sternberg's triangular theory of love places each element in the corners of a triangle — intimacy, passion, and commitment. In this theory, intimacy calls for a deep level of connection, trust, and support for one another. The element of passion considers the level of physical and sexual attraction that the couple maintains. Passion can also come from a non-sexual place when two people have an intense, consistent need to be together and enjoy each other's presence. The concept of commitment seems pretty self-explanatory, but there are many ways to express it in a relationship — most commonly, a couple may decide to be together exclusively without other romantic or sexual partners. But commitment extends beyond fidelity; a dedicated partner commits to keeping date night plans, consistently checks in with their S.O.'s mental health, and is committed to maintaining their happiness.

In the middle of the triangle, with all three elements present and equally balanced, is the ideal relationship dynamic that Sternberg calls "consummate love." While this perfect triangle is the ideal relationship dynamic, the psychologist admits it isn't always the most realistic one.

What happens when your relationship isn't a perfect triangle

The triangular theory of love is more than a guide for the ideal relationship — it is also a way for couples to decode what might be missing. After all, a triangle is made up of angles and sides, and each of those sides represents a different type of love.

Per Sternberg's theory, when your relationship has passion and intimacy, you've found romantic love. This dynamic seems ideal in the beginning stages, but after the honeymoon phase ends, commitment is often what keeps a relationship together. A relationship with commitment and passion is considered fatuous love: this type is exciting and overwhelming, often referred to as "love at first sight." But without the closeness that intimacy provides, the flame of passion can flicker out — this is where people find themselves in seemingly loveless relationships. A couple that lacks passion is in a "companionate" relationship. This dynamic usually occurs when a couple is very genuine in their love, but may have lost the physical or sexual desire for one another.

If you find that your relationship is missing one of these elements for long-term success, there is still hope. Many relationship experts encourage couples to first understand the theory, and then make a conscious effort to show their love through passion, intimacy, and commitment. For couples who are struggling to incorporate all three elements, seeking a couples therapist is a great next step.