by Marta Oko-Riebau, MA

Grow old along with me… Two branches of one tree… Face the setting sun when the day is done… This is a beautiful vision of a relationship that lasts until the end, presented by John Lennon in his song. Many of us dream of a relationship that will last forever (i.e. until we or our partner dies). And most of us know couples that actually did last together until they died. However, to me the real questions are: Were they happy spending their lives together? What was it that kept them together for so long? Was it “True Love,” or maybe simple commitment that was not even related to valuing loyalty, but rather associated to their perceived social expectations or religious rules? Is it even possible to enjoy the same partner for one’s whole life? In this brief post I would like to talk about the triangular theory of love by Robert Sternberg and the component of the relationship that is a good predictor of not only being able to share your whole life with your partner, but actually enjoying your life together.

 The Love Triangle according to Sternberg’s theory love has three components:

  • Intimacy
  • Passion
  • Commitment

Contrary to common understanding that intimacy relates to sex, in Sternberg’s theory it encompasses the feelings of closeness and connectedness between partners. I like to think about this component as the friendship element. Intimacy involves the feelings of caring, enjoying each other’s company, trusting each other, understanding each other, supporting and valuing each other. Passion involves physical attraction and sexual relations, while commitment in simple terms is the determination to stay together.  According to Sternberg the different components of love have different levels of significance depending on the status of the relationship. In the short-term relationships the importance of passion is usually very high, while commitment is low and intimacy moderate. Things change significantly in long-term relationships: intimacy and commitment become most important, while passion is only moderately important. Before we look at the implications of this shift, let’s look at the kinds of love that Sternberg identified based on the aforementioned three love components.

Kinds of Love
Depending on the level of the different components of love, Sternberg discusses eight kinds of love:

  • Non-love refers to the absence of all three components.
  • Liking refers to only experiencing the intimacy component in the absence of commitment and passion.
  • Infatuated Love consists of pure passion in the absence of intimacy and commitment (also known as “love at first sight”).
  • Empty Love means the commitment to stay together in the absence of passion and intimacy. This type of love is present in stagnant relationships that have lasted for years but have lost mutual emotional involvement and sexual attraction.
  • Romantic Love consists of the intimacy and passion components of love.
  • Companionate love evolves from a combination of commitment and intimacy and is often times characteristic of marriages in which physical attraction is no longer present.
  • Fatuous love is a combination of commitment and passion with no intimacy present.
  • Consummate love in Sternberg’s theory is the complete love that consists of all three components: intimacy, passion and commitment.

Striving Towards Complete Love
If you are currently in a relationship you’ve probably already classified it by now according to the aforementioned categories. You also may be asking yourself a question: is complete love really possible? It is definitely a goal that many of us strive towards in our romantic relationships, however, it does not seem like a state that a couple can accomplish and maintain forever. It seems like the trickiest component of “complete love” to maintain is passion. It is because passion is minimally subject to our conscious control and highly subject to habituation. Without passion we are left with companionate love – is this a compromise or a satisfying kind of relationship to strive for?

Happy Relationship ≠ Perfect Relationship
This brings us to the question of how should a good, yet realistic, relationship look like? How can you know if the partner you’re with is the partner you want to grow old along side? Maybe a little logic will help with finding the answer to this question. There are several things that we can establish with a high level of certainty:

  • Given the temporary nature of passion it is very unlikely it will be the glue that will keep your relationship together.
  • Even though commitment is known to be a solid and reliable glue for the relationship, it does not guarantee any level of satisfaction with your relationship. In other words, if commitment is all you have, you can potentially spend your lives together sharing loneliness and misery.
  • The moments that many of us enjoy in life the most are the moments spent with our close friends.

Conclusion: it may be intimacy that will not only allow you to grow old together, but more importantly to actually enjoy your life together.

In closing I would like to share a few quotes that beautifully summarize the power of friendship (intimacy) in relationships:

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”  – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love.  Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing.” – Elie Wiesel

“If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love.” – Michel de Montaigne

The description of the triangular theory of love is based on R. Sternberg’s article “A Triangular Theory of Love” from Psychological Review, 1986.

Marta Oko-Riebau, MA is a therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center.