In 1988, Robert Sternberg published the Sternberg triangular theory of love, where three points--intimacy, passion, and commitment--form consummate love. But, what does that really mean? According to Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, any relationship features a component or a combination of the below 3 points:
Per Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, every relationship has features of these three “ingredients.” Sternberg also created combinations of intimacy, passion, and commitment to make up what he calls love profiles. Love profiles indicated the differing levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment, which are more popularly known as the 8 types of love.
Non-love is a lack of intimacy, passion, and commitment, but it doesn’t mean you have harsh feelings towards another person. The people we likely experience non-love to are the people we pass by or barely interact with on a daily basis. The barista who made your coffee, the nurse who took your blood pressure, the speaker who came to your workplace - these are all people you don’t have love for, and that’s okay!
Liking someone usually features high levels of intimacy but low to vacant levels of passion and commitment. You consider these people acquaintances or even a good friend, but you do not desire their company over long periods of time in the context of romance. For example, your significant other may be jealous of your lifelong friend because you genuinely enjoy spending time with them, but you would never see this friend as a romantic partner.
Infatuated love has high levels of passion - this is commonly known as love at first sight. There is a desire to be with the other person without the desire to intimately know them or commit to them. These feelings are typically fleeting.
Empty love is when you experience high levels of commitment, but only commitment. This means the relationship has lost its spark. Couples facing empty love often only stay together because of certain promises made when they did have passion or intimacy.
Romantic love has high levels of passion and intimacy. These relationships tend to last longer without the thought of commitment. It could look like dating someone for a few months to a year and just enjoying spending time with another.
Companionate love is a combination of high intimacy and commitment. Long-term friendships and even marriages fall into this category because the physical desire of passion is missing: you can genuinely care for your best friend without ever being attracted to them, just the same as you and your spouse could refrain from a physical relationship without worry of an affair or separation.
Fatuous love severely lacks intimacy but has high levels of passion and commitment. The best way to describe this love is through a Vegas wedding -- there is a desire to be with the other person and, in a fit of passion, marry them before you truly get to know them. Fatuous love tends to fail couples because intimacy is often the foundation of all relationships.
Consummate love is the true point to any lasting relationship: Sternberg states that having high levels of every component makes for consummate, or complete, love. Ideally, Sternberg’s triangular theory of love would say that a promising relationship will have both high and matching levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment, meaning both individuals expect the same from each other.
So how do you know if you and your partner are experiencing complete love? Is it possible to reach and maintain all 3 corners of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love?
Unfortunately, one cannot pour love into a beaker and measure it as such. Much of the research on love is gathered via questionnaires, observations, and self-assessments.
In their study of attachment styles associated with Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, Madey and Rodgers (2009) had 55 undergraduate students all involved in a serious relationship complete a questionnaire to assess relationship satisfaction. The results indicated that high levels of intimacy and commitment lead to the highest satisfaction rates in secure relationships (Madey & Rodgers, 2009). In a similar study, Paquette et al. (2020) observed how different attachments could predict romantic passion in relationships, finding that the more secure the relationship is, the more passion is matched amongst partners and the relationship is likely to last longer than those in insecure relationships.
We know that having high levels of commitment and intimacy makes for a secure relationship, and that equally matched levels of passion also makes for a secure relationship. But, neither of these studies explored consummate love. Is this because it doesn’t happen for each couple? Yes and no: it takes a very long time for couples to reach consummate love.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is an ongoing longitudinal study observing the lives of thousands of individuals that began in 1938. After 80 years of the study, researchers have discovered the key to happiness is love in relationships.
In 1938, the Harvard Grant study began to observe the lives of Harvard sophomores and the Glueck study recruited boys from Boston’s inner-city during the 1970s to make for a total of 724 participants (Mineo, 2017). Now the Harvard Study of Adult Development is following the spouses and the children of the surviving 724 men, for a total of over 2000 participants. Every participant displayed characteristics of the love languages in their lifetimes, but only some seemed to have reached consummate love.
Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is now the director of the study. A few years ago he gave a TEDtalk to discuss the Harvard study and his lesson came down to one point: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Those with strong social connections, especially those married and in love, are generally happier, in better physical health, and live longer than those who are lonely and disconnected. In fact, the individuals who were most satisfied with their romantic relationships, meaning they had high levels of passion, commitment, and intimacy in their midlife, had better cholesterol readings than those less satisfied.
In short, those who reach consummate love are some of the happiest people in the world. Consummate love doesn’t happen in a week, month, year, or several years. And if it does, it likely does not stay. When a couple has had adequate time to explore each point of the triangle seriously--the excitement of passion, the craving for intimacy, the assurance of commitment--then they complete their love. The Harvard study proves that consummate love is not only achievable, but that it’s worth finding.
Happiness now may seem drastically different than it did in the 50s and 60s. The reality is that Millennials have altered their parents’ and grandparents’ societal norms. As of 2017, 57% of Millennials were never married between the ages of 21-36, whereas the Silent generation was 78% married when they were in that same age group (Fry et al., 2017). Even though societal norms have changed, especially regarding relationships, the chances of reaching consummate love is still promising.
In 2018, a survey conducted by eHarmony revealed that 64% of Americans are happy in their relationships, and that Millennials are the happiest in their relationships (PRNewsire, 2018). Happiness correlated highest with the survey participants who claimed to be in a long-term, committed relationship, and 68% of respondents say “I love you” on a daily basis (PRNewswire). As the Harvard study pointed out, it is our relationships--however true Sternberg’s triangular theory of love--that keep us happy, and that claim is supported here by this survey’s results.
In a similar survey conducted by Tinder, Millennial respondents reported that 72% have made the conscious decision to stay single to avoid settling for the wrong person. Because of this thought process, Millennials are helping reduce divorce rates, but they’re also staying single for much longer (Miller, 2018). In the context of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love and the Harvard study, it is easy to see that Millennials are holding off on the commitment point of the triangle until they are confident in their decisions. This will ultimately lead to a longer life spent with their partner, and thus lead to a wonderfully happy life.
Even though reaching consummate love takes many years of relationship building a development, it never hurts to try to reach it sooner rather than later. The LIFE Intelligence app a 9 mission (topic) program for your self, career, and relationship development. Part therapy, career coaching, and relationship counseling content, the LIFE app is like having a relationship counselor in your pocket. You can use the program alone, or, with a partner. By sharing relationship prompts and reflections, you can deepen your intimacy, passion and commitment. Build a lasting relationship that may just become a consummate love.
Fry, R., Igielnik, R., & Patten, E. (2018, March 16). How millennials today compare with their grandparents 50 years ago. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/16/how-millennials-compare-with-their-grandparents/
Madey, S. F., & Rodgers, L. (2009). The effect of attachment and Sternberg’s triangular theory of love on relationship satisfaction. Individual Differences Research, 7(2), 76–84. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232559031_The_effect_of_attachment_and_Sternberg's_Triangular_Theory_of_Love_on_relationship_satisfaction
Miller, R. W. (2018, October 8). Are Millennials 'killing' relationships, too? Young people are embracing single life, Tinder finds. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/10/08/millennials-tinder-survey-single-life-dating-relationships/1535860002/
Mineo, L. (2017, April 11). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
Paquette, V., Rapaport, M., St-Louis, A. C., & Vallerand, R. J. (2020). Why are you passionately in love? Attachment styles as determinants of romantic passion and conflict resolution strategies. Motivation & Emotion, 44(4), 621–639. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VQ1cfhRXaNvqMPBiQouTPy3crFoYnck8/view?usp=sharing
PRNewswire. (2018, February 8). 64 Percent of Americans Say They're Happy In Their Relationships. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/64-percent-of-americans-say-theyre-happy-in-their-relationships-300595502.html
Waldinger, R. (2015, November). What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness