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Consummate Love: The Triangular Theory and How It Works

A couple who have consummate love, sitting next to each other at sunset.

Most of us are either in love or looking for it, and we all know the search isn’t easy. One of the reasons true love is so hard to pin down is that we can’t all agree on what exactly it is. To complicate things, most of us don’t know what we’re looking for in love and our expectations are totally different than that of the people we date. Enter the Triangular Theory of Love, a psychologically based framework for defining relationship elements that will help you and your would-be lover get on the same page and find consummate love.

Consummate Love

The Theory

The Triangular Theory of Love was developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg to define and understand the key elements of a relationship. According to the theory, there are eight different kinds of love, that are all rooted in three main components: intimacy, passion, and decision (also referred to as commitment).

If your relationship only has one of these components (for example, if you have intimacy with someone but no passion or commitment) it’s thought that that love is a more basic, simple love. If your relationship has two of these components (for example, intimacy and passion but no commitment), you’re doing even better and have a fuller, but still incomplete, love. If your relationship has all three of these things (intimacy, passion, and commitment), well then, you’ve hit the jackpot—consummate love

The Three Components

So what do we really mean when we talk about intimacy, passion, and commitment? To get a better understanding of the Triangular Theory of Love, let’s take a deeper look at the three parts that make up the triangle.

Intimacy – Intimacy is the closeness, connectedness, and bond you feel in a relationship. It creates feelings of warmth.

Passion – Passion is the physical, romantic, and sexual attraction of a relationship.

Commitment – Commitment is the decision to love someone for the long-term.
These three components are separate and distinct, but related. If two or more of the components are present in a relationship, they can amplify each other’s strength. For example, increased intimacy may lead to a more passionate relationship, or more commitment might create a more intimate connection.

All three components are equally important but can vary in presence and value between relationships and even at different points within a single relationship. For instance, a married couple might see a decrease in passion when they have children (due to a lack of sleep and changes in day-to-day schedules), but an increase in intimacy and commitment since they’re going through the profound experience of raising a child together.

The Eight Kinds of Love

According to the theory, there are eight possible kinds of love that come from different combinations of the three love components. Remember that most relationships won’t fit squarely into any of these categories, but the framework will help you consider your past and future relationships in a new light.

1. Non-Love
If all of the three components are missing from a relationship, it’s considered a non-love relationship.. These are often casual relationships or acquaintances where there’s no passion, closeness, or plans to move the relationship forward. This person is someone in your life that doesn’t hold much significance.

2. Liking
Liking is when you feel close to someone (intimacy), but passion and a sense of commitment are absent. Early stage friendships often fall into this category. Couples that began as friends often start here, too.

3. Infatuated Love
When there’s only passion in your relationship, you get infatuation—a steamy but incomplete form of love. The attraction is entirely physical, which is important for the relationship to progress through the early stages of dating, but must evolve to sustain itself. Passionate couples are often physically affectionate, even in public.

4. Empty Love
Empty love happens when a couple is still committed to the relationship, but it lacks passion and intimacy. This often happens in older relationships where things have become stagnant.

5. Romantic Love
Combine intimacy and passion, and you get romantic love. Both partners are bonded and attracted to each, but commitment is missing. Sometimes this happens when only one person wants to commit, or both people are afraid to take the relationship to the next level. These relationships usually fizzle out because of the lack of commitment.

6. Companionate Love
A couple that has intimacy and commitment, but lack passion, are in companionate love. It’s characterized by a strong friendship between the two members of the couple, but without the fire.

7. Fatuous Love
When you have passion and commitment without intimacy, you get fatuous love. These relationships don’t tend to last, it’s hard to develop trust without intimacy..

8. Consummate Love
Consummate love is also known as complete love, because all three components of the triangle are present. According to Triangular Theory, this is the type of relationship we should aim for. Of course, even once consummate love is achieved the journey isn’t over. Relationships need constant work and attention to continue to flourish and that won’t change no matter where you are on the journey to find love.

So how do you know your love is the consummate kind? Well, if you’re happier than ever with your partner, you’re still enjoying sex, and you’re committed to the relationship, it’s fair guess that you’re probably there.

Not there yet? Don’t worry—we’re all working for it. It’s a journey not a destination.

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