Written by: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT
Love exists in many forms that complement a variety of relationships. Think of the love you feel for your partner versus the love you feel for a friend, relative, pet, or hobby. It is restrictive to think that there is a “right” kind of love to strive for, which may lead you farther astray from the type of feeling you desire in a relationship.
For example, if you think that you must not love your partner of five years because you no longer experience the same level of passion for him or her, you may feel ashamed or even blame your partner for losing that sense of excitement in your relationship. But the diminishment of passion may be complemented by an increase in intimacy whereby you feel emotionally closer to your partner and connected on a deeper level. Achieving this perspective, you can utilize that deeper relationship with your partner to find ways to rekindle the passion in your relationship, taking an active stance rather than passively brooding over a felt loss of love in your relationship.
Psychologist Robert Sternberg developed a triangular theory of love that breaks down the major components of love and highlights the fluidity that can occur between different types of love throughout the course of a relationship. The three sides of the triangle consist of passion, intimacy and commitment. By understanding which dimension needs nurturing in your relationship, you can achieve the love you want.
Intimacy encompasses emotional connection, attachment, shared experiences, and empathy. Passion includes novelty, mystery, obsession, and fantasy, and it is typically the quickest to flare and fastest to fade of the three components. Finally, commitment consists of the emotional, legal, and financial priorities and plans you devote to the relationship.
Love can exist with just one component. With only intimacy, liking love forms, such as how you might describe loving a hobby or a friend. With only passion, short-term infatuation develops, such as how you might become obsessed with a new partner. On its own, commitment creates empty love, encompassed by a sense of obligation, which might occur in the early phases of an arranged marriage.
Two components of love may combine to create unique love formulas, and they allow for a variety of relationship dynamics.
- Intimacy + passion = romantic love, often experienced as the head-over-heels phase early in an intimate relationship.
- Intimacy + commitment = companionate love, and it is more common in long-term relationships when infatuation diminishes but affection remains or how one might feel about close family members.
- Commitment + passion = fatuous love, which describes many relationships that quickly move from courtship to marriage before an underlying foundation of intimacy and affection exists.
When all three components are strong, Sternberg calls this consummate love. It is often painted as the ideal happily-ever-after dynamic. Unfortunately, many partners wrongly assume that in successful relationships, all three facets of love are automatic, but love is very conditional. Sternberg himself notes that maintaining consummate love is harder than achieving it.
Not all partners will experience love in the same way, so matters can be even more complicated if partners differ in their feelings about the current relationship. Ask your partner how much he or she feels fulfilled in the three facets of love, and assess your fulfillment to better understand what makes you feel loved, what makes your partner feel loved, and how you each like to express your love for each other.
Love is dynamic, not static. It is normal for relationships to drift between different types of love, and it is possible to renew components that may have faded or been neglected over time. By learning more about love, you can create the love you want in your relationship.