Robert Sternberg, a psychologist, developed a triangular theory of love based on the three components of intimacy, passion, and commitment. His definition of intimacy is the emotional attachment primarily rooted in the communication of deeply personal information and mutual acceptance. Passion is defined as the motivational force that includes sexual magnetism and the desire for sexual intimacy; passion attributes appeal and desirability and is readily aroused, but it is easily doused. Commitment is the “brain” of love, thoughtful and decisive; it begins with one first determining that one is in love, and over time, it grows into an enduring devotion to the person and the relationship. (Bolt, 2004)
Intimacy, passion, and commitment can be demonstrated in a variety of combinations that evidence different types of love. Accordingly, Sternberg believed there to be seven different types of love: liking, infatuation, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, and consummate love. Sternberg’s model allows for the harmonious complementation when both parties are equal in their level of intimacy, passion, and commitment, and relationships where couples are not equal in these three components are incompatible over the long term. (Bolt, 2004)
Liking is a relationship that is rooted in intimacy, but lacks passion and commitment; a liking relationship is a close, intimate friendship that has no promise of long-term commitment such as a relationship with a neighbor; since passion and commitment are not present, if either person moves the relationship ends rather painlessly. Infatuation is a passion-based relationship, containing no intimacy or commitment; infatuation is exemplified in a one-night-stand. Empty love is a commitment based relationship with no passion or intimacy; empty love lacks emotional warmth or the heat of passion, as in the case of a couple remaining married for the sake of their children, partners tolerate one another due to a sense of obligation. A relationship that contains no passion and intimacy is romantic love; romantic relationships are characterized by lovers who do not see one another’s flaws such as a couple emotionally and physically drawn to each other but lacking the commitment for a long-term relationship. Companionate love has intimacy and commitment with no passion, including a shared intimacy and committed friendship such as a marriage in which the passion died but the couple remains close with an intimate friendship that survives distance, time, and hardship. Fatuous love is rooted in passion and commitment without intimacy; an example would be a marriage based on passionate sexual relations that dim over times and without the sharing of intimate conversations, dreams, and goals the marriage ends because the couple realize they are not equally matched. Consummate love has intimacy, passion, and commitment and is the ideal that most couples try to acquire and is exemplified in a couple who is matched perfectly in all three components. (Bolt, 2004)
Bolt (2004) states that attachment style is determined by “both nature-the infant’s inherent need to bond and belong-and nurture-parental responsiveness (p. 25).” The three factors that determine attachment styles are commitment, care or safety, and physical closeness. The type of attachment style an individual develops as a child can be a large indicator of the type of attachment style the individual experiences as an adult and holds a tremendous sway over the type of love relationships one develops as an adult. Attachment styles are malleable and subject to change due to environmental influences, so having one type of attachment style does not doom one to experience the same type for a lifetime. A relationship may progress through any or all classifications of love according to Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. (Bolt, 2004)
Bolt describes secure attachment style as the ability to achieve close, intimate relationships with others. The individual with secure attachment style is neither troubled by needing to depend on others, nor are they fearful of intimacy or abandonment. Avoidant attachment style is described as being uneasy or feeling awkward with closeness and problems with developing trust or allowing oneself to depend on others. With love relationships, avoidant attachment style may lead to love interests desiring more intimacy than one is comfortable with (Bolt, 2004). Anxious attachments styles are described as being riddled with uncertainty about another’s feelings toward oneself, insecurity in whether the other partner is vested in remaining in the relationship. Anxious attachment styles may translate to or seem desperate to others and this desperation may lead others to run away from or end a relationship. (Bolt, 2004)
With secure attachment style, an individual is secure in his or her own self-worth and self-concept. Being secure within oneself and one’s contribution to the relationship means the individual would have little difficulty forming intimate relationships with others. Having little or no difficulty in being dependent on others and lacking the fear that the significant other will leave enables the individual with secure attachment style to more easily maintain a lasting commitment to the relationship and the partner. An individual with secure attachment style has little or no issues with passion, intimacy, or commitment; therefore, he or she may experience any or all of Sternberg’s seven types of love: liking, infatuation, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, and consummate love. (Bolt, 2004)
The individual who experiences avoidant attachment style has learned through past experiences that others are not dependable or trustworthy and is likely to guard his or her emotions very closely to prevent disappointment and painful rejection; even if this learned behavior is subconscious. This person may have difficulty building intimate relationships or committing long-term to a relationship. An individual with avoidant attachment style may find him or herself limited in the types of love relationships he or she may be entered in; for instance, inability to be intimate or to commit to a relationship would find all of Sternberg’s types of love difficult, if not improbable, with the sole exception of infatuation; because of this, the individual with avoidant attachment style may experience primarily short-term relationships or multiple one night stands. (Bolt, 2004)
The individual who experiences anxious attachment style is unsure about what to expect from others, which may lead to him or her detaching or disengaging from the relationship. Anxious attachment style is characterized by individuals who are not committed to relationships. This person may have trouble with both intimacy and commitment; however, there is potential that trust and dependability can be built between two individuals. An individual with anxious attachment style may experience some difficulty with Sternberg’s seven types of love, but the outlook is much improved from avoidant attachment style. (Bolt, 2004)
Bolt (2004) states that “…reflecting…on how beliefs about yourself and others have their roots in early experience is an important first step in altering an avoidant or anxious attachment” (p. 26). This author believes that both anxious and avoidant attachment styles may be positively influenced through improvement in self-esteem and self-concept, both of which have a major impact on all areas of one’s life. Building self-esteem and self-concept would enable the individual to feel entitled, worthy, and resolve feelings of insecurity. Therapy may also be beneficial in assisting individuals with anxious or avoidant attachment styles to overcome feelings of rejection, fear of abandonment, and trust issues.
Bolt, M. (2004). Pursuing human strengths: A positive psychology guide. NY: Worth Publishing.