Intimate Relationships and the Triangular Theory of Love

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Introduction

Love is one of the human feelings that have transcended exact definition and understanding. It is one of the most time and attention-demanding emotions and activities for many individuals and it have remained elusive to be boxed even by the many scientists and researchers that study it (Chadwick, 1998).

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While Aristotle was seen to be the first to observe love and put characteristics to it according to Miller and Perlman (2007), by the 1800s, empirical research provided various levels and points of view on understanding love linking it with various brain chemicals that serve their function in connection with the feeling of “love”. Interestingly, even a deeper, scientific understanding of love does not guarantee a mastery of being involved in it as many published books about love may attest.

The attempts, nevertheless, continue.

As such, love’s components have been presented in theories and one of these is Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love (1986). This paper will try to provide an understanding and exploration of the triangular theory of love with reference to Intimate Relationships book by Miller and Perlman (2007).

Discussion

Sternberg (1986) outlined three components of love and those are intimacy, passion, and decision or commitment. He argued that: “love can be understood in terms of three components that together can be viewed as forming the vertices of a triangle,” (Sternberg, 1986, p 119). In fact, Sternberg has positioned each on one particular point of the triangle with the top vertex occupied by intimacy, the left-hand vertex of the triangle occupied by passion, and the right-hand vertex of the triangle occupied by decision or commitment. However, the positioning may also depend on how one exactly may feel about and has been positioned to provide a clearer understanding of Sternberg’s theory.

In addition to the triangular theory, Sternberg also described the taxonomy of the kinds of love as non-love, liking, infatuated love, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, and consummate love. This paper will proceed to explore each component with close scrutiny based on Miller and Perlman (2007).

Intimacy

According to Sternberg, intimacy refers to the feelings of being close to an individual one has loving relations, connectedness as well as bonding. Sternberg added that in this area, one experiences warmth. He acknowledged that complex as it is, love is comparable to any psychological phenomena and that it can be divided into various kinds of components. As a prototypically organized structure, it could be genetically transmitted as instinct and drive although it can also be socially learned (Rosch, 1978).

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The table below provides an overview of the components of love:

Properties of Triangle Vertices
Source: Sternberg, 1986.

As can be understood, intimacy has moderately high stability, moderate conscious controllability, variable experiential salience, high commonality across loving relationships, moderate psychological involvement, and moderately low susceptibility to conscious awareness. Desire helps to promote the welfare of the other, the ability to experience joy with the partner, high esteem for the partner, relying on the other in times of need, mutual understanding, sharing of the self and possessions, mutual emotional support, intimate communications, and valuing the partner. However, Sternberg (1986) suggested that “it is not necessary to experience all of these feelings to experience love,” (p 121).

This intimacy presented by Sternberg has a close resemblance with what Miller and Perlman described as a close personal association as well as a sense of belonging. A bonding occurs because of the knowledge and experience of the other individual. In addition, Miller and Perlman suggested that intimacy is an affective connection that needs transparency, reciprocity, communication between the partners, as well as transparency akin to honesty.

It was suggested that the development of intimacy takes time. Within the relationship, rapport building results into the disclosure of thoughts and feelings through conversations about confidential matters. This helps the couple bind together. Intimacy enables the couple to be separated but come together again through self-differentiation. Intimacy in this manner is seen as both emotional and physical (Miller and Perlman, 2007; Brehm, 2007).

It was found by Sternberg and Grajek (1984) that the “structure of intimacy in love does not appear to differ consequently from one loving relationship to another,” (quoted from Sternberg, 1986, p 121-122). This means that intimacy is also found in love for a mother, a father, sibling, best friend, and that of the lovers. Intimacy as a component of love was earlier investigated by Sternberg and Grajek (1984) linked to other alternative theories of love as Spearmanian, Thomsonian, and Thurstonian. Spearmanian was based on the 1927 theory of general intelligence (g) by Spearman. As a structural model of love, love is understood as a single g of undifferentiated “glob” (p 122). It is non-decomposable and highly positive. The Thomsonian model is based on the 1939 theory of bonds by Thomson. It is decomposable into a large number of underlying bonds that tend to co-occur in certain close relationships […] that result in the global experience” called love (Sternberg, 1986, p 122). The Thurstonian theory based on Thurstone’s 1938 theory of primary factors places love as a small and consistent set of feelings best understood as separate entities rather than as a whole.

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In relation to Miller and Perlman’s (2007) love styles, intimacy may occur to the eros kind of love it being romantically inclined that requires attachment and therefore deep involvement with the beloved. It may also occur on the Ludus kind of love although temporary in nature. The mania kind of love is also characterized by this component of love and in fact, maybe seen as intense and demanding, thereby nauseating and threatening the object of intimacy.

Passion

To differentiate passion from intimacy, this is not or rarely found in other loving relationships, such as that of a child to his or her parents, or for friends. Passion comprises motivational and other sources of arousal that lead to the experience of intense longing for union with the other. Sexual needs are consummated in this component. Sternberg, however, added that needs for self-esteem, succorance, nurturance, affiliation, dominance, submission, and self-actualization also contribute to the experience of passion. It is manifested in both physiological and psychological arousal and is not always separable as one usually leads to the other.

In connection with intimacy, Sternberg suggested that “One will feel intimacy in a relationship in large part as a function of the extent to which the relationship meets one’s needs for passion,” (p 122). It is highly possible that the passion component leads the individual to the relationship but it is the intimacy that helps sustain the relationship (Sternberg, 1986). However, this does not apply to all romantic relationships. In some, the passion develops after intimacy and in this manner, passion applies to physical attraction. But in seeking passion, the purpose may not always come with intimacy to develop such as those for paid sex (Sternberg, 1986).

This component of love is highly and reciprocally interactive with intimacy but negative covariance also exists. This means that some individuals may shun away emotional closeness to be able to satisfy their feelings for passion or arousal. This means it may vary with intimacy in levels but certainly interact in one way or another (Sternberg, 1986).

Passion was seen by Miller and Perlman (2007) as the strong feeling of desire and cause for excitement. This may be temporary or developed as long term towards someone an individual has a high or strong liking and eventually, loving. This emotion or feeling also requires reciprocation not necessarily for physical or sexual relationships (Tennov, 1979). There may also be the presence of preoccupation and attachment towards the person loved by an individual.

Passion was also characterized by Sternberg (1986) as low instability, conscious controllability, and commonality across loving relationships. It is moderate in typical importance in short-term relationships, and high in experiential salience, typical importance in short-term relationships, psychological involvement, and susceptibility to conscious awareness.

In relation to Miller and Perlman’s (2007) love styles, passion as component of exists in eros, ludus, and mania. It may be lasting in eros, very intense in ludus but may be so only for a limited time, and may be fleeting in mania as the partner may soon attempt to shy away passionately from the individual. As for pragma, passion may occur where the partner was measured to be high or exactly fitting in the requirement of the lover, thus, psychologically motivated.

Decision / Commitment

The decision or commitment component of love has two aspects: short-term or long-term. The short term makes one realize the existence of love, and long-term aspect makes one wanting to maintain that love. Sternberg said that these two may not exist together. In deciding to love, one does not exactly mean he is committed to love. At the same time, commitment does not exactly mean decision. Sternberg suggested that there are many individuals who are already committed to the love of a person but not necessarily aware or admit it. But in most cases, decision comes first before commitment such that marriage is a legal “commitment to a decision to love another throughout one’s life,” (Sternberg, 1986, 123).

There are instances that decision and commitment is only what is left among the components of love in a relationship, and this becomes very important in order to enable couples to pass through difficult situations in their relationship. It is the component of love of which has considerable control. It can also influence the other aspects – intimacy and passion – of the relationship.

Decision or commitment was characterized by Sternberg (1986) as low in typical importance in short-term relationships and psychological involvement. It is moderate in commonality across loving relationships, and variable in experiential salience. It is moderately high in stability and susceptibility to conscious awareness, and high in conscious controllability and typical importance in long-term relationships.

Sternberg (1986) concluded that all three components of love are important for romantic relationships but their level of importance may depend on the individuals involved, or their situational requirement and experience.

In relation to Miller and Perlman’s (2007) love styles, decision and commitment usually becomes apparent to the eros lover. Decision on one hand is easily achieved by a pragma lover upon noting the acceptable standard of the object of his love. While commitment is highly probable for the pragma lover, it will not be certain if this commitment is short-term or long-term. Decision and commitment does not exist in the ludus lover but only as a means to achieve attention of the object. For the mania lover, decision and commitment become intense almost immediately such as that of the eros lover as there is a need to connect and feel appreciated at all if not most times.

Conclusion

The triangular theory of love by Sternberg provides very credible as well as easily observable characteristics of love that even an ordinary individual can actually experience. This theory provides a helpful and compelling discussion for learners and individuals at all levels of a romantic relationship. It is a practical guide that when understood with Miller and Perlman’s Intimate Relationships, can help an individual understand their partner or objects of loving as well as provide a better understandings of expectations in order to avoid frustration and broken hearts.

Certain characteristics of the styles of love are also seen as applicable on the triangular theory of love. Sternberg provided a very clear illustration of the components of the triangular theory of love that it becomes comparable to the styles of love or lovers. By going through the triangular theory of love, love is slowly demystified as knowledge on its aspects help individuals adjust on their romantic love situation as well as act accordingly.

Reference

Brehm, Sharon S. (2007). Intimate Relationships. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Chadwick, Henry (1998). Saint Augustine Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, R. and Perlman, D. 2007. Intimate Relationships. McGraw-Hill.

Rosch, E. (1978). Principles of categorization. In E. Rosch & B. B. Lloyd (Eds.), Cognition and categorization (pp. 27-48). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spearman, C. (1927). The abilities of man. New York: Macmillan.

Sternberg, R.J. and Grajek, S. 1984. The nature of love. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47, 312-329.

Sternberg, R.J. 1986. A Triangular Theory of Love. Psychological Review 93 (2), 119-135.

Tennov, Dorothy (1979). Love and Limerence: the Experience of Being in Love. New York: Stein and Day.

Thomson, G. H. (1939). The factorial analysis of human ability. London: University of London Press.

Thurstone, L. L. (1938). Primary mental abilities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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