Love is a Triangle

By , 2 May 2016

Love is a Triangle
Love is a Triangle

What is love?

Artists and philosophers have debated the question since time immemorial, and today, even scientist have chimed in, contributing their detailed understanding of human hormones, neurotransmission, and neural pathways.

But why do we ask such a question in the first place? Surely love, being such a universal phenomenon, should be easy to define. We all believe we have experienced it.

We say "I love you" or "I love my kids", "I love my friends", "I love this city", and even "I love this show!". That's a broad range of objects to attach to a single verb.

The nearest synonym to "love", it seems to me, is "to value". Substitute the word "value" in the statements above, and the meaning is not lost, although a certain amount of eloquence is.

But that is love, the verb. What about love, the noun? The emotion.

Now, I think we're getting closer to the problem. Emotions are much hard to describe. How would you define "sadness" for example. Here is my first thought:

Sadness (n): the feeling of being sad.

Ha ha, I'm sure you could do better, but you get my drift. You might be able to say what causes sadness, or list some synonyms (loss, unhappiness, melancholy), but these become circular pretty quickly. "Love" is even a bigger problem, because we use it to label many more specific emotions.

  • infatuation
  • jealousy
  • neediness
  • attachment
  • protectiveness
  • arousal
  • rejection
  • desire
  • passion

All of these can in some way be linked to "love", the verb. They result from placing value on the objects of our love.

Now we turn to science. Psychologists have a pretty handy three-factor model to describe love. I call it "The Love Triangle". It was developed by Robert Sternberg in 1986 and identifies passion, intimacy and commitment as the three components of love. Algebra on these three points of his triangle produce some pretty familiar emotions:

Take some time to study this diagram. I'm sure you can picture a couple for each of the combinations. Firstly, the three factors by themselves:

  • Passion (Infatuation). Passion is basically sexual attraction. This hardly need explaining. At least the feeling doesn't need to be explained, although perhaps the causes are something worth investigating. Famous example: Casanova.
  • Intimacy (Liking). Most of your friends fall under this category. This is great when it is reciprocal, but a problem is one of you is also experiencing passion or commitment. The former you'll recognise as the friend-zone; the latter is the friend who feels betrayed because you missed a message. Famous example: Lois Lane's feelings for Clark Kent.
  • Commitment (Empty Love). An arranged marriage serves as an example of commitment devoid of intimacy or passion. Not all arranged marriages are actually that bad, but it gives you a pretty good image. The other is the loveless marriage that stays together for the sake of the kids. Famous example: Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister, A Game of Thrones.

Of course, most relationships are combinations of these elements, and that's where the model gets interesting. Take a look at the combinations defined by Sternberg. The vocabulary he uses is perfect.

  • Passion + Intimacy (Romantic Love). The honeymoon zone. When you see the world through rose coloured glasses and, well, who cares where this is heading anyway? Famous example: Algernon Moncreiff and Cecily Cardew, The Important of Being Ernest.
  • Passion + Commitment (Fatuous Love). O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? It always intrigued me how Romeo and Juliet could come to represent the perfect lovers when they hardly even knew each other. Yet we all recognise their fatuous love. You might even say the passion started with Romeo and the commitment with Juliet. Fatuous love often has a tragic end.
  • Intimacy + Commitment (Companionate Love). Best friends forever! A great place to be because it isn't threatened by the complications of passion. Famous example: Bonny and Clyde.
  • Intimacy + Commitment + Passion (Consummate Love). The ultimate experience of love, where all three elements are present. It is probably more common in fiction than in real life, though one can always hope. Famous example: Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice.

It's not too often that a simple model does well to categorise complex sociological or psychological phenomena. The love triangle does a good job at it though. Can you see you own relationships in there somewhere?

Love is a Triangle

About Roger Keays

Love is a Triangle

Roger Keays is an artist, an engineer, and a student of life. He has no fixed address and has left footprints on 40-something different countries around the world. Roger is addicted to surfing. His other interests are music, psychology, languages, the proper use of semicolons, and finding good food.

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