Sternberg's Triangle

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Robert Sternberg of Yale University constructed a model describing the components of a loving relationship. This model is referred to as Sternberg’s Triangle, as it contains three parts: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Sternberg’s Triangle Theory presents a framework for understanding the many types of love that may be present in intimate relationships. As a brief overview, the following components may be summarized as the following: The Intimacy component, which is located at the top vertex of the triangle, is defined as the feelings of closeness and connectedness, and physical and sexual attraction present in a relationship (Sternberg 1986). The passion component, found on the left-hand vertex of the triangle, is defined as the emotion that drives romance, physical attraction, and sexuality (Sternberg 1986). The decision/commitment component, found on the right-hand vertex of the triangle, is explained as the decision or commitment that two individuals agree upon in order to maintain a relationship (Sternberg, 1986).



A deeper analysis of the intimacy component of love suggests that it is what promotes closeness and bonding between couples (Sternberg & Grajek, 1984). Sternberg (1986) suggests that intimacy involves such feelings as the following:

• Desire to promote the welfare of a loved one

• Experienced happiness and possess high regard for the loved one

• Receiving and giving of emotional support to the loved one while in times of need

• Innate communication with the loved one

• Valuing the loved ones life

These feelings may be experienced as one overall feeling, and are not usually felt independently of one another.


Passion is the component of love that deals with motivation and a state of arousal. Hatfield and Walster (1981) describe passion as “ a state of intense longing for union with the other”. Passion is highly dependent on sexual needs and intercourse, which must be met through both psychological (mental) and physiological (bodily) arousal. Psychological arousal and physiological arousal often work simultaneously. The psychological arousal of lust drives two people to come together, which activates the physiological sexual arousal. Passion also satisfies needs such as self-esteem, nurturance, affiliation, dominance, submission, and self-actualization that are essential to be met in order to experience passion (Sternberg, 1986). Passion is the component of love that will initially surface to cause two people to come together.

Passion and intimacy often work together in relationships. One may be aroused (passion) due to intimate feelings. Intimacy could be the basis of the needs for a couple to experience passion. While passion draws a couple together, intimacy is the component that will convert the initial attraction into a meaningful relationship. However, it is also possible that intimacy may arise followed by passion. A good example would be two friends who eventually become lovers due to their close friendship (Sternberg 1986).

Commitment/ Decision

The commitment and decision component of love plays a role in short term and long-term relationships. The decision component is involved in short-term relationships when the couple has a mutual agreement to love one another. Commitment plays a role in long-term relationships, such as marriage, as it is a mutual agreement to maintain the love that two people have for one another. Decision and commitment is important in relationships such as marriage because often they lack the initial intimacy and passion that is felt in the beginning of a new relationship. Commitment is what makes people stay married and work through difficult times. Such an example as staying with a partner when one is no longer in love because of family obligations would illustrate the commitment component.

Intimacy, passion, and commitment combine to form a variety of different relationships. Romantic love is compromised of passion and intimacy. Passion and commitment combined forms fatuous love. Compassionate love is the type of love in a relationship where both intimacy and commitment are present. The ideal relationship, however, is one that is characterized by consummate love, where intimacy, passion, and commitment are all present. The engagement in any of the three-components may be a conscious or unconscious decision (Sternberg 1986). An individual’s awareness of the intimacy component may vary. A person may experience feelings of intimacy on the unconscious level because they are not be able to label the emotion; but some emotions that are felt can be labeled, therefore they are conscious of the state of psychological arousal. While as the passion component, is an unconscious and uncontrollable emotion, because one has only a small amount of control over how he or she will be aroused, as it is a natural feeling that may surface even by the mere presence of their lover. Finally, one has a conscious awareness and control over the decision/commitment components, as it conscious choice to be and stay in a relationship (Sternberg 1986).

The importance and amount of each component varies from one relationship to another. Psychophysiology interprets the interaction between mind and body. In short term relationships, passion plays a large role as the relationship is highly dependent on psycho physiological involvement (Sternberg 1986). Two people are drawn together through both sexual attraction and the want to spend time with one another. The intimacy component may only play a moderate part, but it is highly dependent of psychological arousal. Because the couple desires closeness and want to be together they feel psychologically aroused. Finally, commitment plays a large role in a long-term relationship, such as marriage. There is only a small amount of psychophysical response required, as married couples are not bound together by sexual attraction, but are united as life-long partners through a commitment to one another. Married couples sexual attraction and lust towards one another lessens overtime (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Relationships based on commitment are based on a deep love for one another opposed solely on physical attraction. Commitment is a conscious decision between a couple to stay with each other, even though they may not feel psycho physical arousal around one another because the passion that was once present has diminished with time (Sternberg, 1986).

Empirical Evidence

Sternberg tested his theory in a study conducted at Yale University. There were 84 participants, both male and female, from the New Haven area between the ages of 19-62. All of the participants were of heterosexual orientation and were either married or involved in a close relationship. After answering demographic questions, participants answered questions of intimacy, passion, and commitment on a scale of 1-9, 1 being “not at all” and 9 being “extremely”. Half of the participants were to answer questions on the importance of six different types of love relationships. The other half of the participants were asked to evaluate the current relationship they have with each of the six relationship types. In the experiment, Sternberg used the questionnaire ratings as the dependent variable. The independent variables were intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment, versus the actions ratings, and the relationship ratings. Additionally, Sternberg used The Rubin Scale of love as an external validation. The study found that there was a high correlation between the ratings of feelings and actions in the Triangle Scale. The effects of the relationship, manifestation and components were all statistically significant. The mean for the ideal lover was the highest, and the mean for a lover was second highest (Sternberg, 1997).

Additional evidence suggests that the success ratings on first dates are judged on the physical attractiveness of the partner. These findings support Sternberg’s theory, as passion is the fastest component to surface. While the other two components require time and effort, they are not able to surface on a first date. Thus, passion (physical attractiveness) is the only criterion one has to judge the success of date (Walster, Aronson, Abrams, and Rotten, 1974).

Other theories of love try to distinguish between variables and different types of relationships. The Triangle Theory however, seeks understanding of a variety of different relationships with a combination of the three variables. Many researchers have critiqued the model. Peck says that infatuation should not be examined in the context of love, as it is an entirely different concept (Peck, 1978). Other researchers view commitment as a separate variable with no relation to love (Kelley, 1983; Lund, 1985). The main speculation lays in the components that Sternberg claims all relationships have (intimacy, passion, decision/commitment). Researchers disagree that some components are not involved in a loving relationship.

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