Sternberg (1986) presents a triangular theory of love, consisting of three components that define love: commitment, passion and intimacy. A successful relationship – entitled ‘consummate love’ – consists of all three of these components. However a singular component can feature in a relationship, commitment alone being called ’empty love’, intimacy alone is a liking or a friendship, and passion alone is seen as infatuation. Sternberg also displays that the absence of one of these components would create a type of love different from ‘consummate love’. Passion and intimacy in a relationship cause ‘romantic love’, as they are a combination of infatuation and liking, with the absence of commitment. Passion and commitment would be considered ‘fatuous love’ with the absence of intimacy. Commitment and intimacy cause ‘companionate love’, as there is an absence of passion.
Simply, the triangular theory of love argues that there are different types of love, and they are built upon commitment, intimacy and passion. Sternberg’s theory has strengths, as it is possible to analyze love through this method and perceive similarities and differences within a relationship, and has also been supported by empirical data. The research also has positive implications on counselling and therapy, providing an outline to help partners make their relationship more satisfactory. For example, through establishing that a relationship is based on commitment and passion (‘fatuous love’), a couple could be made more aware that they are lacking ‘intimacy’ and therefore work to try to achieve ‘consummate love’. The research is supported by other theories of love such as Rubin (1970) who distinguished ‘liking’ from ‘loving’ using similar components to Sternberg – attachment (involving passion and possessiveness), caring (involving concern for the other) and intimacy (involving the reciprocal exchange of personal information, feeling and actions).
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Sternberg (1986) also reflected Berscheid and Walster (1974) who developed a distinction between passionate love and companionate love, thus linking in well with other theories of love. Sternberg’s research can also be criticized in terms of weaknesses. Firstly the theory remains largely descriptive, and the components are quite vague. There is a lack of substantial scientific evidence, as the data is mostly qualitative. It is also oversimplified and therefore difficult to apply to unique or vague situations. Sternberg developed his theory using extensive interviews with students at Yale University, which has implications of whether the research is generalizable to anyone other than this sample. Another weakness is that the triangular theory of love does not adequately address the cultural and historical variation of love. Different cultures have different perceptions of love and relationships, and as Sternberg’s theory was developed in the USA, it is important to establish the fact that it is a cultural bias theory.
For example, it is more appropriate in Western culture to marry for love, and also to base a relationship on passion and sex. In other cultures, such as Hindu India, it is not unusual to marry somebody of which you have never met in an arranged marriage. In terms of historical differences, Vernant (1996) explains that for the ancient Greeks one of the highest forms of love was that between a boy and an older man, often being sexual. This shows that Sternberg (1986) is not considerate of the historical and cultural differences in the perception of love. Finally, Fehr (1988) argues that it is futile to attempt to identify love and define it as a definition that may not exist, which incompletely disputes any theories of love.