The experience of passion can be exhilarating. It can be the impetus for deeper relationships and often marriage. But passion alone isn’t enough to sustain a satisfying relationship over time. Robert Sternberg’s "Triangular Theory of Love" published in the April 1986 issue of “Psychological Review” helps us to understand different types of love and how they may change over the course of a long term relationship as with marriage.
Theory of Love
According to Sternberg, there are three components of love; passion, intimacy and commitment. The presence of one or more of the components, comprise different types of love. Passion is characterized by cognitive and physical arousal. There is a constant thinking about and strong physical attraction toward the individual. Intimacy involves a sense of emotional connection; concern about the other’s well-being, the willingness to give and receive support and a sense of understanding one another. Commitment requires a decision to love the individual and as time goes on, a decision to try to maintain the love. Worldwide, marriage is the most common expression of commitment.
In Western cultures, love usually begins with passion. Sternberg refers to passion in the absence of other components of love as infatuation. Many refer to this intense physiological arousal when thinking about or in the presence of the individual as “love at first sight.” Passion is at its highest at the beginning of a relationship and lessens over time. Couples who marry during this stage often find that the passion (fatuous love) is not sufficient to sustain a satisfying long-term relationship. Fatuous love often leads to divorce.
While passion alone won’t sustain a relationship, it often leads to the development of intimacy. According to Sternberg, the combination of passion and the emotional bond of intimacy create romantic love (also referred to as passionate love). The February 14, 2011 issue of “Scientific American” provides an illustration based on functional MRI studies of the areas of the brain stimulated by romantic love. This type of love increases levels of many chemicals in the brain including the pleasure-producing chemical dopamine, and the oxytocin a hormone associated with both sexual arousal and emotional closeness. This makes it easy to understand why romantic love motivates many couples to make a long term commitment-marriage.
Consummate love is characterized by high levels of intimacy and commitment and at least moderate levels of passion. This is often the honeymoon phase of married love. It is also the type of love that most couples are hoping will last forever. According to Sternberg, there are many factors that can influence how difficult or easy it is for a couple to maintain a consummate love.
Couples are often disappointed when the passion wanes in their marriage even though they are emotional connected and still committed to the marriage. Companionate love can be a quiet and satisfying married love. Sonja Lyubomirsky a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, suggests in her New York Times article published on Dec. 2, 2012, that passionate love has a natural life of only two years. She explains that couples are disillusioned by this because of our evolutionary tendency as humans is to crave experiences that stimulate the release of pleasure producing chemicals in the brain such as dopamine.
Empty love exists if passion and emotional closeness are no longer present but the couple is still committed to staying together. There are many reasons why passion and intimacy can fade over time. Common reasons include; the loss of their identity as a couple while parenting or repeated betrayal and dishonesty in the relationship. For better or worse couples with an empty love decide not to divorce.