The Best Kind of "Love Triangle" (2024)

The Best Kind of "Love Triangle" (1)

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When you think of a "love triangle," you probably imagine a relationship that is in poor health. If a close relationship is regarded as one that exists between two people, having an "intruder" would seem to spell doom.

However, as a theory of love, the so-called "triangular" approach suggests quite the opposite. A new testing method provides renewed interest in this theory and shows how seeing how you stack up could help set you on a path toward better relationship health.

The Triangular Theory of Love

Cornell University's Robert Sternberg proposed some years ago (1988) that love can be quantified along three independent dimensions, the so-called "triangular" theory of love. After reviewing the decades, if not centuries, of thinking about how to define this elusive quality, he determined that it can be captured in three independent dimensions: intimacy, commitment, and passion.

Starting with this definition, Sternberg (1997) then went on to quantify these dimensions in a questionnaire measure consisting of 45 items. Now, he and his research team, headed by the University of Wroklaw's Marta Kowal and colleagues (Kowal et al., 2023), decided that the 45-item test was simply too long and cumbersome for most people to fill out in a thoughtful manner.

Even though the triangular love scale (TLS), as it was called, was tested and validated in 25 countries and 19 languages, it had one notable pitfall. Most users of the scale actually did not administer the entire measure. These variations make it impossible to derive the kind of data-based conclusions that could help move the field forward. From a practical standpoint, it can also be hard to turn so many items into practical suggestions that people could use to improve the health of their own relationships.

Before getting to the new study with its shortened version of the TLS, it's important to define those three critical dimensions. Luckily, the definitions fit pretty closely with what common sense and your own experience might dictate. They are, in brief, as follows:

Intimacy: the quality of a relationship in which partners feel close to each other are able to communicate, and feel connected.

Passion: feelings of excitement, desire, and physical arousal.

Commitment: the decision to remain in the relationship.

Over the course of time, as prior research has shown, the levels that couples have of each quality can fluctuate. Passion might fade (or maybe not if you're lucky), but intimacy can continue to grow even as you feel more and more likely to want to stay with your partner.

The New Triangular Love Scale

Partnering with colleagues from psychology labs around the globe, Sternberg and his 75 collaborators administered the TLS-15 in 37 translations from English to over 60,000 participants. Their goal was to test whether the TLS-15's statistical structure fit the theory and which, among the 45 original items, could be eliminated to arrive at the final 15. The other change the authors made was to reduce the original rating scale from 9 to 5, making the test less burdensome to complete.


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Above, you saw the overall qualities of each dimension. Now you can test yourself (and, for fun, your partner) using the 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely) scale:


1. I have a warm relationship with my partner

2. I receive considerable emotional support from my partner

3. I value my partner greatly in my life

4. I have a comfortable relationship with my partner

5. I feel that my partner really understands me


6. My relationship with my partner is very romantic

7. I find my partner to be very personally attractive

8. I cannot imagine another person making me as happy as my partner does

9. There is something almost "magical" about my relationship with my partner

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10. My relationship with my partner is passionate


11. I have confidence in the stability of my relationship with my partner

12. I view my commitment to my partner as a solid one

13. I am certain of my love for my partner

14. I view my relationship with my partner as permanent

15. I feel a sense of responsibility toward my partner.

How did you score? The average participant in the international sample scored at about a 4 overall, as reported in the supplemental tables that the authors published separately. Passion (average 3.78) received the lowest score, with intimacy and commitment (4.22) equal on average. There were no cross-cultural differences, both in average scores and scale structure. The standard deviations were about 1, meaning that scoring below a 3 per item would signify a relationship potentially in need of work.

As Kowal et al. concluded from their cross-national study, the human capacity to feel romantic love transcends cultural, linguistic, societal, and geographical boundaries.

Getting Your Own Love Triangle in Shape

With these 15 items now at your disposal, you can do your own version of assessing your relationship's strengths and weaknesses. What can you do to bring about the qualities that will keep your relationship lasting over the years? If you compare your scores with those of your partner, what discrepancies and similarities did you detect? Can you work on those?

It's also important to recognize that not all qualities within the triangle need to reach the top of each scale. Other theories about long-term relationship dynamics suggest that focusing on achieving perfection can itself become so stifling that the relationship becomes unsustainable. Decide on what's most important to you and your partner, and see how you can tinker with some of the items that aren't currently achieving that potential.

To sum up, love is indeed a complex quality that may never be easily boiled down to a psychologically valid scale. The TLS-15 appears to do a good job of providing you with some objective measuring points to help define your own relationship's version of love's triangle.

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Kowal, M., Sorokowski, P., Dinić, B. M., Pisanski, K., Gjoneska, B., Frederick, D. A., Pfuhl, G., Milfont, T. L., Bode, A., Aguilar, L., García, F. E., Roberts, S. C., Abad-Villaverde, B., Kavčič, T., Miroshnik, K. G., Ndukaihe, I. L. G., Šafárová, K., Valentova, J. V., Aavik, T., … Sternberg, R. J. (2023). Validation of the short version (tls-15) of the triangular love scale (tls-45) across 37 languages. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508-023-02702-7

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The triangle of love: Intimacy, passion, commitment. New York: Basic Books.

Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Construct validation of a Triangular Love Scale. European Journal of Social Psychology, 27(3), 313–335. https://;2-4

The Best Kind of "Love Triangle" (2024)
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