What Makes Love Work: Triangles of Love (2024)

Most likely, you have been in a relationship in which everything looked good, maybe great, in the beginning, and then, sometime after that super-duper launch, everything went to hell in a handbasket. What might have happened? What went wrong?

Triangles of Love

Love is a triangle—no, not the type where there are three people involved. The triangle is of the three components that, together, make love either a success or a flop. The three components are intimacy, passion, and commitment.

What Makes Love Work: Triangles of Love (1)

The triangle of love.

Source: Robert J. Sternberg

Intimacy is the warm part of love. It is about how much you like your partner—it’s what you feel toward truly close friends. It includes feelings of trust, caring, sharing, good communication, warmth, generosity, closeness, togetherness.

Passion is the hot part of love. It is about how much you feel you absolutely need your partner, cannot imagine being without your partner, feel obsessed about your partner, have your partner constantly in your thoughts, wish to fuse sexually and any other possible way with your partner, long for your partner, feel your partner is indispensable to your happiness.

Commitment is the cool part of love. It is about the extent to which you feel your relationship with your partner is for keeps. It is about whether you would stay with your partner through thick and thin and be responsible for your partner and his or her well-being, no matter what.

In any given relationship, at any given time, we feel different degrees of intimacy, passion, and commitment.

  • Intimacy = Friendship
  • Passion = Infatuation
  • Commitment = Empty Love
  • Intimacy + Passion = Romantic Love
  • Intimacy + Commitment = Companionate Love
  • Passion + Commitment = Foolish Love
  • Intimacy + Passion + Commitment = Complete Love

Love triangles can be characterized in two ways: by their size and by their shape. More of each component equals a larger triangle. An uneven balance of intimacy, passion, and commitment equals an isosceles (two-sides equal) or scaline (no-sides equal) triangle; an even balance equals an “equilateral” (equal-sided) triangle.

What Makes Love Work: Triangles of Love (3)

Source: Robert J. Sternberg

Here are our key findings about the triangles of love and success in relationships:

1. Size of the triangle

On average, the larger the triangle, the more successful the relationship. That is, couples tend to be happier with more intimacy, passion, and commitment.

2. The minimum size of the triangle

For a relationship to succeed, there has to be enough in the triangle for the relationship to take off. That is, people may get together and even marry for many reasons besides love, but if they cannot develop enough of a love triangle to make a go of things, it is hard for the relationship to succeed, regardless of the other factors.

3. A match in the shapes of the triangles

Relationships are more successful to the extent that the triangles of the two partners match (even if there is some cost in the size of the triangles). When shapes are seriously mismatched, it is hard to make relationships work, regardless of the size of the triangles.

4. Ideals matter a lot

People not only have an actual triangle—how they feel about their partner—but also an ideal triangle. The ideal represents what they ideally want out of a relationship.

For a relationship to work, the actual love triangle has to be at least somewhat close to the ideal triangle. Otherwise, the individual will feel like the relationship is not giving them what they truly want from a relationship. If you want a lot of intimacy, but are not getting it, even if your level of intimacy matches your partner’s, you will feel like something important is missing in the relationship.


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5. Actions matter a lot

An individual has not only a feelings triangle but also an action triangle. The action triangle represents how the individual expresses their love in the relationship. When there is a substantial discrepancy between the feelings triangle and the action triangle, the relationship tends to go downhill, because the partner is not feeling what the individual is feeling, and/or vice versa.

6. What matters is not how your partner feels, but how you think they feel

In one study, we found that how your partner actually feels matters little, if at all, to your happiness. What matters is how you think they feel. What you think, in turn, is mediated through their action triangle.

So, it is important that you communicate with your partner to find out if they truly know how you feel. We found that often they don’t, or what they think you feel is not what you actually feel. The relationship tanks, because the partners misunderstand each other’s feelings.

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7. Triangles change over time

Change in triangles is not merely possible or even probable, but rather inevitable. Don’t count, therefore, on a triangle staying as it is. If your triangles are large and well-matched, you have to “work” to keep it that way by keeping in touch with each other’s feelings and doing things together in a way that brings you closer together. Many relationships fail because the relationships have decayed without one partner, the other partner, or both partners being aware of it.

8. Triangles are actively modifiable

What you do in your daily life affects your triangle of love. Do you listen to your partner? Do you seek to make your partner happy every day? Do you pay close attention to your partner’s needs? You can make your love triangle better or worse through your actions on a daily basis.

Watch for these eight key points regarding the triangles of love, and watch your relationship get better and better.

What Makes Love Work: Triangles of Love (2024)
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