Love is a pretty vague term when you think about it. It could refer to what for feel for your lover. Maybe your friends. Certainly your family. What about your pets? Your country even? People say they love all of these things. We ‘share the love’. We ‘make love’. We’re a little ‘lovey-dovey’. So it’s a verb too. Not only that, but we use it to talk about what we feel for people that we would also say we are angry at, we’re jealous of or even that we hate.
As such, love poses a unique challenge to psychologists. Since Psychology is all about putting the mind into neat little boxes, they find it very hard to deal with love. It’d be amazingly difficult to wrap up something as vague as love, with all its shifting meanings but damn did they try and they’ve come pretty close a couple of times too. Today we’re going to talk about one of the most well accepted models of love – Sternbergs ‘triangular’ model.
Basically love is whittled down to three major factors;
- Intimacy or emotional closeness;
- Passion, meaning sexual desire and;
- Commitment, what’s thought of as the ‘cognitive’ or mental part of love.
These three things mix together into all the types of love we feel for people, or so Psychologists would have us believe.
The best outcome here for romantic relationships is ‘consummate love’. Basically, all three elements combine to create a love that has emotional closeness and a sexual aspect but with the rationality that comes with thought (commitment). If there’s no passion, we have the love we feel for our family and friends; companionate love. This kind of love is reserved for those we have deep connections (or interconnections) with. Passion and commitment without intimacy lead to ‘fatuous love’ or relationships that are intense, but usually short and can ultimately lead to embarrassment or hurt. Think Britney Spears and the 2 day marriage.
What about passion and intimacy, without commitment? Well, we have ‘romantic love’. This type of love usually encapsulates early romances. Think of the early days of any relationship you or your friends have had. Doodling their name in your notebook, staying awake late thinking about them. It’s no surprise that Steinberg tells us that it’s characterised by obsessive thoughts and ‘rose coloured glasses’. In fact, this type of love is so prevalent, so specific and so crazy that in the 1970’s psychologists (specifically Dorothy Tennov) made up a new word for these feelings. They called it ‘limerence’; the ‘roller-coaster’ of love. This kind of love is the one they write about in stories. Think of Troy; two countries going to war over a women.
More recently, brain scans conducted by Samir Zeki in 2000 showed that romantic love as described in the literature is certainly a thing according to the brain. The anterior cingulate lights up, a part of our brain responsible for emotion, impulse control, decision-making, rational thinking and reward. Which really, explains a bunch of the stuff we do in those early days. In fact, romantic love produces an amphetamine-like high and people can become addicted to it! I bet you know or have heard about someone who gets bored two months into every relationship. But limerence isn’t always so short. In fact, in marriage, research by Helen Fisher suggests it tends to end around the 4th year of marriage, especially when there are no children involved. It appears to be a sort of facilitator, a way of speeding up the process of love and encouraging us to create those interconnections that are so important to relationships.
Finally, we have ’empty love’, a love that’s held together by commitment alone. Think of the sitcom stereotype middle aged married couple. No passion. No intimacy. This kind of love can be dangerous, or necessary. Maybe they’re doing it for the kids. Maybe for the financial benefits. Whatever the case, it certainly seems sad.
So Steinberg really did a good job, nailing down the important aspects of love. So much so that our brains seem to agree, at least in part. However, it doesn’t fully do us justice. Unfortunately it doesn’t really consider the role of feelings like pride, compassion and gratitude in love. It also doesn’t describe how we can move around the triangle. For example, many arranged marriages begin with ’empty love’, but soon move to companionate, consummate and sometimes even romantic love (for reasons that are described here). It also doesn’t necessarily describe what we have for our pets or our country.
It is useful though to help us figure out where we are in our love lives and maybe to figure out what it is we are lacking in. Shoot for the balanced approach. Consummate love. Recognise ‘limerence’ and enjoy it while it lasts but don’t just drop it when it’s gone. And do your best to avoid ’empty love’, it sounds like a dull place to be!
Wanna know what’s more important in a relationship than love? Check this article out. Or maybe, after learning the three types of love, you’ll wanna know the four types of relationships? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Peace&Love (Flickr)