Discussions and Theories About Love

Additional Information on Chapter 3, page 27

In Psychology there are many perspectives about the nature of love and theories that attempt to explain it. We promised you under the Love Prescript to present a more detailed picture of Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of love. We start there.

Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Love

We start with a brief background of the thinking out of which Sternberg’s theories grew. Going back more than two millennia, the Greeks spoke of three types of love. You have probably already heard of them:

Eros: romantic (or erotic) love
Agape: unselfish, altruistic, God-like love
Philia: love for family and close friends

An excellent marriage would be rich in all three. But when the eros exists in the absence of agape and philia, this represents an infatuation that can dissolve as quickly as it forms. The idea of three different types of love was adapted and expanded by famed Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg. Sternberg describes romantic love by identifying three foundational components and then describing how combinations of these describe love relationships in the real world. The three are:
Passion: similar to the erotic love or eros
Intimacy: associated with close friendship and lacking the sexual overtones typically associated with “intimacy”
Commitment: a choice to continue in the relationship

Sternberg further combines these three into seven different combinations, each quality individually, pairs of two, and a combination of all three. He describes these as:

Passion: infatuation
Intimacy: liking or friendship
Commitment: (in the absence of the other two) empty love-the form but not the substance
Passion + intimacy: romantic love
Intimacy + commitment: companionate love
Passion + commitment: fatuous love
Passion + intimacy + commitment: consummate love

We briefly consider each of the seven.

Passion, while feeling wonderful, is the existence of intense emotional arousal in the absence of substance. One can feel passion for a fictional character in a book, for a movie star they will never meet, for an already married person who is not available, for a picture in a magazine. Passion is as changeable as, well, emotions-a human response that is defined by its changeability. When one feels passion for an actual person who betrays them, abuses them, neglects them, or ignores them; the shift from passion to its opposite, usually hatred, is just a matter of time.

Intimacy is the warmth of friendship. Friendships are typically built on shared interests or activities. A friendship that lasts is typically a relationship in which mutual benefit occurs to both people by their interaction. Notice the two components: 1) shared interests or activities, 2) mutual benefit to both. If either component begins to break down, the friendship typically weakens or disappears. This topic is worth some additional attention, because friendship is so central to a good marriage.

During the course of a lifetime, a person (who operates at an average level of sociability) may have contact with a hundred or so individuals who may be loosely defined as friends. These may range from the co-worker for whom pleasantries are shared, to the bosom buddy who enjoys the status of a confidant. If in interaction with the coworker it becomes evident that there is little that you have in common (you’re excited about the Marlins over the Yankees in six and he thinks you’re talking about an exhibit at Marine World) a form of relationship may continue (pleasantries and weather) but a friendship will not form. Both principles are violated-lack of shared interests, lack of mutual benefit (in this case benefit is the shared pleasure in an event). A different twist on a similar theme: Helpful Harry forms a friendship with Needy Nellie. Harry likes to Help; Nellie desperately seeks support. At first, a relationship may form as Harry helps and Nellie devours his time and attention. Nellie may think the elements of a friendship are in place because needs are being fulfilled. But in time, Harry will feel taken advantage of because the concept of mutual benefit is violated. If Nellie is chronically needy, Harry will find the energy drain out of him, and, unless Harry has neurotic need to be helpful, the friendship will wane and probably disappear completely.

We need not multiply words here; you can think of your own relationships that have waned over time. Sometimes a friend has moved away and the relationship has not been substantive enough to continue contact. Sometimes the waning is due to lack of shared interests, sometimes due to lack of mutual benefit.

The application to marriage lies in the fact that an excellent marriage must be characterized by a genuine friendship-based on shared interests and mutual benefit. A friendship that fades and disappears carries no legal consequences, no court appearances, no child custody battles. It happens hundreds, perhaps thousands of times during the course of a normal life. But when the drift happens in a marriage due to precisely the same reasons, there are often severe consequences like the ones just mentioned. Sometimes when I speak with an engaged or newly married couple about their relationship I seek to understand the quality of friendship by probing for shared interests and mutual benefit. If, after some fishing, I come up with “Well we just enjoy being together, doing stuff, like dishes, shopping, laundry” my heart withers a little as I realize that they are enjoying the mutual benefit of each other’s company in the rosy glow of the honeymoon spirit. But in the absence of genuine shared interests (or worse yet, the absence of mutually shared essences) the rosy glow is not enough to create or sustain a good marriage. Before long, inequities will develop, and, the absence-of-mutual-benefit will join the lack-of-shared-interests to compromise the marriage.

We have spent more time on the second of Sternberg’s components because the glow of romance so frequently blinds us to the fact that marriage must encompass the concept that you are, among other things, great friends. Remember, we are all for romance, we just want it to last beyond the first two years of bliss and endure for a lifetime. Without the substance of friendship, it rarely does.

Commitment is Sternberg’s third component of his triarchic theory of love. When we consider commitment in the absence of the other two qualities we, alas, describe many marriages. The marriage begins with the rosy glow of romance-she was beautiful and sexy, he was handsome and brave, and, in marriage they understand the importance of commitment. This feeling of commitment may be reinforced by a religious ethic that forbids divorce. So they must stick it out, and by gum they do just that. Now, over the past couple of millennia there has been controversy over the existence of purgatory. I have no interest in theology here, but can guarantee that the “empty love” characterized by neither passion or friendship is a genuine form of purgatory. How does one avoid this Purgatory? That, my friend, is the topic of this book. Understand before you choose, think before you leap.

Next we move on to the dyads-combinations of two of the three components-and our understanding expands further.

Passion + intimacy = Romantic love: In Romantic love, the combination of passion and friendship, we have “what makes the world go around” and keeps Hollywood in business. We have a dyad that moves beyond passion to a relationship. If the relationship continues, perhaps it will grow into commitment as well. In the absence of commitment, annoyances that creep into any relationship have the power to cause discomfort and eventually to weaken or end the bond. This is probably at least one reason that cohabitation research reveals such extreme results. Researchers Nook and Brinig, with a sample of almost 8000 couples, found that those who cohabited prior to marriage have six times the divorce rate of those who did not cohabit. They state that when the annoyances turn into conflict and seriously threaten the cohabitors, the couple often decides to marry and establish a more secure commitment. Unfortunately they have lived with the idea of splitting up for so long that the marriage changes nothing and a large percent of them eventually divorce. The commitment (absent in Sternberg’s romantic love) is what allows the weathering of the many annoyances and irritations that occur in all marriages.

Passion + commitment = Fatuous love: Fatuous love is the term Sternberg uses for a combination of passion and commitment. When I first looked at the model I wondered, “What in the heck does fatuous mean?” Here’s how Webster’s dictionary defines fatuous: “Foolish, more at battle; complacently or inanely foolish.” The idea of a relation that combines passion (the erotic component of love) with commitment in the absence of friendship seems unusual at best. Yet a closer look reveals millions of such marriage. The abusing-spouse syndrome is one example of fatuous love. They don’t like each other very well, they don’t have many shared interests or essences, but may have great sexual chemistry. So a sad pattern emerges: One beats up the other, remorse sets in, they apologize and make love, things remain calm for a bit but soon the arguments escalate to violence again, then the remorse, the love making session, the calm and then escalating arguments. Move beyond the more severe cases of actual abuse and consider two married people who share little in common, don’t like each other very well, but remain in the marriage because of religious scruples or “for the kids.” Even in the absence of physical violence you possess a contentious relationship, filled with fights or deadly silence; but they may have passionate love making sessions from time to time due to sexual tension or that curious phenomenon of sexual attraction in the absence of liking. In the majority of such cases, however, passion eventually dies as well.

Intimacy (friendship) + commitment = Companionate love: Companionate love in Sternberg’s wording is defined as “a practical type of love that emphasizes trust, caring, and tolerance of the partner’s flaws”. There is frequently great warmth in a companionate relationship and it is typically characterized by a couple who are committed to each other, like each other, enjoy the warmth of intimacy (remember, Sternberg’s definition intimacy is not sexual in nature) but the passion has mellowed out of it. There is nothing particularly wrong with such a relationship. It is characteristic of many older people who have been married to the same partner for a long time, enjoy the relationship, are tolerant of each other’s flaws, but the sex and passion are typically rare or absent. But if, for a particular couple, sex and passion are important to their definition of a successful relationship; companionate love is incomplete.

Passion + Intimacy + commitment = Consummate love: Consummate love is the combination of all three. The reason we have gone through the exercise of looking carefully at the six other possibilities, is to illustrate the flaws of a simplistic view of love and romance. Consummate love acknowledges that a romance that results in successful marriage encompasses several important qualities. It’s easy to see how the absence of one or more of those components endangers or ends the relationship. In consummate love there is the fire of passion, the warmth and pleasure of intimate friendship, and the strength of commitment.

What such an analysis does is move love and romance beyond a mysterious but indefinable phenomenon, to an understanding of the components that make for a successful relationship. We acknowledge that love and romance are central to a successful marriage, and, by laying a secure foundation, ensure that the romantic component of marriage lasts longer than the honeymoon.

Clyde and Susan Hendricks Model of Romantic Love

Clyde and Susan Hendrick (1989) also provide a dichotomy of different types of love that provides additional insight.10-10 Their research is not as well known as Sternberg’s, it overlaps the Sternberg model in several instances, and we will not spend as much time describing it. However there are components that are useful. Similar to Sternberg, they include romantic love and best-friends love (parallel to companionate love). They also speak of the masquerade of love, the life of the playboy, what they call “game-playing love”-a series of passionate relationships that never last long and often cause great pain to their victims. Then they speak of unhealthy or neurotic types of love. Here we slow down for a closer look.

Possessive love is what might be characterized in pop psychology as codependent love. The phrase “like mud on a pig” originated to parody the unhealthy closeness of such a relationship. These relationships are marked by emotional intensity, jealousy, and obsession with the other. It is further characterized by the terror of possible rejection and abandonment. Unfortunately many such unhealthy relationships end up like the Biblical phrase “that which I have greatly feared has come to pass.” The solution is simple but certainly not easy. It requires individual therapy for such a person to help them establish an identity and break their obsession with relationships. As a bad tree cannot bear good fruit, so an unhealthy, co-dependent person cannot become part of a successful relationship.

Altruistic love-the love that is unconditionally caring, giving, and forgiving. On might initially wonder why altruistic love would be labeled unhealthy or neurotic. There may be two problems in altruistic love: 1) Only one partner possesses it. The one who gives enjoys the giving and the other enjoys being given to. But in time the giver feels, quite rightly, that he or she is being taken advantage of, and resentment sets in. This results in a marriage that has little chance of success unless the selfish partner grows significantly in altruism. 2) The altruism is a cover for a compulsive need to give-giving to be noticed, to be loved, to be appreciated rather than from a desire to help the other. Altruism, by definition, is giving without thought for personal benefit. Daniel Batson, prominent psychologist from University of Kansas, has clearly verified that true altruism exists in many people. However, the unhealthy version of altruism is often a cover for insecurity and need. When giving is motivated by neurotic need, the relationship is increasingly compromised.

Pragmatic love. The Hendricks provide the following definition of pragmatic love: “This is the love that goes shopping for a suitable mate, and all it asks is that the relationship work well, that the two partners be compatible and satisfy each other’s basic needs. The practical lover seeks contentment rather than excitement, He or she might agree that ‘One consideration in choosing a partner is how he/she will reflect on my career'” (Lee, 1973, p. 124).10-14

Defensiveness wells up within as I consider this cynical definition of pragmatic love, a love that considers compatibility as a critical component of marital success. Much of psychology is devoted to documenting what is rather than what ought to be. In this case the text accurately reflects the present irritation of the general public when there is an attempt to de-romanticize romance and marriage. We have already established two points:

  1. The present system doesn’t work; 50% divorce rate, 80% unhappy rate, and the shattered homes and shattered lives that proliferate through present society is argument enough.
  2. One function of this book is to celebrate the richness of romance, the pleasure of passion, the sensuousness of sexuality. We just disagree with the “Three weeks of bliss and 50 years of quiet desperation” mentality. It is the contention of this book (and hundreds of studies on relationships, marriages, and compatibility backs this up) that compatibility provides the foundation for the romance to thrive for a lifetime. 10-14

The flaws of the above definition (of pragmatic love) are several:

  1. “shopping for a suitable mate:” There is nothing wrong with content of that phrase. All who seek the warmth of relationship are seeking a partner. But, the word “shopping” is cynical in tone and trivializes what all people who seek marriage desire.
  2. “All it asks is that the relationship work well, that the two partners be compatible and satisfy each other’s basic needs” provides the foundational flaw of this description of pragmatic love. Not only is the statement cynical but denies common sense. The pragmatic approach doesn’t merely seek comfortable need fulfillment, it might seek the most sizzling romance that Hollywood could concoct, or any of a variety of styles and textures of relationship. Sternberg was bright enough to recognize the blending of qualities that result from several perspectives. Because someone has a systematic, common sense approach to seeking marital success, does not mean that all the excitement of a great relationship is compromised.
  3. “seeks contentment rather than excitement” is foolishness. No one remains in the fever pitch of the “in love” state for long. Emotions don’t work that way. They are defined by their variability. A better wording would be “seeks contentment and excitement”. In the quiet moments of the relationship there is contentment, but in love making, in romancing, in the special trip, in the love notes, in a thousand different ways there are moments of excitement that sparkle in a sea of contentment.
  4. “He or she might agree that ‘one consideration in choosing a partner is how he/she will affect my career.'” No disagreement here at all. In choosing a life partner it is entirely valid to consider how that relationship will affect my own or my partner’s career, spiritual life, athletics, music, style of entertainment, the quality of our family, the benefit to our children, and many others. The greater the number of defining qualities, or activities bringing pleasure that can be shifted from the “my” to the “ours,” the greater the likelihood of success in that relationship. We’ve said before, we’ll say it again:

Compatibility provides the foundation for a many-splendored marriage.

There are other models of love and in the fullness of time, or as our readers request more we will expand this section.

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Major theories on love:

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