Is Your Character Really in Love?

As we explored last week, relationships are complex, and romantic ones are certainly no different (they are possibly the poster child for complicated…). Psychology has spent quite some time disentangling the layers and levels that romantic relationships can present with, and as psychology is wont to do, they decided to throw around some hypotheses and labels for what they found. Now, as much as theories simplify and decontextualize the intricacies of social interactions, they also provide us with a framework to understand something that is deeply nuanced and complicated. Which is lucky for us because that’s exactly what writers strive to do—capture the complexity of humanity in a way others can absorb (but unlike psychology texts, actually enjoy).

So this week, we’re delving into love, and you can’t get much more complicated than that human emotion. Thankfully, Robert Sternberg tackled this very concept in 1985. His now famous triangular theory of love postulated that love comprises of three components:

Passion: That hard-to-define emotion that romance writers struggle to capture (believe me, I know), passion is the strong rush of feelings and arousal that we experience in the context of a romantic relationship.

Intimacy: Intimacy is described as feelings of closeness and attachment. It creates feelings of being at ease with one another and a sense that the two parties’ feelings are mutual.

Commitment: Unlike the other two elements, commitment involves a conscious decision to stick with one another. The decision to remain committed is mainly determined by the level of satisfaction that a person experiences in the relationship.

According to the triangular theory of love, different stages and types of love can be explained as different combinations of these three elements, and through these combinations, different forms of love are created.


So the type of love your character is experiencing depends on which elements are present, and which are not. Sternberg states that a relationship based on a single element is less likely to survive than one based on two or three elements; that the size of the triangle functions to represent the “amount” of love—the bigger the triangle, the greater the love; and it’s valuable to note that Sternberg believed that relationships move through these combinations as stages (although evidence for that is a little mixed).

Check out the combinations this triangle creates and consider where the romantic relationships in your book may lie:


Intimacy Passion Commitment






Infatuated Love




Empty Love



Romantic Love




Companionate Love




Fatuous Love




Consummate Love X X



The absence of any of the three types of love will result in no connection. In this situation, your character would be indifferent to a relationship (which essentially captures how I feel about the Kardashians).

A Single Element

Intimacy = Liking

This type of love entails intimacy without passion or commitment. It translates to a high sense of regard and a wish to make the other happy, and includes includes friendships and acquaintances. If someone gets ‘friendzoned’ in your story, this is the apex of the triangle they just got relegated to.

Passion = Infatuated love

If you have passion without intimacy or commitment, then you’ve got infatuated love. Romantic relationships often start out in this corner of the triangle (infatuated love has also been called puppy love) when they haven’t become serious yet. Without developing intimacy or commitment, infatuated love tends to die off.

Commitment = Empty love

Finally, if you have commitment without intimacy or passion then you have empty love. A relationship can start with only commitment (e.g. some arranged marriages), but stronger, more long-term love can also deteriorate into empty love. Commitment is considered to be the “cold” love (with passion being the “hot” one) because it lacks the power of passion and connection of intimacy.


Two’s A Charm

Romantic love

This love is passionate and intimate but has no commitment. If your character has an affair or a one night stand, then they’re experiencing romantic love. These heady feelings are most commonly found in the earliest stages of love, the ‘honeymoon phase’ of a relationship, and can last up to a year.

Fatuous love

If your character had a whirlwind courtship and marriage—then they’ve experienced fatuous love. This type of love has the physical attraction and sexual desire of passion, along with the commitment to stay together, but for character has yet to develop feelings of closeness and attachment. Love at first sight is cited as common example—your character has fallen head over heels and is willing to see where this relationship will go, but they haven’t spent time getting comfortable and connected.

Companionate love

On the other side of Sternberg’s triangle is an intimate, non-passionate type of love that is stronger than friendship because of the element of long-term commitment. If your character is in this type of relationship, they will have a deep affection and commitment for their partner and are probably in a long-term relationship. Companionate love is also found in strong friendships and between family members. If this is your character, keep in mind that this love is important for the survival of a relationship, but the fire of passion is no longer present.


The Trifecta

Consummate love

In the place where all three elements converge is the complete form of love, consummate love. Representing an ideal relationship, it’s theorized to be that love associated with the “perfect couple” (according to Sternberg these couples will continue to have great sex fifteen years or more into the relationship, they cannot imagine themselves happier with anyone else, they overcome their few difficulties gracefully, and each delight in the relationship with one other—does anyone else feel mildly nauseous?). These relationships certainly exist…possibly at a higher rate in fiction…and is the ideal that many relationships strive to. However, even Sternberg cautions that maintaining a consummate love may be even harder than achieving it. If any of the elements are lost over time, consummate love will change into one of the two-sided combinations we just discussed. Many a wonderful story has explored these complex evolutions that most of us have observed or lived.


So where does you character’s relationship sit in Sternberg’s triangle? I’d love to hear how this theory explains what you’re exploring in your story. Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,


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