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Robert Sternberg: Understanding love

I have always solved my problems through psychology, but usually by creating my own theories rather than by using other people’s theories. I was at a point in my life once in which I was in an intimate relationship that seemed not to be working as I once had hoped it would; but I could not quite figure out why. I did some reading on the psychology of love but the reading I did somehow did not adequately address the problems I was having. It was at this point that I started to think about the psychology of love. Exactly what is love and what are the elements that lead to success or failure? The result of my deliberations, building on work of others such as Ellen Berscheid, Elaine Hatfield, Zick Rubin, and George Levinger, was the triangular theory of love. According to this theory, love has three components – intimacy, passion, and commitment – and different combinations of the components yield different kinds of love. Intimacy alone is liking; passion alone is infatuated love; commitment alone is empty love; intimacy plus passion is romantic love; intimacy plus commitment is companionate love; passion plus commitment is fatuous love; and intimacy, passion, and commitment together constitute consummate or complete love. My colleagues and I later created scales to measure the components of love and published data showing the construct validity of the measurements. The theory, addressed to my own relationship, left me with a clear sense of what was not working. The relationship eventually ended. At this point in my life, I am fortunate to have the best marriage (to Karin Sternberg) one could possibly hope for, and after a long search, have found the consummate love I long sought.


Robert J. Sternberg is Provost and Senior Vice President and Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma State University. A leading authority on intelligence and creativity, he has also studied many other topics including love, and has written about 1300 journal articles, book chapters, and books.

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