What makes a loving relationship?
Love is a universal human experience, so why is it so hard to tell if we’re in love? Perhaps it is because we are simplifying a complex emotion. We have no trouble understanding the our feelings towards family and friends, but it becomes more difficult to discern our feelings in the world of dating. While we use the word love as a single word, the truth is that there are many different types of love-and it’s not as simple as platonic versus romantic.
Picture these three scenarios:
- A teenager pining after a boy who doesn’t even know her name
- A happily married couple celebrating their eight year anniversary
- Two old platonic friends who know everything about one another
Which of these scenarios is love? Would you say all three? I certainly would. However, they are clearly not the same type of love.
- The first is a bit immature and fleeting. This teenager is clearly drawn to a boy based off of superficial reasons. Some might not say this is real love, but to her it certainly is. Perhaps a better way to to describe this situation could be incomplete love? Foolish love?
- The second sounds like our typical idea of an ideal relationship. They’re celebrating eight years together, which means they’re committed and have had plenty of time to get to know each other. They’re happy together, so we assume nothing is seriously lacking in their relationship-the fire must still be there.
- The third is also a type of love, but without any sexual component. They’ve known each other for a long time, so they’re committed to their friendship. They know everything about each other, which means they must trust each other. This is not a romantic relationship, but these two people would most likely say they love each other.
Looking at these three examples, we can see that there are several elements to love. According to Robert J. Sternberg, there are three components to love, which make up seven different types of love! It may sound like a lot to take in, but his theory is easy to understand.
Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love
According to Robert J. Sternberg, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, honorary professor at Heidleberg University, and author of Love is a Story, there are three components of love: Passion, commitment, and intimacy. Have you ever been crazy about someone, but felt that something was missing? This theory might help to explain. We can experience these components separately or in any combination, ideally with serious romantic relationships usually including all three.
Passion: Most of us are familiar with passion, or as some people may call it, chemistry. When a relationship has passion we feel drawn to a person, perhaps feeling a sexual connection even before physical touch is involved. Our bodies are in sync, and we are aroused by our partner’s presence- or even memory. Most healthy relationships start off with a healthy level of passion, even if those feelings subdue over time.
Commitment: This is another easy to understand component. Simply put, commitment is the conscious choice to maintain the terms and feelings of a relationship. When we have commitment, we put a certain amount of care and maintenance into it. We understand what makes it healthy, and understand how to maintain the relationship and fix issues as they pop up.
Intimacy: Intimacy is the close bond we strive for in a relationship. When we have intimacy, we feel that we can openly share our ideas, desires, feelings, fears, etc. We feel close, safe, understood, and respected, even when other aspects of our lives are confusing or uncertain. Intimacy is what makes your partner your rock.
These three components have a reciprocal relationship with each other, creating seven distinct categories: Liking, Infatuation, Empty Love, Fatuous Love, Romantic Love, Companionate Love, and Consummate Love. Please refer to the image below. Though these categories are distinct, that does not necessarily mean they are rigid. They may ebb and flow over time- at different stages of our relationships we may move from Fatuous Love to Consummate love, from Consummate Love to Companionate Love, and so on. Though we may not always experience Consummate Love in our relationships, it will most likely be the end goal for most people looking for a serious long-term partnership.
Is There Something Missing?
So, how do we know whether or not we are lucky enough to be in consummate love? The easy answer is to say we have all three components: Passion, commitment, and intimacy. But what does that look like? How do we know that both ourselves and our partners check off all of the boxes? Often our intuition will let us know. If something is missing, we will know because we will feel its loss.
Sometimes it is not that simple. Maybe we think that everything’s there but we still have a twinge of doubt. Maybe the relationship is new and we’re debating whether it could get there. Below are 14 things to consider when you are contemplating a relationship. If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then it sounds like you are in a good spot (and likely already know this). If not, we hope this questions will help you to either pinpoint which aspects of your relationship need a little work, or help you to realize that it is time to move on.
- Intimacy: Are we comfortable with each other? Do we have a close friendship?
- Security: Can our relationship withstand problems? Do we avoid ultimatums and threats to break up?
- Honesty:Do we both tell each other the truth?
- Trust: How often do we question each other’s honesty? Are we suspicious of each other?
- Kindness: Do we avoid putting each other down, both in public and in private?
- Intimacy: Do we share our thoughts, feelings, goals, fears, and problems? Are we friends?
- Mutual Respect: Do we each allow the other to make decisions?
- Fulfillment: Do we both feel that our relationship is complete, balanced, and mutually beneficial?
- Support: Do we help each other reach our goals? Do we build each other’s confidence up?
- Common Goals: Do we have similar long term goals? Family, children, careers, lifestyle, etc?
- Passion: Are we attracted to each other? Do we have compatible sexual desires and needs?
- Commitment: Do we both make an effort to uphold the relationship, and fix any issues?
- Quality Time: Do we spend time engaging in shared interests? Do we enjoy our time together?
- Affirmation: How often do we show demonstrate our feelings towards each other?
This article is not intended to take the place of professional help. If you or a loved one is feeling mentally or physically unwell, please consult a qualified professional before taking any advice online.
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