The Types of Love - From Friends to Flings

April 1, 2013

Articles | Analects | Newsletter

Psychologists love to put the mind into neat little boxes. Since love is such a complicated word with many meanings, you might be surprised to find out they managed to squeeze it into just a handful. In this article we talk about those types of love and how they interact, from friends and family to flings and forever afters.


I haven't written one of these for this article yet.

filed under:

Article Status: Complete (for now).

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. Here 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 Robert Sternberg would have us believe.

The different types of love

Consummate love

The best outcome here for romantic relationships is 'consummate love'. Basically, all three elements, intimacy, passion, and commitment, combine to create a love that has emotional closeness and a sexual aspect but with the rationality that comes with thought (commitment).

Companionate love

If there's no passion, but intimacy and commitment, 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.

Fatuous Love

Passion and commitment without intimacy leads to 'fatuous love' or relationships that are intense, but usually short and can ultimately lead to embarrassment or hurt.

Romantic love, or 'limerance'

What about passion and intimacy, without commitment? Well, we have 'romantic love'. This type of love usually encapsulates early romances. Think of doodling names in your notebook, staying awake late thinking about them. It's no surprise that Sternberg 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 Dorothy Tennov made up a new word for these feelings. She 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(pdf) by Andreas Bartels and Samir Zeki in 2000 showed that romantic love as described in the literature is certainly a thing according to the brain. A structure in the brain called the anterior cingulate lights up, commonly thought to be 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 Anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests(pdf) 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.

Empty Love

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.

The flaws

It's a beautiful model, one that's used widely in counselling psychology as a heuristic. But no model is complete, of course. The triangle theory 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. It also doesn't necessarily describe what we have for our pets or our country.

This doesn't have to stop us using it to help us though. Love is impossible to pin down and this is as good a place to start as any.

“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don't blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being "in love", which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.”

― Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Articles | Analects | Email me

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

There are over 2000 of us. Get the newsletter.
Contribute to the site's upkeep by donating.