Love is one of the most talked about subjects in the world. It’s referenced in a majority of songs, and just about everyone says finding love and someone to share their life with is one of the most important things to hope for. But have you ever stopped and thought about what love really means? You may have several answers when you ask yourself, “What is love?,” or you could be reminded of the Haddaway song from the 90s. Over the past few decades, researchers have been trying to determine what makes people fall in love, out of love, and why we even love in the first place. But some of the most important research has been just trying to define what love consists of and how we can define it.
In the past 60 years, there have been 33 different scales trying to measure love, according to recent research by Hatfield and colleagues in 2012. Many of these scales define love in slightly different ways, but one of the most commonly used scales is known as the Triangular Theory of Love Scale, which defines love as having three traits:
Passionate love is what people might think of most when referring to love. Passionate love refers to physical attraction to one another and the desire shared between two people. It’s what we consider attractiveness, the sexual desire, and physicality of a relationship. But it’s not just all about the physical aspect. Passionate love also refers to having a somewhat low-level obsession for the other person, but in a healthy way. It’s the sensation that you can’t get that person off of your mind, when everything reminds you of them, and you can’t wait to see them again. Passionate love can be thought of as the “infatuation aspect” of love.
Intimate love is the deep, underlying love two people have for one another. It refers to two people really feeling close and connected to one another, in that they value one another as a person, deeply caring for the other’s well-being, and help each other when in need. When a couple is high in intimate love, they communicate very well and frequently, and tend to share a lot in their relationship. This is often referred to as a general liking of the other person.
Committed love (also referred to as Decision Love in the Theory of Love Scale) is just as it sounds; it is the promise to remain with the other person. It’s the desire or responsibility of remaining dedicated to the other person. However, it may be best to think of this type of love in terms of an arranged marriage. These two people in an arranged marriage have promised themselves to one another, but have not developed the other types of love yet. It is simply the decision to remain together, which is why this type of love has been referred to as empty love.
With these three main pillars of love, there can be a number of combinations to create different types of love. For example, if a couple has passion and intimacy, but no commitment, then that type of love can be thought of as purely romantic love. There is a caring for one another and a physical attraction, but no long-term dedication between the two. Think of it as maybe a summer romance where you know you won’t see each other past a certain point. Another example could be what has been commonly referred to as companionate love. In this case, a couple may have intimacy and commitment, but no passion. This might happen when a couple has been together a long time, and while the passion has faded over the years, there is still an underlying true friendship between the two. Ultimately, the goal is to have all three traits of love, creating what researchers call consummate love. According to recent research, it is completely normal for passion to somewhat fade over the years, and for intimacy and commitment to gradually increase.
So, can knowing what love is help you? Being aware of certain aspects of a new, budding relationship or an existing relationship can help you realize what dynamics make you happy, and which ones may need a little work. Intimacy and commitment both take time to work on. And although passion can fade over time, there are things couples can do to maintain that type of connection. Keeping an open line of communication about needs and desires is the most straight-forward method.
Another helpful tidbit of advice: Focus on your partner! Recent research has shown that focusing on your partner with extra attention not only helps their satisfaction, but your own as well. With love being such an important part of our lives, it may help to understand a little better what it entails.
Sternberg, Robert J. (1986). “A triangular theory of love”. Psychological Review 93 (2): 119–135. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119.