Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Inside the Mind: Sternberg's Trianglular Theory of Love

Psychology is one of my favorite subjects, because of the great insights it gives into the behavior of both real people and fictional characters. In my "Inside the Mind" series, I will talk about a topic in psychology and connect it with some examples from anime.

Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love (not to be confused with a love triangle) was an attempt to categorize different types of loving relationships, ranging from loving couples to family to close friendships. His published findings broke "love" into three basic components:

  • Passion: This refers to the physical feelings of love, primarily referring to sexual arousal and romantic attraction. As an extension, it could also apply to any relationship driven strongly by emotional reactions or some kind of inexplicable "chemistry".
  • Intimacy: This refers to the attachment and connectedness formed between two people. In contrast to passion, which oftentimes grows quickly and effortlessly and fades away pretty fast, too, intimacy takes time and effort, but grows steadily over time without dropping.
  • Commitment: This refers to conscious choices to care for a person, such as marriage commitments or commitments to family ties. These can be short- or long-term, and can change suddenly as they are determined by conscious decisions.
The key behind the triangular theory of love is that these three components can be present at different levels of strength in all sorts of different loving relationships, and that these relationships can be categorized by which element or combination of components are most prominent relative to each other. Also, the strengths of these elements can change over time, which can cause relationships of one category to move into another over time. These categories can be thought of as different parts of a triangle with corners of passion, intimacy, and commitment, as seen to the left. The categorizations are as follows:

Non-love: Low passion, low intimacy, low commitment
This is a basic category to include any relationship in which the three elements are non-existent or otherwise insignificant. Casual interactions with acquaintances fall into this category.

Infatuated love: High passion, low intimacy, low commitment
These relationships describe highly passionate relationships formed over minimal commitments, and without any true intimacy built, due to lack of time or effort. If you've seen two characters suddenly and instantly fall in love at first sight with each other, to the point where you wonder what they even see in each other besides looks, you're probably looking at infatuated love. Such love, absent of intimacy or commitment, can quickly flame out and end up with the two people going back to non-loving acquaintances.
Example: The romance between Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask definitely starts out like this; you can't say there's anything between them other than raw chemistry (and some kind of reincarnational hijinks).

Liking/Friendship: Low passion, high intimacy, low commitment
Straight-up friendship falls in this category, defining two people who feel a close connection with each other without strong romantic feelings or particularly strong commitments past a basic commitment of friendship.
Examples: Naru and Hana of Hanayamata; Haruka and Makoto of Free!. Describes most anime friendships well.

Empty love: Low passion, low intimacy, high commitment
This category fits any relationship where all the "love" comes from a conscious decision to care for each other, absent of physical feelings or emotional connections. Family members who are not particularly close but will still lay down their lives for each other will fall in this. This category can also include those in an arranged marriage, in which case "empty love" may be just a starting point from which the relationship can grow into one of the categories below.
Examples: Sakura and Touya of Cardcaptor Sakura; Ranma and Akane of Ranma 1/2 starts out like this.

Romantic love: High passion, high intimacy, low commitment
This category encompasses romantic relationships with both strong physical feelings and emotional connection, but without particularly strong commitments, perhaps past the basic "going steady" extent.
Examples: Futaba and Kou of Blue Spring Ride (far from the only shoujo example)

Fatuous love: High passion, low intimacy, high commitment
This can include two people so strongly infatuated with each other that they rush into a commitment. Conversely, it could also include those put together in an arranged marriage but feel an instant romantic attraction to each other. In both cases, the passion can flame out fairly quickly, reducing the relationship to empty love, or intimacy can be built to help stabilize the relationship.
Example: I'm sorry, but I cannot see Kirito and Asuna's relationship from Sword Art Online as anything but this, at least at first.

Companionate Love: Low passion, high intimacy, high commitment
This category describes a close, intimate friendship which also has an element of a deep commitment to each other. This category can be used for extremely close friendships, close family members, and also romantic relationships for which the passionate romantic feelings have either faded or just aren't that prominent. (As a side note, studies have shown that companionate love is a better indicator of the long-term satisfaction of a marriage relationship than romantic love.)
Examples: Sae and Hiro of Hidamari Sketch; Kousuke and Kirino of Oreimo toward the end of the first season and up until *that* ending of the second season; arguably, Ryuuji and Taiga of Toradora! are more like this than anything else.

Consummate Love: High passion, high intimacy, high commitment
Oftentimes considered the ideal relationship in fiction, consummate love features all three components of love prominently. It's something that is generally only present in married couples, though some fictional romances may be depicted as a somewhat scaled-down version of this. And even in married couples, in reality this form of love is not always present all the time, perhaps even ultimately fading out as the passion goes out and the relationship transitions into companionate love (which, all things considered, isn't the worst thing in the world).
Example: Tomoya and Nagisa of Clannad After Story

This theory is interesting enough as it is, though it is far from perfect or complete. Still, it's a great starting point for thinking about character relationships in terms of the different ways love can manifest in those relationships. We can also think about how those components play a part in our own relationships.


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