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Triangle Theory of Love: Poly Style

On the evening that we would be studying the Triangle Theory of Love in my Development Psychology class, I got pretty excited. I thought "Wow, are we actually going to learn that most people get attracted to multiple people and this forms triangles of love??". I really must learn to leave my sicko poly mind out of the classroom, y'know?

No, what we actually were introduced to was a theory by Robert Sternberg, in which he sees three components of what we refer to as 'loving relationships'. These three components make up a triangle of interactions.

And that there are different combinations of these three components that makes up different kinds of loving relationships. I came up with this handy little table to express the variations (hey... I'm not just writing this for you, it's also part of my studying :) ).

Relationship Type












Empty Love




Fatuous love




Romantic love - 'Fling'




Companionate love




Consummate love




Infatuation is defined as a superficial type of love that is usually one-sided. It's the 'love at first sight' that may lead to a more significant type of love later.  If the object of affection does not reciprocate interest, this can be a long lasting infatuation. (I would further define this as being in part limerence.)

Liking is defined as a type of typical friendship (not a best friendship, however). In sexual relationship terms, this might include 'friends with benefits'. 

Empty Love is a long term love that has lost the passion and intimacy it once had, and the people are staying in it out of habit or fear of change. Another example of this might be an arranged marriage (which can evolve to other types of love.)

Fatuous Love is the infatuation stage of a reciprocated relationship, and people involved are 'ga ga' over each other. After the newness of the relationship wears off, the commitment to continue exploring the relationship may fade off too. There is no real intimacy forming here that is sustainable. Hollywood calls this a 'whirlwind romance.'

Romantic Love is defined as a generally sexual relationship that wears off as the newness wears off. There's never really a commitment to explore an intimate relationship. This might be described as a 'fuck buddy' type of relationship.  I think 'Romantic Love' is a bit of a misnomer. 

Companionate Love is defined as a long term relationship with a lot of intimacy, but no passion. Perhaps it's a previously passionate relationship where that aspect has worn off. Or perhaps it's a very close friendship, such as a best friend. 

Consummate Love is defined as the 'complete balanced love we are all searching for.'  

(Above information from Braun, J. Developmental Psychology. 2005.)

Which is the 'Love' in Polyamory?

So often on poly mailing lists and at poly meetings people argue over just what that 'love' means in the 'many loves' of polyamory. I personally think the argument comes down to comparing and contrasting these seven different variations of loving relationships. And unfortunately, we live in a society that over-values and over-idealizes the consummate love... or what I think people would classify as 'true' love. Anything else just is lacking and not worthwhile. I personally think that Consummate Love is rather rare, and likely not sustainable over the long term for most pairings. 

I think part of the power of polyamory is the ability to divorce yourself from only striving for consummate love - or that 'everythingness' of a single relationship. It's also powerful in that you can learn to experience that your relationship with any particular individual may, over the course of the relationship, experience more than one of these love forms. Of course monogamy can do this too.. but usually in a much more painful way... as most monogamous relationships are assumed to be consummate, and then when one of the other triangle elements falls off, it's cause for concern.  

Learning to not only acknowledge that other forms of love that are not consummate are not 'lacking', but to even appreciate them, I think ... can be a very powerful lesson.

But does opening yourself up to multiple loves mean that you have to open yourself up to all seven forms? I don't necessarily think so. In fact, in my experience anyway, I would say that a good portion of polyamorous folks I know strive for any of the forms of relationship that include the 'Commitment' box checked. 

But that's not universally true, as many self-identified polyamorous folk are open to non-committed forms of relating as well. I think having a model such as this to talk about the types of relationships one is open to is an useful tool when negotiating terms of a realtionship. Otherwise, just saying you're open to multiple loves can mean a bunch of different things and you can find yourself in a sticky situation that you didn't intend.

All the boxes checked?

And this brings me to another point that I think is poly relevant. It might be easy to conclude that polyamory gives us a unique opportunity to achieve the highly acclaimed consummate love. Just over multiple relationships instead of within one. How cool is that you can have a companionate love and a fatuous or romantic love at the same time and check all the boxes?

Well.. of course, it's not quite that easy. Checking boxes from one column doesn't necessarily always flow over to another relationship. Yes, indeed .. it can happen. But it can also cause envy in an existing companionate relationship to see you off having a fatuous, passion filled relationship with a new love. It takes a few extra tools than just understanding that these different types of relationships exist, and a lot of those tools come from having a lot of self-confidence in all parties involved, as well as good communication.  You may also find yourself wanting to see more in your relationship than is there, or the opposite, not seeing the full potential of a relationship because you prescribed it as being a certain type of love. 

As Sternberg says in his theory, the consummate love is the one complete, balanced love that 'we all are searching for'. I think there's an innate drive in us... probably programmed in from society, that is always wanting to hold up our relationships to be complete and balanced. Even in polyamory.

It's also important to note that it's a pretty bad idea to use this theory and the table above as a prescription for relationships. Labeling a relationship as fatuous now and using the label to place it in a box can limit a relationship's movement and potential. I believe all relationships have the potential to morph from one form to a another over time, and I really encourage not allowing labels to impede that.

Perhaps if we can quit aiming for all 3 check boxes in each and every one of our relationships, we can stop and really appreciate the people and relationships we have in our lives simply for what they are.. instead of always trying to artificially fill in the holes for what we view as lacking.  I think there would be a lot less disappointment and frustration if this was an achievable perspective.


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