A Reasonable Decomposition of Love
If you’re like me, you have trouble reasoning about nebulous concepts. Love is certainly a nebulous concept. We’ve built a mythology around it, and there are many who insist that it can only be understood through experience even though those same people will a few years later say “it turns out I never really loved her after all.”
In an article that has garnered more than a thousand citations [un-gated pdf], Robert Sternberg gives us a somewhat better understanding of what love might actually be by separating it into three components: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment.
Sternberg says “the intimacy component refers to feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships.” This includes all the emotional stuff that you (hopefully) experience in your loving relationships, wherein you desire what is best for who you love, respect them, depend on them, let them depend on you, and value their involvement in your life. This is a component of love you can have with parents, friends, and pets alike (though some pets (and friends (and parents[/efn_note] are less dependable than others).
“The passion component refers to the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena in loving relationships.” This includes all the 50 Shades of Grey stuff.
“The decision/commitment component refers to, in the short term, the decision that one loves someone else, and in the long term, the commitment to maintain that love.” If you’re watching the same shows I am, you know that all these steps are scripted. First, your character questions whether he is in love. Then he obsesses about whether to tell her and how. Then there’s the engagement. Then the wedding planning. Then the wedding.
Intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Heart, genitals, and brain respectively. It might not yet be clear to you what the benefits of such a decomposition are, but I think Sternberg’s Table 2 shows it:
Meditate on your failed relationships as you look at this table. The drama starts on the third line with “infatuated love” wherein the body is willing, but there is no emotional or cognitive connection. (See Nip/Tuck.) “Empty love” is presumably the love of the newborn arranged marriage, where a commitment has been made, but passion and intimacy has not yet had the opportunity to form.
“Romantic love” is the love of illicit trysts, wherein all the sparks are there but no one wants to limit their options. “Companionate love” is noble, if sad. The parties care for each other and are committed to one another but simply no longer feel it in that way anymore.
Fatuous love, meanwhile, is the love of teenagers, ready to get married because they had sex and really liked it.
Frameworks are simplifications, but they are on occasion useful. This is a useful framework. It allows for easier diagnosis of the status of relationships and provides a common language for talking about love.