What is Romantic Love? The Theory of Love Explained

We help define this overwhelming phenomenon that can cause rapture or despair.
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Dina Cheney - The Knot Contributor.
by
Dina Cheney
Dina Cheney - The Knot Contributor.
Dina Cheney
The Knot Contributor
  • Dina writes for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in food, travel and relationships.
  • With more than 20 years of experience in service journalism, she also pens articles and recipes for publications, such as Good Housekeeping, Parents, SELF, Health, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Prevention, Fine Cooking, Weight Watchers and Diabetic Living.
  • Dina graduated from Columbia College, Columbia University and The Institute of Cul...
Updated Mar 07, 2023

Romantic love is almost too powerful to capture in words. To help us get to the bottom of the psychology of love, we spoke with two acclaimed experts with decades of experience in the field. Dr. Carrie Cole, the Research Director for The Gottman Institute and a certified Gottman therapist, has been in the field of psychology for nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, Dr. Marni Feuerman is a psychotherapist in South Florida and the author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed, Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart About Healthy Relationships. In practice for more than 25 years, she's specialized in helping couples with their romantic relationships for more than a decade.

What is the Triangular Theory of Love?

"Defining romantic love is difficult," says Dr. Feuerman. One way to help us understand the psychology of love is Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love, developed by psychologist, Dr. Robert Sternberg, in the late 1980's. As Dr. Feuerman explains, Dr. Sternberg theorized that love has three components: intimacy, passion and commitment. These three components interact with each other to form several versions of love and can fluctuate over time.

Intimacy

Intimacy features feelings of closeness, connectedness and bondedness.

Passion

Passion revolves around feelings and desires that lead to physical attraction, romance and sexual consummation.

Commitment

Commitment is defined by feelings that motivate someone to stick with their partner and move toward shared goals.

The Types of Love

Here's how Dr. Feuerman explains the various versions of love across infatuation, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love and consummate love.

Infatuation

It is the beginning phase of a relationship, characterized by lust and passion. "The initial infatuation is so powerful that some people end up 'carrying a torch' for one another, not completely knowing if they have what it takes for a sustainable deeper and lasting love," says Dr. Feuerman.

Empty Love

It involves commitment without passion or intimacy. "At times, a strong love deteriorates into empty love," says Dr. Feuerman. "The reverse may occur as well. For instance, an arranged marriage may start out empty but flourish into another form of love over time."

Romantic Love

It "bonds people emotionally through intimacy and physical passion," explains Dr. Feuerman. "Partners in this type of relationship have deep conversations that help them know intimate details about each other and enjoy a sexual passion and affection." That said, they still might be undecided about whether to make a long-term commitment.

Companionate Love

It is an intimate, but non-passionate sort of love, says Dr. Feuerman. Since there's minimal or no sexual desire, this type of love is like a relationship with a very close friend or family member, yet with a long-term commitment. Think about marriages where the passion has died, but the couple continues to have an affection or strong bond regardless, says Dr. Feuerman.

Fatuous Love

A committed relationship driven by passion, fatuous love is without the stabilizing influence of intimacy, says Dr. Feuerman. She offers the example of many celebrity marriages, who seem to marry impulsively. Unfortunately, such marriages often do not work out, she adds.

Consummate Love

It is the total form of love and represents an ideal relationship, says Dr. Feuerman. These couples have satisfying sex lives for years, cannot imagine themselves with anyone else and overcome challenges together.

What are the Phases of Romantic Love?

"It seems the process of falling and staying in love is a lot more predictable than most people think," says Dr. Feuerman. To understand the various stages, experts often cite the work of Dr. John Gottman. Here's a look at the three stages he identified:

Limerence

This initial stage involves falling in love, explains Dr. Cole. "It's like walking into paradise—a wonderful heady feeling." Fueled by lust, couples touch frequently and ask each other lots of questions to get to know each other. However, overwhelming physical attraction can crowd out logic and rational thought, explains Dr. Feuerman. "Red flags and incompatibilities arise that will inevitably cause problems later on," she adds.

Trust

This secondary phase is when people try to figure out whether they can trust their partner, explains Dr. Cole. They work to determine whether their new partner will put them first, be faithful and make smart decisions. "Letdowns and disappointments begin to emerge," explains Dr. Feuerman. "How couples work out their differences in this phase will predict if the relationship thrives or fails." Dr. Feuerman reveals that she often sees couples in what she calls a "pursue or withdraw" pattern of interaction. In this model, one partner pushes to work out differences, while the other avoids conflict. "This negative cycle can become very escalated in couples that can't seem to hold a safe and empathic space for challenging discussions and a way to self-regulate and co-regulate their emotions."

Commitment

If a couple experiences success in the trust phase, they move to this final phase, when they decide whether their new partner is their best life choice, explains Dr. Cole. "People stop thinking about other potential partners they may be missing out on," says Dr. Feuerman. "They believe that the grass is greener where they water it."

Why Does Romantic Love Matter in a Healthy Relationship

The bottom line: romantic love plays a very important role in healthy relationships, says Dr. Cole. It motivates people to perform actions that convey affection, thoughtfulness, adoration and sexual attraction.

Over time, these actions foster connection, intimacy and a secure attachment bond, building emotional safety and trust. "Little things like making dinner for your partner or picking up their favorite fruit when it's in season might seem insignificant, but it's these little things that matter," says Dr. Cole. After all, sustaining consummate love and building relationship confidence rely on frequent acts that show you care.

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