The theory characterizes love within the context of interpersonal relationships by three different components:
- Intimacy – Which encompasses feelings of closeness, connectedness.
- Passion – Which encompasses drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, and sexual consummation.
- Commitment – Which encompasses, in the short term, the decision to remain with another, and in the long term, the shared achievements and plans made with that other.
The ‘amount’ of love one experiences depends on the absolute strength of these three components; the ‘type’ of love one experiences depends on their strengths relative to each other. Different stages and types of love can be explained as different combinations of these three elements; for example, the relative emphasis of each component changes over time as an adult romantic relationship develops. A relationship based on a single element is less likely to survive than one based on two or three elements.
The three components, pictorially labelled on the vertices of a triangle, interact with each other and with the actions they produce and with the actions that produce them so as to form seven different kinds of love experiences – non-love is not represented. The size of the triangle functions to represent the ‘amount’ of love – the bigger the triangle the greater the love. The shape of the triangle functions to represent the ‘type’ of love, which may vary over the course of the relationship:
Liking and friendship in this case is not used in a trivial sense. This intimate liking characterizes true friendships, in which a person feels a warmth, and a closeness with another but not intense passion or long-term commitment.
Infatuated love is pure passion. Romantic relationships often start out as infatuated love and become romantic love as intimacy develops over time. However, without developing intimacy or commitment, infatuated love may disappear suddenly.
Empty love is characterized by commitment without intimacy or passion. Sometimes, a stronger love deteriorates into empty love. In cultures in which arranged marriages are common, relationships often begin as empty love and develop into one of the other forms with the passing of time.
Romantic love bonds individuals emotionally through intimacy and physically through passionate arousal.
Companionate love is an intimate, non-passionate type of love that is stronger than friendship because of the element of long-term commitment. Sexual desire is not an element of companionate love. This type of love is often found in marriages in which the passion has gone out of the relationship but a deep affection and commitment remain. The love ideally shared between family members is a form of companionate love, as is the love between close friends who have a platonic but strong friendship.
Fatuous love can be exemplified by a whirlwind courtship and marriage in which a commitment is motivated largely by passion without the stabilizing influence of intimacy. A relationship, however, whereby an individual party agrees to sexual favours purely out of commitment issues, or is pressured or forced into sexual acts does not comprise fatuous love, and instead tends more to empty love.
Consummate love is the complete form of love, representing an ideal relationship toward which people strive. Of the seven varieties of love, consummate love is theorized to be that love associated with the so-called perfect couple. These couples will continue to have great sex fifteen years or more into the relationship, they cannot imagine themselves happy over the long-term with anyone else, they overcome their few difficulties gracefully, and each delight in the relationship with one other. However, psychologists caution that maintaining a consummate love may be even harder than achieving it. He stresses the importance of translating the components of love into action. Without expression, even the greatest of loves can die. Thus, consummate love may not be permanent. If passion is lost over time, it may change into companionate love.