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Triangle Theory of Love and TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett

You “love” your partner, best friend, brother, and dog – but in different ways. What differentiates the love you feel for each of those people? And, what is the magic mix for consummate love (what in pop culture we might call “true love”)?

Cover of the book Tom Lake by Ann Patchett used as a teaching example for Sternberg's Triangle Theory of Love

To answer these questions and more, we turn to an overview of Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love.

The theory highlights three components:

  • Intimacy: Emotional intimacy, feeling connected and warmly sharing inner thoughts.

  • Passion: Arousal and mutual physical attraction.

  • Commitment: Deciding to love or be in a relationship with another person (i.e., an arranged marriage) or a promise to continue the love.

These components combine, in varying amounts, to create different types of love relationships.

  • Intimacy Alone = Friendship

  • Passion Alone = Infatuation

  • Commitment Alone = Empty Love

  • Intimacy + Passion = Romantic Love

  • Passion + Commitment = Fatuous Love

  • Commitment + Intimacy = Companionship (lifelong friend)

  • Intimacy + Passion + Commitment = Consummate Love (“true love”)

Think about the people you love and consider the components. Maybe…

  • Your love with your sibling mixes intimacy and commitment to create companionship.

  • Your friends-with-benefits arrangement mixes passion and intimacy to create romantic love (that’s why it’s so confusing…).

  • The person you met on Tinder fills none of these components; it’s a non-love relationship.

The right type of relationship for you will vary over time. Not all relationships are meant to be consummate love. Romantic and fatuous love are normal. Companionship – the kind of love you have with family and close friends - is essential to experience throughout life.

Tips for using Sternberg’s Theory of Love to improve your romantic and platonic relationships:

  • Identify: Figure out what components your relationship holds and assess the strengths and weaknesses of your expression of these components.

  • Act How You Feel: Show your love by behaving consistently with your feelings, highlighting the components of the triangle that you identified above need bolstering. For example…

    • Intimacy: Increase communication and make plans to spend time together.

    • Passion: Focus on the characteristics or physical attributes that attract you to the other person.

    • Commitment: Make plans for activities or events far in the future.

  • Evolve Over Time: Relationships grow and change. For example, commitment is sometimes the last component to form, and that happens through passion and intimacy flourishing.

Apply The Skills: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Lara is a retired actress, now a farmer and mother to three adult daughters. Amidst the beginning of Covid in 2020, her daughters moved back home and are helping at the farm. As the family picks cherries, Lara tells the story of the summer she spent acting with the theatre company at Tom Lake. There, Lara met three men she loved in different ways. Each of these relationships highlights various components of the Triangle of Love Theory.


Mostly Passion + Drops of Intimacy + Zero Commitment

Lara’s daughters are most interested in her steamy relationship with Duke because he became a Hollywood Heartthrob. Lara met Duke the day she arrived at Tom Lake, and things became physical quickly. Over the summer, they swam, ran lines, and had lots of spicy time, which Lara will NOT discuss with her kids. Duke rarely calls Lara by her name (instead favoring her character’s name or nicknames) and feels unknowable. The relationship was situational, based on magnetic attraction.


Drops of Unrequited Passion + Lots of Intimacy + Zero Commitment

Sebastian, Duke’s brother, frequently visited to play tennis and hang out. Sebastian and Lara talk openly. She relies on him to help her when needed and shows a vulnerable side to him. Lara notices that he is handsome and even seems to be an attraction. But, ultimately, Sebastian stays squarely in the friend zone.


Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consumate Love

Ultimately, Joe is the love of Laura’s life. But not at first. When Lara first met Joe, he was directing the show. They enjoyed a comfortable rapport and slowly became friends, but they lost touch at the summer's end. Years later, they reconnected, and the intimacy flourished; they became friends. Passion followed, even years into their marriage; Joe and Lara took advantage of moments when the kids were all out to feed the spark. Joe and Lara consistently showed commitment to each other.


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