What is real love like?


How about a bit of science to explain love? It’s not easy to quantify and explain emotions and psychological states – but this theory developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg can really help us understand what really happens when we fall in love, and how to know if it’s the real thing.

What we call love, is not always love. Not all love is created equal. Not all people feel the same when they feel love towards another.

We can feel a bond with someone yet not be in love with them. We can be attracted to someone but not want to spend our life with them. The different emotions we call love often get us confused, and cause pain and misunderstanding.

So let’s get acquainted with the three key elements of love. Without them, it’s very unlikely our relationships will be happy and last, and they are:

Intimacy which involves feelings of attachment, closeness, connectedness, and bondedness.

Passion which drives limerence (infatuation) and sexual attraction.

Commitment which makes us want to remain with our partner and plan our lives with them.

The three can come in various combinations, to form these types of love:

Liking (just intimacy) – basically, just friendship.

Infatuation (just passion) – all you have is strong attraction, most relationships start here.

Empty love (just commitment) – when they get into this phase most marriages/relationships are dead, or end – except arranged marriages which on the contrary, usually start here.

Fatuous love (passion and commitment) – you meet, you fall for each other hard and – bam, next month you’re married… and usually very soon divorced quoting ‘irreconcilable differences’.

Romantic love (passion and intimacy) – with a good matching partner, this type usually develops over time. That’s when it starts missing commitment – and unless it follows, the love won’t survive.

Companionate (intimacy and commitment) – many marriages get here once passion dies, many fall apart, but some happily persist too.

And – finally, the one that is a combination of all three: consummate love (intimacy, passion and commitment) – where you have it all and you’re pretty happy with the arrangement.

This consummate love, as the author calls it – that’s the love, the real love, the true love, the holy grail of love most people want and seek.

When we are truly intimate and connected on every level, when we have the sexual passion and attraction, and we are committed to our partner, that’s where love begins to feel real, and really good.

Of course, all other combinations are not just possible, but actually prevalent in romantic relationships. The combination of all three elements is quite rare, but the relationships that have it are the ones most likely to be strong, happy, successful and – lasting.

What struck me most about this neat analysis is how well it explains why we have so many problems with modern relationships. We all want love, the one with the big L, but we don’t really know what this love should look like, so we end up in all kinds of relationships that don’t satisfy us.

Here are the most common issues that arise when you are missing one or two of the above elements.


Butterflies are great, but they are not enough to make your relationship last. One of the biggest, if not the biggest mistake we make is when we think we found love just because we are strongly attracted to someone. Yes, that is a good start, but it’s not love – especially at the beginning of your relationship, when everything is light and fun but you haven’t had time to get to know your partner yet, let alone develop true intimacy.

Commitment is not even on the table yet. It will follow last, in most modern societies – or in many cases, won’t happen at all. Gone are the days when marriage proposals were thrown in the mix after a month of dating.

If you are in that zone (just passion) in your relationship, the best way to save yourself from disappointment and heartbreak is to curb your enthusiasm. Don’t expect it will turn into something great and big until you have more solid proof that it is going in the right direction.

If you’ve been with your partner for a longer time (at least 6 months) and you still have just the passion, you are probably with the wrong person. If intimacy isn’t developing over time, that’s because you have nothing to say to each other – or you are holding back. If there is still no talk of commitment or at least actions that speak of commitment to each other, you’re most likely not ready to commit (one or the other or both).


You are very close – emotionally and intellectually, you understand each other well but – the attraction is missing or it’s gone missing over time. You are in a romantic relationship without passion, and that type of relationship can last, and even work very well for some people.

The problems arise if that’s not what you signed up for, and you want more than that – you will sooner or later become dissatisfied with your passionless bond. You will probably fall for someone new. Not necessarily intentionally, it will just happen because you’re missing it so much.

Maybe you will cheat on your partner, emotionally or physically or both. In either case, your relationship can’t be happy long term, unless you are both completely fine without the sexual part.

The other variety of the intimacy without passion is when you are in love with someone, and they are not returning your feelings. They really like you and love to spend time with you, but your relationship stays in the friend zone. Most likely, it will stay that way so your best bet is move on and turn your romantic attention elsewhere.


Some people have passionate, intimate, deep connections but their relationships are unstable and full of drama. This is maybe the trickiest situation to be in because you see and feel the connection, and that makes it that much harder to walk away. You keep hoping things will change, and you’re constantly bouncing from bliss to despair.

If you are the one ready to commit and settle, and your partner isn’t, you have a problem – and it’s not one you can sweep under the rug.. It’s a make-or-break your relationship problem. When your partner refuses to commit for whatever reason, and you want a committed relationship – you will have to look for it elsewhere. They will not change, not soon at least, and most likely not for you.

When you have passion with commitment, but no real intimacy develops – you will not be able to sustain that passion for long. This happens when people commit too soon and without really knowing each other. They soon end up fighting and hating each other, often as passionately as they were originally into each other.

When you look at your love life, look at all these elements – whether it’s analysing the past to see what and why went wrong, assessing are you in the right relationship now, or planning for the future. When it comes to love, we often give our feelings free reign, and follow our heart – but sometimes, a bit of science and logic comes a long way.

(Inspired by and adopted from Triangular Theory of Love by Robert Sternberg.)


What is your usual relationship “mix” when it comes to passion, intimacy and commitment?

Which ones are missing? Which ones do you tend to give but don’t get back?

Thank you for sharing!

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5 Responses

  1. Ms Jones says:

    I had a relationship with a man who was Mr Right in every way -except the chemistry was not right. Try as I did, I knew this would be a huge stumbling block (at least for me).

    The relationship ran into trouble – I got sick, he had family problems. In any relationship these things happen. But I knew deep down that the chemistry (passion) was not really there for me. Commitment, values and interest all there. For some I suppose they could live without the passion. He did feel it, but I did not. I could sense that it was a problem – we tried to make it work. I could sense that he also knew this, but we had so much in common otherwise we both tried and tried.

    I can not “fake it” when it comes to physical intimacy.

    This is a very illuminating post. While I have had many passionate relationships that could not meet the commitment phase, the commitment phase without real physical intimacy and compatibility was just as unworkable.

    When I read that passion without commitment is not doable – no matter how much I wish it were so – it helps me better understand why the relationships I had with raging passion but lack of personal commitment were doomed.

    One can no more change a partner’s mind than one can change their physical feelings of attraction. It is a non starter for me to meet a great guy (handsome, smart, caring, mutual interests and values) with nothing going on in the chemistry department.

    I know plenty of people who have these types if relationships and they are content. For myself, I have found it unhealthy and, in the end, that particular partner understood it as well. It was something I simply had no control over. Missed a great guy, but special ingredient was not there.

    We parted amicably.

  2. Erika says:

    What an interesting way of looking at things! From my experience, this is actually spot on. Reflecting on my own relationships and those of people I know, they all seem to fall into one of these categories. For myself, my past relationships have often been ‘romantic love’, but without the commitment from the other partner, hence why I’m single now and back on the dating scene at 30 😛 With my first serious boyfriend at 21, however, there was no real intimacy and therefore it was very much fatuous love. In regards to other people I know, many marriages seem to fall into ‘companionate’, ‘fatuous’ and ’empty’ love, and out of these the ‘companionate’ folk seem the happiest. I tend to think that is how many LTRs go, as passion can naturally fade over time, which is why commitment and intimacy are so important.

    On a side note, I only recently discovered your blog and I think it’s fantastic. You have a wonderfully positive way of looking at love and relationships which is just what us singletons need. I find a lot of the major dating coaches quite gimmicky and negative, but I have felt so uplifted and encouraged by the posts of yours that I’ve read so far, which can only be a good thing 🙂 Thank you!

    • Petra says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words. That is exactly my aim, not to be misleading and gimmicky, but offer something real and useful! All my best to you.

  3. Michelle says:

    Is it even possible to have a relationship with passion, commitment and intimacy? In the past I’ve had passion and no commitment. Those of course end up going nowhere. Now I’m in a relationship with a great guy. We get along well, and it’s not that there isn’t any passion but it’s that I want more passion. We never had a honeymoon period like people describe in the beginning of a relationship. That makes me wonder if I need to find someone who can give me all three of those relationship aspects or if that just doesn’t exist and I should settle with the guy who fulfills the more important ones for a ltr? I just know I would be so unhappy if this were to turn into a sexless marriage years from now. I need to feel wanted by my partner.

    • Petra says:

      It’s possible to find all three. But you may have to look for it longer, or set the bar higher. If you are missing the sexual connection and it’s important to you, that has potential to drive you apart, or make you look for it elsewhere. You are asking good questions. Maybe you should talk about this with your partner, if there is love and connection between you, there are always ways to ignite the sexual spark. And the fact you didn’t have the butterflies at the beginning doesn’t mean you are not a good match, and you can’t have a great sex life. Many people get blindsided by the strong chemistry and forget to look for a more meaningful connection. I believe it’s fine to start with a slow buildup too. If you’d like to discuss this get in touch (via Contact or Coaching pages).

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