How do you know when you’re in the perfect relationship? What ticks the boxes? Would you recognise the perfect relationship if you had it?
Psychologist Robert Sternberg did. For a relationship to skyrocket in the best way possible, he believed that it needed to include three elements, in pretty much equal measures: Intimacy, Commitment and Passion, the points of the perfect love triangle.
This is the ‘up close and personal’ aspect of a relationship. Intimacy is sharing, communication and openness. It means allowing your true self and your emotions to be available to the person with whom you’re in connection. And, by definition, in complete intimacy it’s reciprocated. This is a two-way street, so both of you need to be willing to go there, drop that mask and get real.
This means allowing yourself to be vulnerable, admitting that you’re scared/angry/frustrated/out of control – all those emotions we often don’t want people to know about or even admit to ourselves – and expressing your desires and needs. It’s a deep process of surrender – at times physically and sexually, but essentially emotionally.
And the pay off when you take a deep breath and have the courage to welcome a truly intimate relationship? The sheer joy of being accepted, welcomed and loved for who you really are. Keeping up a front takes energy. You have to watch yourself. Pay attention. Be vigilant. Letting that go can create a more profound sense of relief and self-connection than you ever thought possible. And if you can welcome and accept the other person fully in that place too, then true intimacy can follow.
When you’re being yourself, you give others the permission to be themselves too. And when two open, honest, real people get together, you have the potential to take the relationship to great heights.
However, coming back to Robert Sternberg’s triangle, intimacy without passion or commitment is simply a great friendship. No bad thing, but in a significant other, you’ll be wanting more…
Should I stay or should I go? And if we’re talking about commitment, or committed love, according to Sternberg, the answer is you stick around. Commitment is about time – dedicating the hours and building a relationship together.
However, commitment without passion or intimacy is about obligation and responsibility or perhaps a sense of duty or just staying with something that’s familiar – and a relationship in those terms is likely to be an empty one.
Have you been in a relationship where one or other of you is less committed? Perhaps you’ve been able to say with absolute certainly that you want to be with the other person and you’re in it for the long term, whilst that significant other is uncertain and unwilling to make that commitment. Most of us know what it feels like to have that imbalance.
Obsessive, consuming, hot, sexy, intense – passionate love is about the will to act and create – and that means physical attraction and the place from which we express our sex and desire. Passionate love also includes nurturing, movement, laughter and achieving your higher goals together.
But if passion is all you have, then it’s not a relationship – it’s infatuation.
Of course, it’s possible to have two out of the three elements and according to Sternberg, those relationships go something like this…
• Intimacy + Commitment – Passion = Companionate love
The commitment to a long-term relationship makes this deeper than just a friendship. It’s the love you’d feel for a family member or an old friend. However, while it’s likely to feel safe and deeply consoling, don’t expect excitement or for your creative and/or sexual needs to be met in that space.
• Commitment + Passion – Intimacy = Fatuous love
Imagine two people who move in together within weeks of meeting. Their passion has taken them headlong and they’re promising each other the world – but they don’t know each other or how to explore and communicate their fears and longings. It’s naïve, almost childlike.
• Passion + Intimacy – Commitment = Romantic love
Sexual, full of adventure and with plenty of sharing of deep longings, but neither of you are really sure where this love is going – and, in the moment, who cares?
Have you got the (big) love?
Whether you’re in or out of a relationship, Sternberg’s theory helps shed light on your relationship MO, showing where your current liaison may be heading or casting light on why a past relationship ended up taking a nose dive.
It can also be the starting point for an incredibly rich, rewarding and revealing conversation with a partner to take a relationship deeper or a way of exploring exactly what went wrong in the past – and what you could think about doing differently or allowing in the future for a different outcome.
So, thinking about a past relationship as an example – you first. Where did you sit on the Intimacy, Passion and Commitment scales?
Were you willing to share your inner life with the person you were with? Did you find ways to be passionate together, to create new experiences and explore the potential you had together? Were you fully committed to the relationship and to staying with it?
And how about your partner? Were they the same? Did you know their inner workings and what they truly thought and felt? Did you feel secure in the strength of their commitment?
It may help to score each element – passion, commitment and intimacy – on a scale of one to ten. Where did you score highly? And where did you fall short of where you’d like to be?
And finally, if you’re thinking about a current relationship in particular, it’s worth checking in on the reality of the situation – the way your relationship is actually playing out. You may both have the desire to be intimate, or commit to the relationship or put your passion into it, but is the other person feeling it?
You may know that you’re being more intimate or passionate than you’ve ever been before – but your partner may still feel they want to get closer. Or vice versa. Or perhaps you know that you’re 100 per cent committed, but you’ve not expressed that in a way they understand, whether that’s in words or by your actions.
If there are places where you score low, then it’s your responsibility to put the effort in, to explore, to ask for help. If you want a deeper love, you can’t change the other person – that’s their job – you can only ever change yourself. Can you show more commitment or share more of yourself to allow more intimacy and openness? What would help you do that? Can you express that need to your partner? Would you like to try?
Equally, if your partner or previous partners have scored low on any of the elements, what does that mean for you? Which specific and fundamental needs of yours were not being met? Can you describe them and would you know how to ask for what you want and need in the future?
Communication is, as always, essential. And there is room for compromise. Relationships change and evolve all the time and, for example, being patient while someone evolves with passion into the trust that breeds intimacy and commitment can be worth its weight in gold.