Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Relationship Love

Attachment issues and the relationship difficulties they cause

I had a conversation with a young man recently about relationship difficulties he was experiencing. During our conversation he described his partner as having an insecure attachment to him. He described some of her behaviours that lead him to this conclusion which included checking his phone for messages and calls, ringing him several times a day to check on where he was and what he was doing. He also reported that she was uncomfortable with him going out without her and picked arguments with him for no apparent reason and berated him on a regular basis for not doing enough to care and demonstrate his love to her. He said that when he argued back or challenged her that she went into a rage where she struck out at him and damaged things in the house. This left him reporting that he felt exhausted, walking on eggshells around her and hesitant to go home on occasions.

What struck me more than the reported extreme behaviour and the impact this was having on his sense of mental wellbeing was that he named the source of the behaviour as an insecure attachment. The thing is that insecure attachment is a technical term to diagnose attachment aberration’s and I do think that most people who struggle in relationship with insecurity or not feeling secure have had experiences that may stem back to early childhood and such anxieties and difficult bevaviour may a reflection of a lack of feeling safe and cared for as infants.

A researcher called Mary Ainsworth in the 1970’s did a lot of studies on attachment and she devised that if children do not have a secure base or experience insensitive parenting may end up with a host of potential problematic experiences and response’s that unless managed or worked through will play out in adolescence and adulthood. There are many possible reasons for a parent to be incentive or inconsistent in their care thet may include parental depression, parental bereavement, parental abandonment, relationship abuse and stress, grief reactions, alcohol and drug use, mental health issues to name a few.


From the work of Mary Ainsworth, Mary Blehar, Everett Waters & Sally Wall Graphic copyright © 2000 Psychology Press Ltd

Regardless of the reasons for a rejecting or inconsistent parenting style the end result is a child who may struggle to feel safe and secure in themselves and as a result may have difficulty feeling worthy or safe. If this is the case and considering that 30% of adults will have had childhood attachment patterns that could be labelled as avoidant or resistant it is a concerning possibility that the young man’s partner I referred to earlier may be suffering from the aftermath of inconsistent or rejecting parenting style and now as adults they have no idea why they struggle in relationship as the reasons are totally out of the persons awareness. They may not even register that they are experiencing separation anxiety or have insecure attachment issues. They may be so immersed in a victim mentality where they see the world and everyone in it as being at fault or the cause of their pain. They just don’t get that the way that see others and process and make sense of things, like the need of their partner to have for space and privacy can ever be justified. They often see such needs as an attack on them and their entitlements. Often such needs for space and privacy are perceived to be threats to their emotional safety and the anger and control such people exhibit are tools used to keep their world secure and the attachment they have to other safe.

Attachment responces

The above chart is an adaptation of Ainsworth work with infants. It shows as adults what to expect as responses when someone returns to their partners who may have an insecure avoidant, insecure resistant and insecure disorganized attachment patterns. From the insecure insecure avoidant attachment pattern you may expect to be ignored and not greeted. From an insecure resistant attachment pattern you may expect to be ignored and anger from being left alone or for leaving or going out. From an insecure disorganized attachment pattern you may experience confussion in that partner may seek you out but avoids your approaches to connect.

Bottom line is that if you are experiencing dramatic and bizarre reactions from your partner and such response’s do not make sense and you can’t fix the problems around independence, privacy, power and control you may be dealing with attachment issues that are deep seated and entrenched. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you can recognise the patterns of insecure attachment you have already made steps to claim back some ground and get the professional help that may make a difference to your lived experience.

Chris Caruana
Couples Counsellor
271 Kepa Rd, Mission Bay,
Auckland 1071, New Zealand
027 3187593

When to end a relationship: a survivors guide to separation.

When to end relationship and start the separation process is a big question that drives many couples to couples counselling. Most couples facing difficulties over a prolonged period of time seek couples counselling as a last ditch attempt to turn things around and have everything ridding on a series of sessions or often one session that may determine the outcome of their relationship and everything that goes with it. The big ticket items that are associated with separation are sharing of children, potentially seeing a lot less or a lot more of them, selling / shifting house and home, dividing the assets and shared processions, loosing certain friends, pain, lots of emotional stress, anxiety, anger, bitterness and unresolved conflict.

Separation is never easy and the process can go terribly wrong but there are many things we can do to help avoid unnecessary pain. Acceptance that you are separating and having a willingness to do the best you can to help the process and acting with integrity are at the top of the list.

Once a decision to separate is made making contact with the Family Court co-ordinator to file for separation and to access resources and support services is a good idea. If children are involved then resources to help “Putting Children First” and doing a course to gain insight into what that means and how to do it is highly recommended. As parents and adults we often are so absorbed in our own issues and pain that children’s needs are often not considered and accommodated and gaining some insight into how to minimize harm and trauma for children is critical.

Managing children and assets with minimal chance of further conflict is so important for yourself and everyone involved. Finding a lawyer who is family focused and is working to ensure that contentious issues are minimized and not exacerbated is also critical. Getting good legal advice as to your rights and entitlements regarding property, assets and care of children does need to be done and finding a solicitor or family lawyer who can manage your entitlements and rights tactfully and delicately is crucial.

If children are involved, parental agreements and orders can be drafted by your family lawyer or a good separation / divorce coach. A good divorce and separation coach can be seen in conjunction to your family lawyer to help get practical things involved with separation sorted out further. They can also help you source experts that will help you through the legalities if needed.

The Family Court can also make mediation and or counselling services available to you. There are now costs associated with some of these services. If you don’t want to wait or don’t want to be allocated a counsellor or a mediator by the Family Court you may want to choose your own specialist support people to assist you manage the process. Dealing with unresolved issues, conflict and differences can be managed by an experienced and qualified relationship / marriage counsellor as can individual issues around anger, separation anxiety, loss and grief, maintaining support and connection and managing uncertainty.

Making big decisions and mediating agreements in a highly stressed and emotionally vulnerable state is not ideal. Making decisions and getting to agreement on important issues like property and assets in common, and or childcare arrangements is important. Breakdowns in this process can be very lengthy and extremely financially and emotionally draining to sort out. Lengthy arguments over entitlements ideally can be resolved through mediation with skilled family lawyers involved, to assist couples sort through the legal entitlements and to make decisions of this nature. If mediation breaks down the end result will be a potentially lengthy and costly court process where a judge will make decisions about what is fair and just.

If decisions about child care are unresolved and the mater is lodged in the family court, once again it will be a lengthy and costly process at the end of which a Judge will make a decision about what is best for your children. Children are the most vulnerable as they have so little say and control of the process and are often enticed to take sides and choose one parent over the other. Getting a judgement does not address what is fueling the hurt and anger and will often entrench the positions couples take and enhance the bitterness they experience. External judgments set parties up so that one wins and one looses. In reality both parties loose as do children. You stand to loose money and lots of it, as well as integrity, dignity, sleep and joy and these disputes can be drawn out over years. The only ones guaranteed to benefit from an embroiled legal process are lawyers. Getting your thinking “right” and processing things further through counselling and or mediation is the ideal. Counselling and Restorative Mediation can often help address and resolve the hurt and anger that gets in the way and often fuels distorted, unrealistic unsubstantiated views of personal entitlement and undermines the ability to see your ex partner as a sound or good or at least an adequate or safe parent.

The reality is that two people’s experiences and readiness to let go of a relationship are never the same. One party has usually made the decision on average two years prior to informing their partner that they intend to leave the relationship. By the time they do there is often so little invested in the relationship that all that is left is diving up the procession’s, getting child care arrangement in place and moving on.

Sounds relatively simple but so many things can complicate this process and many of these things are emotionally based such as shock, dismay, and a sense of overwhelming helplessness with what’s happening. Latter these feelings can be replaced with resistance to change, anger, resentment and at times sabotaging the process or revenge. Unanswered questions, hurt from being betrayed or mislead, seeing your partner with someone else, not being able to have access to your children are all things that can push us to our known limits of being able to cope and often beyond. Separation is a crazy making time and no one gets through it untouched.

Separation ranks second only to death of a loved one as life’s stressful experiences. There is a huge difference between intellectually going through the motions of separation and actually doing it and experiencing it. Our relationship with what was once familiar and safe is gone and in many ways it is like a death of a life we once knew and cherished. Separation brings about an end of our hopes our dreams and means a total change and readjustment to life and requires a rebuilding of our lives and all this takes time. If we “do it right” we do come out of the process alive and ready to live life and love life again.

A wise man once told me that “There is no way to speed up the separation process but there are lots of ways to slow it down”. Holding on to something that the other person has let go of is a futile and energy sapping act and eventually we need to accept that the relationship is over. Acceptance that the relationship that the over is an empowering place to arrive at as it can often stimulate us into taking decisive action to create stability and some form of predictability back into our lives. Acceptance of “what is” is the key to re-experiencing peace and happiness.

Ultimately acceptance means letting go of the stories that you have made your separation to mean about yourself, your ex partner and your future life. The difficulty is that it takes time for the deficit stories of what we have made separation to mean to be challenged and changed or just accepted for what they are; Stories. It takes time to gain a different perspective, to take responsibility for what didn’t work, to gather evidence that life can be good again if not better than it was. If you have separated it means that the relationship didn’t work and that means you are now in a position to create new relationship/s that do work if you choose to do so.

When we do come to terms with the separation, we can experience renewed freedom. Freedom to recreate, to re experience and to redefine. Freedom to have a renewed relationship with our children, our friends and family. Separation can be seen as an opportunity to have a renewed relationship with ourselves and with life itself.

Chris Caruana (B.A., MCoun, NZAC)
Couples Counsellor
271 Kepa Rd, Mission Bay,
Auckland 1071, New Zealand
027 3187593

Sternberg’s Triangular theory of love

This article is sourced from Wikipedia (2010),

Sternberg’s triangular theory of love gives readers an opportunity to categorize the type of relationship they have and the category of love they experience. It is useful in seeing what are the combination of factors that contribute towards the relationship and what are the elements that are detracting or need strengthening.

The triangular theory of love is a theory of love developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg. The theory characterizes love within the context of interpersonal relationships by three different components:

1. Intimacy – Which encompasses feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness.
2. Passion – Which encompasses drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, and sexual consummation.
3. 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 theory characterizes love within the context of interpersonal relationships by three different components. 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.

Sternberg's Model

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 (nonlove 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:
Nonlove is the absence of all three of Sternberg’s components of love.

Liking/friendship in this case is not used in a trivial sense. Sternberg says that this intimate liking characterizes true friendships, in which a person feels a bond, 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. 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 may begin as empty love and develop into one of the other forms.

Romantic love bonds individuals emotionally through intimacy and physically through passionate arousal, but neither is sustained without commitment.

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.

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 “perfect couple”. According to Sternberg, such couples will continue to have great sex fifteen years or more into the relationship, they can not 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.[1]

However, Sternberg cautions 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,” he warns, “even the greatest of loves can die” (1987, p. 341). Thus, consummate love may not be permanent. If passion is lost over time, it may change into companionate love.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1986). “A triangular theory of love”. Psychological Review 93 (2): 119–135. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119. Retrieved 2007-06-27.
Sternberg, Robert J. (1988). The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-08746-9.
Brehm, Sharon S. (2007). Intimate Relationships. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-293801-3.

Chris Caruana
Couples Counsellor
271 Kepa Rd, Mission Bay,
Auckland 1071, New Zealand
027 3187593

Tensions within relationships: being right or being loved

It’s tough sometimes finding yourself in an argument and having to make the decision to either prove someone wrong and wining or not. It could be over something really insignificant like a debate over what you ordered for dinner last time you went out. You may recall the experience of winning such an argument and that doing so often comes at the expense of killing the love between yourself and other.
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Addressing the harm and restoring the love in your relationship

Couples generally come to counselling knowing things are not working and many have a reluctance to acknowledge or admit that very thing. I’ve heard many people say, “our relationship is 95% fine, it’s just the 5% that isn’t working and we need fixed. We have a great relationship, really!”
Continue reading “Addressing the harm and restoring the love in your relationship”