My favorite model for relationships comes from the work of anthropologist Helen Fisher. She’s dedicated decades of her life and her career to studying and understanding love, intimacy and relationships. This post will cover her Three Loves Theory, a theory that I find incredibly helpful for understanding my own relationships with women.

The premise of Three Love is that not all love is experienced equally. Any one with a fair amount of romantic/sexual experience could tell you this: love doesn’t play itself out like it does in the movies; there are ups and downs, sometimes it comes faster than others, and sometimes it disappears completely. Sometimes sex is intimately involved and sometimes it’s not. Other times there’s an unhealthy attachment and then some times the attachment is very healthy and even blissful.

But this isn’t just theorizing, scientists like Fisher have actually been able to observe brain chemistry and neurobiology and pinpoint different emotions that take place based on whichever kind of relationship we’re in at different times. Through these studies Fisher was able to map what each love experience comprises neurologically and then match that to a real-world social realities.

The three loves that she came up with are the following: Lust, Passion, and Commitment. These three loves occur in different parts of the brain, and occur independently from each other. For instance, you can be “in lust” with someone but have no perceived commitment to them (e.g., One Night Stands). But before we get into that, let’s cover what the three loves are specifically.

Love One: Lust — Lust is a feeling that any man should be able to relate to easily. It comes from the reptilian brain and is pure instinctual reproduction. Lust is a yes/no proposition: basically, do you want to have sex with this person? It’s instantaneous and based on pretty straight-forward physical and behavioral components of attraction.

Lust can also leave just as quickly as it came. It’s transitory and shifts constantly within a person. It has no attachment or favoritism. It’s really as simple as, “Do I want to fuck him/her RIGHT NOW? Yes or no?”

Love Two: Passion — Passion is the emotional connection that occurs between two people. It’s rooted in the mammalian brain. Two people in passion are considered “smitten.” They stare at each other, spend every hour of every day together, stay up until 6AM together talking. Think newlyweds and honeymoons. Think romantic getaways. Think Romeo and Juliet. Passion is created by having a high degree of emotional chemistry as well as cultivating a sense of “newness” or spontaneity within the relationship. Hence old married couples who plan romantic getaways to rekindle the passion in their relationship.

Passion has an incredible power to override a person’s logical functioning. It often cajoles us into making less-than-stellar statements and commitments. It’s the boyfriend who says he loves his new girlfriend and then four months later changes his mind. It’s the girl who dreams for a year of moving in with her boyfriend and then as soon as she does, she realizes she doesn’t love him as much as she thought. It causes us to get caught up in the moment and project an endless and utopian future for the relationship.

Passion cannot be cultivated without lust, although a couple can remain passionate with one another after the lust disappears (again, think of an old married couple). Passion’s death is wrought by lack of shared experience. Once a couple hits the point after 6-12 months together where the “newness” of the other person starts to wear off, a serious test of their compatibility will arise. If that couple can merge their lives together in such a way that they continuously share their new experiences with one another, then passion will continue. If not, then it will eventually fall by the wayside. Which brings us to the third and final love.

Love Three: Commitment — If two people remain in passion for long enough, and there is a long-term compatibility where they can continue to share new life experiences together indefinitely, then commitment will arise. Commitment is an unbelievably powerful feeling and occurs rarely in life.

Commitment is when the passion of Love Two persists to the point that it’s unconditional. Couples that are in Love Two and not Love Three will often feel great until something happens: he loses his job, she has a miscarriage, he starts drinking, etc. Commitment is when you emotionally accept and love the other person’s flaws as much as their strengths. Scientists have actually shown that couples that reach the level of commitment, their senses of self actually merge with the other person. What I mean is that when they watch the neurons firing in people’s brains, if you ask a man married for 20 years to think about his wife getting into a car accident, and then ask him to think about himself getting into a car accident, the same “self” spots in his brain will light up; whereas it won’t for anybody else, and it won’t for couples who are not at the third love of commitment.

Commitment arises with the idea that it will persist indefinitely. The only way it can end is if one or both parties of a relationship change individually to the point where it becomes harmful for the other person to self-identify with their partner: again, think of the husband who becomes an alcoholic, or the wife who keeps cheating, etc. Sometimes even then, the power of commitment holds on, depending on the people.

Passion and Lust can disappear well after Commitment arises without affecting the Commitment. Think of an old married couple who don’t have sex anymore and are just kind of friends.

There are timetables for each love, although these are very arbitrary and will vary widely from person to person and couple to couple. But it’s helpful to think about: Lust is instantaneous and comes and goes constantly, being very easy to retrieve once lost. Passion takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to emerge, and usually sticks around for 3-6 months. In highly compatible couples, it will persevere but still require effort and constant communication to maintain beyond a couple years. Commitment arises after anywhere from 1-3 years together and remains for a lifetime unless two people grow apart as individuals, in which case it often takes years to undo itself.

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7 Responses to The Three Loves

  1. Leo says:

    “Commitment arises with the idea that it will persist indefinitely. The only way it can end is if one or both parties of a relationship change individually to the point where it becomes harmful for the other person to self-identify with their partner: again, think husband who becomes an alcoholic, wife who keep cheating, etc. Sometimes even then, the power of commitment holds on, depending on the people.”

    The power of commitment holds on? I’ve met some people (guys and girls) that stay in a very bad relationship not because of the power of commitment but because they are scared to start over, or they are emotionally/economically dependent, fear to the unknown, the kids, etc. I think that FEAR is a huge component in this kind of relationships and is ofetn not even metioned.

  2. AJ says:

    I like it! Keep it up Ent!

  3. michael says:

    personally, i feel that the model is not as exact as the triangular theory of love proposed by robert sternberg.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangular_theory_of_love

    in his model, he uses a very similar idea but replaces lust with intimacy. passion in this model is treated as something closer to lust.

    in helen’s model, she has lust, passion, and commitment. you said yourself that passion can not exist without lust first so passion is dependent on lust, so it should not be an independent, basic component of the model.

    the way helen’s model describes passion may be slightly different than how most people define passion. the way most people define passion, they show that passion is something that can easily arise but also easily dissolve. this suggests that passion lasts attachment, at a very deep level, which is what intimacy provides.

    when people experience true intimacy, they will develop attachment, which makes any form of interpersonal relationship dissolvement to be very painful. passion can come and go, since it is directly linked to the physical aspect, which is lust. so it can exist independently of intimacy. thus intimacy, should be a better basic element for the model than lust, which would just be passion.

    commitment is often a more logical, calculated process.

    • Mark says:

      It seems to be that they’re talking more or less about the same thing, just applying different words to different aspects.

      I do like Sternberg’s theory. I just came across Fisher first, so I’ve always thought of relationships using her labels.

  4. Tim says:

    This is how I’ve seen things most of my adult life. Doesn’t seem particularly controversial. I think I need to read Helen Fisher to get a deeper perspective on this. Always interesting to have these introductions to ideas though Mark.

  5. jeff says:

    I enjoyed reading this because the first time I heard you talk about these, I never realized their connection with the triune brain theory. Its interesting to see how that pickup usually talks about it in terms of attraction(I.e. using logical, emotional or sexual attraction) but rarely extends to the long term implications of the same types of attraction

  6. Rhinolution says:

    In my opinion the Triangular Theory of Love is very different than the Three Loves Theory.

    The Three Loves Theory is for me more of a timeline and the Triangular Theory are more the dynamics & types.

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