Empty Love: When Relationships are Based Only on Commitment

Commitment is necessary for a relationship to last. However, it's rarely enough on its own for a relationship to be satisfactory. Find out what elements are important in these types of emotional bonds.
Empty Love: When Relationships are Based Only on Commitment

Last update: 13 December, 2021

We all have a different concept of the idea of love. Furthermore, the dynamics of a relationship vary greatly from couple to couple. For instance, there are those who prioritize sharing their time together and those who value their freedom. Then there are those for whom sexuality is a key pillar and others for whom it’s nothing more than an add-on. However, when a relationship is based only on commitment, it involves empty love.

Paradoxically, this is a situation faced by many people who’ve been together for years. In fact, the passage of time has a tendency to emotionally alienate members of a couple. Routine wears out their bond, and their relationship becomes solely based on their day-to-day lives and commitment to each other.

As a matter of fact, it’s so common for this to happen that it’s become normalized. Indeed, often, you resign yourself to living with empty love, assuming that it’s simply inevitable and that there’s nothing you can do about it. However, being a couple is much more than living together and sharing obligations. In fact, no matter how much time passes, it’s in your power to cultivate a more complete and enriching bond.

Sternberg’s triangular theory of love

The concept of empty love arises from Sternberg’s famous triangular theory. This American psychologist made relevant contributions to the understanding of interpersonal and affective relationships. In fact, he developed a theory that’s still used as a reference today.

For Sternberg, love is like a pyramid with three vertices. In each one of them, there’s an essential element that shapes love:

Passion

This refers to physical attraction, excitement, and the urge or need to be close to your partner. It includes the entire scope of sexuality but isn’t limited to it. In fact, it also encompasses your intensely romantic desire to seek physical and emotional union with your partner. It’s always very present at the beginning of a relationship but tends to diminish over time.

Couple kissing in bed

Intimacy

Intimacy is the connection, complicity, and trust that exists between the two of you. It designates those feelings of friendship, affection, and mutual closeness. Intimacy allows you to get to know each other, thus nurturing the trust you have in each other.

This element predominates in more advanced stages of your relationship when passion stabilizes and you rediscover yourself in this change.

Decision and commitment

This last aspect refers to your decision to continue in your long-term relationship. It’s the will to remain in the bond despite your difficulties, in favor of your shared history and life together.

Empty love: a consequence of carelessness

Various combinations of the three elements proposed by Sternberg can occur. This gives rise to seven different kinds of love. For example, infatuation arises when there’s only passion. On the other hand, companionate love occurs when intimacy and commitment are combined. However, in the case of empty love, only the will to continue is present. Nevertheless, there’s no complicity or sexual or romantic desire.

This type of love is typical of relationships of convenience, but also, as we mentioned earlier, in long-term couples. For example, one partner might remain in the relationship for the children, for their mutual friends, or for the house that they share. Nevertheless, in reality, they’re practically strangers to each other.

It’s true that the passage of time itself causes relationships to transform. Indeed, substances, such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, or endorphins, very present at the beginning of a relationship, diminish after the first years. This means the sensations they cause also reduce their intensity. However, love isn’t determined by biology but depends on how much you cultivate and care for your relationship.

Research suggests that there are couples who, after 20 years in a relationship, have the same brain activation when seeing their partners as people in couples who’ve only just met. In other words, they feel the same passion, intimacy, and desire for closeness as in the early years. This is due to them having maintained certain habits and behaviors in order to take care of their relationship.

Couple looking into the distance

From empty love to consummate love

For Sternberg, consummate love is the highest aspiration of an affective relationship, since it includes all three components of the pyramid. It’s undeniable that commitment is essential for a couple to endure because, without it, no love can be flexible and intense enough to survive the changes imposed by life. However, it’s possible to work on restoring lost passion and intimacy.

To do this, the areas that lead to empty love need to be addressed. For example:

  • Neglecting physical appearance. This can cause a reduction in your feelings of attraction toward each other.
  • Having excess obligations, routines, and commitments that prevent you from spending quality time together.
  • Little self-disclosure. Not sharing your worries, tribulations, dreams, and desires with each other.
  • A monotonous and repetitive routine that leads to a loss of incentives for you both.
  • Poorly managed stress. This leads to irascibility and negative interaction dynamics between you.
  • Neglecting the relationship and taking it for granted. For example, abandoning essential elements such as kindness, gratitude, and daily displays of affection.

At the end of the day, it’s always possible to address failing aspects in your relationship. However, you must understand the causes and work as a team to revitalize your relationship. Couples therapy can be extremely useful in this respect. In fact, it can provide communication tools and guidelines to reawaken the sleeping love between you.

Finally, it’s always worth remembering that passion and intimacy can fluctuate at different times in a relationship. However, you should never have to settle for empty love.

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  • Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological review93(2), 119.
  • Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience7(2), 145-159.