What’s your love story? By Robert J. Sternberg, Yale University Historical Archives of Psicolinea
Relationships can be as unpredictable as the most suspense-filled mystery novel. Why do some couples live happily ever after, while others are as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet? Why do we often seem destined to relive the same romantic mistakes over and over, following the same script with different people in different places, as if the fate of our relationships, from courtship to demise, were written at birth?
Perhaps because, in essence, it is. As much as psychologists have attempted to explain the mysteries of love through scientific laws and theories, it turns out that the best mirrors of the romantic experience may be Wuthering Heights, Casablanca and General Hospital. At some level, lay people recognize what many psychologists don’t: that the love between two people follows a story. If we want to understand love, we have to understand the stories that dictate our beliefs and expectations of love. These stories, which we start to write as children, predict the patterns of our romantic experiences time and time again. Luckily, we can learn to rewrite them.
I came up with the theory of love as a story because I was dissatisfied not only with other people’s work on love, but also with my own. I had initially proposed a triangular theory of love, suggesting that it comprises three elements: intimacy, passion and commitment. Different loving relationships have different combinations of these elements. Complete love requires all three elements. But the theory leaves an important question unanswered: What makes a person the kind of lover they are? And what attracts them to other lovers? I had to dig deeper to understand the love’s origins. I found them in stories.
My research, which incorporates studies performed over the past decade with hundreds of couples in Connecticut, as well as ongoing studies, has shown that people describe love in many ways. This description reveals their love story. For example, someone who strongly agrees with the statement “I believe close relationships are like good partnerships” tells a business story; someone who says they end up with partners who scare them — or that they like intimidating their partner — enacts a horror story.
Couples usually start out being physically attracted and having similar interests and values. But eventually, they may notice something missing in the relationship. That something is usually story compatibility. A couple whose stories don’t match is like two characters on one stage acting out different plays — they may look fine at first glance, but there is an underlying lack of coordination to their interaction.
This is why couples that seem likely to thrive often do not, and couples that seem unlikely to survive sometimes do. Two people may have similar outlooks, but if one longs to be rescued like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and the other wants a partnership like the lawyers on the television show The Practice, the relationship may not go very far. In contrast, two people with a war story like the bickering spouses in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf may seem wildly incompatible to their friends, but their shared need for combat may be what keeps their love alive.
More than anything, the key to compatibility with a romantic partner is whether our stories match. To change the pattern of our relationships, we must become conscious of our love stories, seek people with compatible tales, and replot conclusions that aren’t working for us.
The Beginning of the Story
We start forming our ideas about love soon after birth, based on our inborn personality, our early experiences and our observations of our parents’ relationships, as well as depictions of romance in movies, television and books. We then seek to live out these conceptions of love ourselves.
Based on interviews I conducted in the 1990s, asking college students to write about their romantic ideals and expectations, I have identified at least 25 common stories which people use to describe love. (There are probably many more.)
Some stories are far more popular than others. In 1995, one of my students, Laurie Lynch, and I identified some of the most common tales by asking people to rate, on a scale of one to seven, the extent to which a group of statements characterized their relationships. Their highest-ranked statements indicated their personal love story. Among the most popular were the travel story (“I believe that beginning a relationship is like starting a new journey that promises to be both exciting and challenging”), the gardening story (“I believe any relationship that is left unattended will not survive”) and the humor story (“I think taking a relationship too seriously can spoil it”). Among the least popular were the horror story (“I find it exciting when I feel my partner is somewhat frightened of me,” or “I tend to end up with people who frighten me”), the collectibles story (“I like dating different partners simultaneously; each partner should fit a particular need”) and the autocratic government story (“I think it is more efficient if one person takes control of the important decisions in a relationship”).
Another study of 43 couples, conducted with Mahzad Hojji, Ph.D., in 1996, showed that women prefer the travel story more than men, who prefer the art (“Physical attractiveness is the most essential characteristic I look for in a partner”), collectibles and pornography (“It is very important to be able to gratify all my partner’s sexual desires and whims,” or “I can never be happy with a partner who is not very adventurous in his or her sex life”) stories. Men also prefer the sacrifice story (“I believe sacrifice is a key part of true love”). Originally, we had expected the opposite. Then we realized that the men reported sacrificing things that women did consider significant offerings.
No one story guarantees success, our study showed. But some stories seem to predict doom more than others: the business, collectibles, government, horror, mystery, police (“I believe it is necessary to watch your partner’s every move” or “My partner often calls me several times a day to ask what I am doing”), recovery (“I often find myself helping people get their life back in order” or “I need someone to help me recover from my painful past”), science fiction (“I often find myself attracted to individuals who have unusual and strange characteristics”) and theater stories (“I think my relationships are like plays” or “I often find myself attracted to partners who play different roles”).
How Stories Spin Our Relationships
When you talk to two people who have just split up, their breakup stories often sound like depictions of two completely different relationships. In a sense, they are. Each partner has his or her own story to tell.
Most important to a healthy, happy relationship is that both partners have compatible stories — that is, compatible expectations. Indeed, a 1998 study conducted with Mahzad Hojjat, Ph.D., and Michael Barnes, Ph.D., indicated that the more similar couples’ stories were, the happier they were together.
Stories tend to be compatible if they are complementary roles in a single story, such as prince and princess, or if the stories are similar enough that they can be merged into a new and unified story. For example, a fantasy story can merge with a gardening story because one can nourish, or garden, a relationship while dreaming of being rescued by a knight on a white steed. A fantasy and a business story are unlikely to blend,however, because they represent such different ideals — fate-bound princes and princesses don’t work at romance!
Of course, story compatibility isn’t the only ingredient in a successful relationship. Sometimes, our favorite story can be hazardous to our well-being. People often try to make dangerous or unsatisfying stories come true. Thus, someone who has, say, a horror or recovery story may try to turn a healthy relationship into a Nightmare on Elm Street. People complain that they keep ending up with the same kind of bad partner, that they are unlucky in love. In reality, luck has nothing to do with it: They are subconsciously finding people to play out their love stories, or foisting their stories on the people they meet.
Making Happy Endings
Treating problems in relationships by changing our behaviors and habits ultimately won’t work because crisis comes from the story we’re playing out. Unless we change our stories, we’re treating symptoms rather than causes. If we’re dissatisfied with our partner, we should look not at his or her faults, but at how he or she fits into our expectations.
To figure out what we want, we need to consider all of our past relationships, and we should ask ourselves what attributes characterized the people to whom we felt most attracted, and what attributes characterized the people in whom we eventually lost interest. We also need to see which romantic tale we aim to tell — and whether or not it has the potential to lead to a “happily ever after” scenario (see quiz below).
Once we understand the ideas and beliefs behind the stories we accept as our own, we can do some replotting. We can ask ourselves what we like and don’t like about our current story, what hasn’t been working in our relationships, and how we would like to change it. How can we rewrite the scenario? This may involve changing stories, or transforming an existing story to make it more practical. For example, horror stories may be fantasized during sexual or other activity, rather than actually physically played out.
We can change our story by experimenting with new and different plots. Sometimes, psychotherapy can help us to move from perilous stories (such as a horror story) to more promising ones (such as a travel story). Once we’ve recognized our story — or learned to live a healthy one of our choosing — we can begin to recognize elements of that story in potential mates. Love mirrors stories because it is a story itself. The difference is that we are the authors, and can write ourselves a happy ending.
Find Your Love Story
Rate each statement on a scale from 1 to 9, I meaning that it doesn’t characterize your romantic relationships at all, 9 meaning that it describes them extremely well. Then average your scores for each story. In general, averaged scores of 7 to 9 are high, Indicating a strong attraction to a story, and 1 to 3 are low, indicating little or no interest in the story. Moderate scores of 4 to 6 Indicate some interest, but probably not enough to generate or keep a romantic interest. Next, evaluate your own love story. (There are 12 listed here; see the book for more.)
1. I enjoy making sacrifices for the sake of my partner.
2. I believe sacrifice is a key part of true love.
3. I often compromise my own comfort to satisfy my partner’s needs.
The sacrifice story can lead to happy relationships when both partners are content in the roles they are playing, particularly when they both make sacrifices. It is likely to cause friction when partners feel compelled to make sacrifices. Research suggests that relationships of all kinds are happiest when they are roughly equitable. The greatest risk in a sacrifice story is that the give-and-take will become too out of balance, with one partner always being the giver or receiver.
1. I believe that you need to keep a close eye on your partner.
2. I believe it is foolish to trust your partner completely.
3. I would never trust my partner to work closely with a person of the opposite sex.
1. My partner often calls me several times a day to ask exactly what I am doing.
2. My partner needs to know everything that I do.
3. My partner gets very upset if I don’t let him or her know exactly where I have been.
Police stories do not have very favorable prognoses because they can completely detach from reality. The police story may offer some people the feeling of being cared for. People who are very insecure relish the attention that they get as a “suspect,” that they are unable to receive in any other way. But they can end up paying a steep price. As the plot thickens, the suspect first begins to lose freedom, then dignity, and then any kind of self-respect. Eventually, the person’s mental and even physical well-being may be threatened.
1. I believe that, in a good relationship, partners change and grow together.
2. I believe love is a constant process of discovery and growth.
3. I believe that beginning a relationship is like starting a new journey that promises to be both exciting and challenging.
Travel stories that last beyond a very short period of time generally have a favorable prognosis, because if the travelers can agree on a destination and path, they are already a long way toward success. If they can’t, they often find out quite quickly that they want different things from the relationship and split up. Travel relationships tend to be dynamic and focus on the future. The greatest risk is that over time one or both partners will change the destination or path they desire. When people speak of growing apart, they often mean that the paths they wish to take are no longer the same. In such cases, the relationship is likely to become increasingly unhappy, or even dissolve completely.
1. The truth is that I don’t mind being treated as a sex toy by my partner.
2. It is very important to me to gratify my partner’s sexual desires and whims, even if people might view them as debasing.
3. I like it when my partner wants me to try new and unusual, and even painful, sexual techniques.
1. The most important thing to me in my relationship is for my partner to be an excellent sex toy, doing anything I desire.
2. I can never be happy with a partner who is not very adventurous in sex.
3. The truth is that I like a partner who feels like a sex object.
There are no obvious advantages to the pornography story. The disadvantages are quite clear, however. First, the excitement people attain is through degradation of themselves and others. Second, the need to debase and be debased is likely to keep escalating. Third, once one adopts the story, it may be difficult to adopt another story. Fourth, the story can become physically as well as psychologically dangerous. And finally, no matter how one tries, it is difficult to turn the story into one that’s good for psychological or physical well-being.
1. I often make sure that my partner knows that I am in charge, even if it makes him or her scared of me.
2. I actually find it exciting when I feel my partner is somewhat frightened of me.
3. I sometimes do things that scare my partner, because I think it is actually good for a relationship to have one partner slightly frightened of the other.
1. I believe it is somewhat exciting to be slightly scared of your partner.
2. I find it arousing when my partner creates a sense of fear in me.
3. I tend to end up with people who sometimes frighten me.
The horror story probably is the least advantageous of the stories. To some, it may be exciting. But the forms of terror needed to sustain the excitement tend to get out of control and to put their participants, and even sometimes those around them, at both psychological and physical risk. Those who discover that they have this story or are in relationship that is enacting it would be well-advised to seek counseling, and perhaps even police protection.
1. I often end up with people who are facing a specific problem, and I find myself helping them get their life back in order.
2. I enjoy being involved in relationships in which my partner needs my help to get over some problem.
3. I often find myself with partners who need my help to recover from their past.
Person in recovery:
1. I need someone who will help me recover from my painful past.
2. I believe that a relationship can save me from a life that is crumbling around me.
3. I need help getting over my past.
The main advantage to the recovery story is that the co-dependent may really help the other partner to recover, so long as the other partner has genuinely made the decision to recover. Many of us know individuals who sought to reform their partners, only to experience total frustration when their partners made little or no effort to reform. At the same time, the co-dependent is someone who needs to feel he or she is helping someone, and gains this feeling of making a difference to someone through the relationship. The problem: Others can assist in recovery, but the decision to recover can only be made by the person in need of recovery. As a result, recovery stories can assist in, but not produce, actual recovery.
1. I believe a good relationship is attainable only if you spend time and energy to care for it, just as you tend a garden.
2. I believe relationships need to be nourished constantly to help weather the ups and downs of life.
3. I believe the secret to a successful relationship is the care that partners take of each other and of their love.
The biggest advantage of a garden story is its recognition of the importance of nurture. No other story involves, this amount of care and attention. The biggest potential disadvantage is that a lack of spontaneity or boredom may develop. People in garden stories are not immune to the lure of extramarital relationships, for example, and may get involved in them to generate excitement, even if they still highly value their primary relationship. In getting involved in other relationships, however, they are putting the primary relationship at risk. Another potential disadvantage is that of smothering — that the attention becomes too much. Just as one can overwater a flower, one can overattend a relationship. Sometimes it’s best to let things be and allow nature to take its course.
1. I believe that close relationships are partnerships.
2. I believe that in a romantic relationship, just as in a job, both partners should perform their duties and responsibilities according to their “job description.”
3. Whenever I consider having a relationship with someone, I always consider the financial implications of the relation ship as well.
A business story has several potential advantages, not the least of which is that the bills are more likely to get paid than in other types of relationships. That’s because someone is always minding the store. Another potential advantage is that the roles tend to be more dearly defined than in other relationships. The partners are also in a good position to “get ahead” in terms of whatever it is that they want. One potential disadvantage occurs if only one of the two partners sees their relationship as a business story. The other partner may quickly become bored and look for interest and excitement outside the marriage. The story can also turn sour if the distribution of authority does not satisfy one or both partners. If the partners cannot work out mutually compatible roles, they may find themselves spending a lot of time fighting for position. It is important to maintain the option of flexibility.
1. I think fairy tales about relationships can come true.
2. I do believe that there is someone out there for me who is my perfect match.
3. I like my relationships to be ones in which I view my partner as something like a prince or princess in days of yore.
The fantasy story can be a powerful one. The individual may feel swept up in the emotion of the search for the perfect partner or of developing the perfect relationship with an existing partner. It is probably no coincidence that in literature most fantasy stories take place before or outside of marriage: Fantasies are hard to maintain when one has to pay the bills, pack the children off to school and resolve marital fights. To maintain the happy feeling of the fantasy, therefore, one has to ignore, to some extent, the mundane aspects of life. The potential disadvantages of the fantasy relationship are quite plain. The greatest is the possibility for disillusionment when one partner discovers that no one could fulfill the fantastic expectations that have been created. This can lead partners to feel dissatisfied with relationships that most others would view as quite successful If a couple can create a fantasy story based on realistic rather than idealistic ideals, they have the potential for success; if they want to be characters in a myth, chances are that’s exactly what they’ll get: a myth.
1. I think it is more interesting to argue than to compromise.
2. I think frequent arguments help bring conflictive issues into the open and keep the relationship healthy.
3. I actually like to fight with my partner.
The war story is advantageous in a relationship only when both partners clearly share it and want the same thing. In these cases, threats of divorce and worse may be common, but neither partner would seriously dream of leaving: They’re both having too much fun, in their own way. The major disadvantage, of course, is that the story often isn’t shared, leading to intense and sustained conflict that can leave the partner without the war story feeling devastated much of the time. People can find themselves in a warring relationship without either of them having war as a preferred story. In such cases, the constant fighting may make both partners miserable. If the war continues in such a context, there is no joy in it for either partner.
1. I like a partner who is willing to think about the funny side of our conflicts.
2. I think taking a relationship too seriously can spoil it; that’s why I like partners who have a sense of humor.
3. I like a partner who makes me laugh whenever we are facing a tense situation in our relationship.
1. I admit that I sometimes try to use humor to avoid facing a problem in my relationship.
2. I like to use humor when I have a conflict with my partner because I believe there is a humorous side to any conflict.
3. When I disagree with my partner, I often try to make a joke out of it.
The humor story can have one enormous advantage: Most situations do have a lighter side, and people with this story are likely to see it. When things in a relationship become tense, sometimes nothing works better than a little humor, especially if it comes from within the relationship. Humor stories also allow relationships to be creative and dynamic. But the humor story also has some potential disadvantages. Probably the greatest one is the risk of using humor to deflect important issues: A serious conversation that needs to take place keeps getting put off with jokes. Humor can also be used to be cruel in a passive-aggressive way. When humor is used as a means of demeaning a person to protect the comedian from responsibility (“I was only joking”), a relationship is bound to be imperiled. Thus, moderate amounts are good for a relationship, but excessive amounts can be deleterious.
1. I think it is okay to have multiple partners who fulfill my different needs.
2. I sometimes like to think about how many people I could potentially date all at the same time.
3. I tend and like to have multiple intimate partners at once, each fulfilling somewhat different roles.
There are a few advantages to a collection story. For one thing, the collector generally cares about the collectible’s physical well-being, as appearance is much of what makes a collection shine. The collector also finds a way of meeting multiple needs. Usually those needs will be met in parallel — by having several intimate relationships at the same time — but a collector may also enter into serial monogamous relationships, where each successive relationship meets needs that the last relationship did not meet. In a society that values monogamy, collection stories work best if they do not become serious or if individuals in the collection are each viewed in different lights, such as friendship or intellectual stimulation. The disadvantages of this story become most obvious when people are trying to form serious relationships. The collector may find it difficult to establish intimacy, or anything approaching a complete relationship and commitment toward a single individual. Collections can also become expensive, time-consuming, and in some cases illegal (as when an individual enters into multiple marriages simultaneously).
Robert J. Sternberg
IBM Professor of Psychology and Education, Yale University
Director, Yale Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise (PACE Center)
Former Acting Chair, Psychology Department
Former Director of Graduate Studies, Psychology Department
Degrees: BA Yale University (National Merit Scholarship; summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa; Wohlenberg Prize) (Advisor: Endel Tulving); PhD Stanford University (National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship; Sidney Siegel Award) (Advisor: Gordon Bower); 4 honorary doctorates (Spain, France Belgium, Cyprus).
Editor: Contemporary Psychology, Psychological Bulletin, Associate Editor Child Development
Fellow : APA (12 divisions: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 15, 20, 24, 33, 52), APS American Association for the Advancement of Science; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, APA Division Presidencies
One of few most highly cited authors (living or deceased) in introductory-psychology textbooks
Over 950 refereed publications
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