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Love Is A Story

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When I was a little piker in preschool, about 4-5 years old, my best friend was A. She and I could talk about pretty much anything. I confided in her, and she in me. By the time I was in elementary school, she had moved away and I never saw her again. But I remember her and even what she looked like.

At 16, I fell in love with B. She sat near me in a science class. I spent the whole year obsessing over her. I never did get around to telling her. But at that point in my life, all I wanted was to be with J. Regrettably for me, my love was unrequited and she made the horrible mistake of taking up with another guy. I was sure my life was ruined.

By my early adulthood, I was in a relationship with C. For some time, this particular relationship trudged. There was nothing awfully wrong with it and certainly some things were right. But, at some point, I felt that the commitment in it was not matched by the feelings, or at least my feelings, underlying it. The relationship ended -- mostly my doing, I guess.

These relationships, and my work as a psychologist, led me to propose what I came to call a "triangular" theory of love, with the idea that love comprises three components: intimacy (as characterized by my relationship with A) -- trust, communication, caring, compassion, respect; passion (as characterized especially by my relationship with B) -- excitement, drama, thrill, longing, roller-coaster rides, lust; and commitment (as characterized, at first, by my relationship with C) -- decision to be with, and stay with, another person.

In the theory, different combinations of the three basic ingredient yield different kinds of love -- intimacy by itself yields liking; passion by itself, infatuation; commitment by itself, what I have called empty love; intimacy plus passion, romantic love; intimacy plus commitment; companionate love; passion plus commitment, foolish love; and intimacy, passion, and commitment, complete love. The idea was that couples were happier and more successful if (a) they had more of each of the three components, but also, if (b) the shapes of their triangles (relativel amounts of each component) were relatively matched. If one person wanted intimacy but not passion, say, and the other wanted passion but not intimacy, well, forget it -- the relationship would not work.

I did empirical tests of the theory, published in psychological journals and books, and the theory held up well. The theory also made it into most introductory-psychology textbooks.

But then I concluded that the triangular view of love was incomplete, because it didn't say how those three components got to be there. So I formulated a theory of "love as a story," according to which people arrive at their triangles of love through stories of what they want love to be. One example of a story is a fairy-tale story -- a prince and a princess meet and live together happily ever after. Another example is a business story -- two business partners run their love life like a good business. Other stories include a travel story (traveling together through life), an theater story (the relationship reads like a melodramatic movie script), and a horror story (a perpetrator and a victim). There are about two dozen common stories.

I tested this theory as well and published the results in journal articles and books. The basic finding was that couples do better when their stories match. If two people have a fairy-tale story or if both have a business story, they probably will make their relationships work. But if one has a fairy-tale story and the other a business story, forget about it! Even if they are physically attracted to each other and even if they share some common values, they just won't keep the click over the long term.

Once I had these two theories in place, they worked for me. After a series of less than successful relationships, I found my fairy-tale princess in real life, and we are living happily ever after. But that's only my story. What's important to you is your story and whether it matches your partner's. If so, congratulations. If not, well, good luck with that one! The rub, I found in my research, is that we all have profiles of stories -- more and less preferred ones. If we couple up with someone whose story is lower in our hierarchy of preference, we are particularly susceptible to getting involved with someone else whose principal story is a better match to our own. And we all know where that can go.

 
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