Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Do Your Love Stories Match?

March 25, 2002

Alise feels that a loving relationship should be smooth, tranquil and relatively conflict-free. She believes that if two people love each other, they should accept each other as they are. She avoids arguments and confrontations with her husband, Zach.

On the other hand, what Alise thinks are verbal attacks, Zach calls discussions. He believes that a couple should confront their differences, solve problems and forge a common path. He is quick to confront Alise when he sees problems.

Alise perceives confrontations as attacks - exactly what two people who love each other should not do. She withdraws. Zach becomes more aggressive in his attempt to bring out problems. This results in Alise withdrawing even further. Their relationship gets worse.

What is going wrong here? This couple sees the facts about the same. They love each other. What is wrong is that they have different stories about what love is all about. That leads them to interpret events in opposite ways.

How Zach and Alise feel about their relationship depends on how well it matches up with their expectations of what love should be and feel like. Zach and Alise don’t understand each other's story about love nor do they understand their own very well. These stories come from childhood, from observing their parents’ marriages, and from peer relationships, media, religious values and culture.

Love stories generally fit with what culture says about true love. The love story competes with other stories about careers and family life. The love story is embedded within the context of other unfolding dramas of life.

A perfect match - infatuation. A romantic partner experiences a surge of emotion or infatuation when he or she matches up with a person who is close to his or her ideal love story. If the dating partner is a close match, then the imagination takes over and transforms the person into an ideal match. Actions are interpreted with rose colored glasses.

Often, the ideal partner has many attributes that are lacking or longed for in oneself. After the honeymoon reality strikes and the differences between the ideal and actual partner become obvious. Instead of feeling deprived of an ideal partner, there is a challenge to change his or her love story to fit the relationship as it actually is.

A history of rejection. Suppose Zach has a history of feeling rejected, feeling unloved or unworthy of love. He is likely to be highly sensitive to rejection and to interpret Alise’s behavior of withdrawing as rejection, even if it wasn't intended that way. Rejection is likely to become a major theme of Zach’s love story, woven into every plot.

With a history of mistrusting loved ones, Zach would be looking for signs that Alise is not worthy of trust. Zach would be vigilant in looking for themes of deception and would weave them into his story. Once a story is created, Zach will continue the story in a consistent way. Nobody likes reading a novel that blatantly contradicts itself. New events are interpreted so they make sense with what happened previously. He invents what is not there. He rewrites history to match his story.

Alise ignores inconsistent information as long as possible to avoid change. Their relationship gets into big trouble when Alise figures out that her story is no longer the way she wants it to be. Zach’s insecurities are no longer interpreted as devotion and adoration but as jealousy, possessiveness and control. What used to be flattering becomes annoying. Behavior that was tolerated before is not longer tolerated. Her love story doesn’t include mistrust and accusations.

It is hard to give up part of an ideal story or to admit that the love story has a fatal flaw. Love stories are not right or wrong. Something has to give. Behavior needs to match the stories or the stories need to be altered to fit the behavior.

Alise then creates reasons for wanting a divorce just like she created reasons for getting married. The reasons are justification to herself and others on why she is doing what she is doing. The real reason for their breakup it that she feels the love story she is living has turned into a bad story, a story that isn't liked.

Happily ever after. Until the story changes, the relationship cannot change. A new love story might save a relationship. The plot takes a twist to include going to counseling and adding a chapter on how Zach learns to understand where his insecurities came from, to trust Alise’s love, and to understand her withdrawal as her distrust of conflict - not rejection. Alise’s love story might change to include how love includes more togetherness and how working through conflict can draw them closer together.

With the help of a counselor, they replot their story to fit the changes they need to make their love story work. Love stories can be changed. Zach and Alise are both authors in their own personal love story and can change it to whatever they want. The challenge is to figure out a happy ending.

This story is based on ideas from psychologist Robert J. Sternberg of Yale University.