A few weeks ago I was having a beer with a guy named Scott. It was a date—a first date—with a photographer I’d met online. I like to think I’ve gotten good at this online dating thing*, or at least proficient, but Scott was a pro.
Shortly after we sat down on a charming–if potentially rat-infested (the folks at the dive bar insisted on calling them mice)–patio, another couple walked out. The guy looked at Scott, paused, looked back and said, “Hey, I know you.”
Scott gave me an awkward smile.
“Aren’t you the guy who ran after me the other day when I dropped a fifty dollar bill on the sidewalk?”
Scott looked embarrassed and shrugged.
“Yes. It’s totally you,” the guy said. He looked at me. “Can you believe this guy? Who does that? Returns a fifty-freaking-dollar bill.”
“Pretty amazing,” I said.
“Hey man, let me buy you a drink,” the guy said. Scott laughed politely and said no thanks and the other guy made his way to his seat.
Scott smiled at me for a moment, then said, “That’s my buddy. I ran into him outside before you got here. I wanted him to do a bit about me saving a kitten but he thought you might not buy that one.”
We had a long talk that night. When he heard I was writing about love stories, he had a lot of questions. Mostly, he wanted to understand the function of love stories. He agreed that they probably don’t make us better at loving each other, and, while they might transmit certain values, they don’t, as some researchers have suggested, seem to make us better people.
“Well, they probably offer us a lot of vicarious pleasure,” I offered.
“Yeah, but they must do something constructive,” he insisted.
“It’s obvious to me that we really need them—not just other people’s stories, but our own,” I said. I mentioned the common phenomenon of online dating profiles containing some iteration of the phrase “I’m willing to lie about where we met.”
This approach to online dating has always annoyed me as it implies that either a) they feel deep shame about online dating (to which I can only reply, “Get over it—you live in Vancouver, how else do you expect to meet new people?”) or b) they need a cute, romcom-style how we met story for their relationship to feel legitimate. But empirical observations overwhelmingly suggest that cute stories in no way predict happy endings, and online dating websites are no longer the sole terrain of the desperate or the perverse. I understand the power of a good story to make us feel as though larger forces are influencing our lives, but I dislike how, at the same time, love stories take away our agency, implying that love puts in the effort so we don’t have to. Or maybe I just dislike how willing I was to give myself to love when it finally came around. And I don’t want any excuse to do it again.
“Why is a story so important to some people that they’re even willing to fabricate it?” I said.
Scott thought about this for a second. “So you’re single—so am I—and I’m guessing your life is pretty good.”
“It’s great,” I tell him. I confess that even though I am theoretically interested in starting a relationship, I’m so satisfied with my daily autonomy that I worry about actually fitting someone else in. He seems to understand this.
“So imagine you meet someone and decide to marry him, and maybe even have kids. What would you have to sacrifice?” I thought of my guiltlessly sporadic grocery shopping, the hours per week I spend rock climbing or writing or drinking beer on rat-infested patios. I thought about the luxury of making last minute plans. I’d have to give up or renegotiate much of what makes my life so satisfying. At twenty-three, I’d been so willing organize my days around someone else, but at thirty-two the idea is far less appealing.
“Wouldn’t it be easier,” Scott said,” if you could believe you’re just submitting to some larger force—you’re changing your life because it’s the thing fate has always had in store for you?”
It is, I think, the best argument I’ve heard for the social value of love stories.
The next week I exchanged dating stories with another friend. He says he’s decided that real love is scary, and that’s what he’s looking for. Most of his relationships have been safe, he says, comfortable. He wants to find someone who makes him go mute with terrifying vulnerability.
“No,” I say. “No way. I’ve felt that. I don’t trust that feeling anymore.” I tell him I am wary of loving the wrong person—the one who is beautiful but moody, sensitive but selfish. I am well-aware of my susceptibility toward a certain artistic temperament, a certain brand of arrogance. And it turns out there’s a name for that approach to love–the swoony, dazzling terror: romantic ideology.
Aaron Ben-Ze’ev writes about romantic ideology, which he defines as “the idealized love depicted in so many novels, movies, poems, and popular songs.” Just thinking about it makes me squirm. I have been a member of that tribe. I don’t want to be anymore.
Romantic ideology, he says, is based on a sense of love as profound (something that gives life meaning), unique (love is exclusive and irreplaceable), and pure (love is morally good). Ben-Ze’ev’s interest in romantic ideology is particularly related to men who kill their wives or girlfriends, but it applies to the non-murderous as well. In general I am skeptical of the concept of purity when it comes to love and sexuality—purity balls, slut shaming, and rape chants come to mind immediately–but I’ve been stumped by the other two, profundity and uniqueness, in the past.
When J and I were deciding whether to break up or stay together, there was no consolation for the loss of him. And I don’t mean the loss of his companionship, which I still sometimes had, but rather the loss of his physical presence–his body–in my daily life. Every day this loss seemed unbearable. It felt like losing a part of my own body. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, scientific and mythic and anecdotal, we were both worried, I think, that there wouldn’t be anything as big or profound as what we had. Yes, it was hard, but didn’t people always say that relationships weren’t supposed to be easy? We weren’t quite happy, but what did happiness matter in the face of love?
Even when we were living in DC and figuring out what to do with our lives, there was a sense we had—and I think that the people around us also had—that we were bonded like atoms. We weren’t in love, we were love. Romantic ideation kept us together when little else could. And when we did end things, my goal for my next relationship was to love moderately.
Jerome Bruner, a narrative psychologist (I love that such a thing exists!), says that not only do we make sense of our lives by telling stories, but “in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.” He says all stories fall into a particular genre, which he describes as “a set of grammars for generating different kinds of story plot.”
All week I’ve been talking to my students about the genres of academic writing. I tell them that any particular piece of writing—from an e-mail to a lab report—is determined by both form (the structural limitations or conventions of a text) and situation (the audience, purpose, etc.). But I’ve never considered applying this concept to personal stories as Bruner does. He says, “genre commits one to use language in a certain way.”
What about the genre of a how-we-met story? To be effective—to compel to people to get together and stay together—it requires serendipity, implausibility, the implication of destiny. It needs to feel special. Maybe this is why we are writing our stories as we live them. The story that goes, ‘I created an Okcupid account, viewed a bunch of profiles, went on thirty dates, then found someone who seemed fun and tolerable enough to commit to’ isn’t particularly compelling. If things go south, there’s no motivation to stick it out—you can just log on and start browsing again. So we go on dates and look for good stories, the one about the returned fifty-dollar bill, or the baseball game where we picked the songs that would play when we stepped up to bat, or the night we met Mariah Carey’s pianist at the bar and pretended to be married while he gave us relationship advice.
Romantic ideation still kind of terrifies me. But I think I see its value now. I’m still not going to lie about how I met someone, but I’m willing to believe that this particular genre of story does more than make us passive and myopic, that it may in fact it provide us with a much-needed service. And if someone else wants to lie about it, because it validates some sense of their belonging together, perhaps that’s not such a bad choice.
*if good means having an enjoyable conversation with a total stranger…not if good means going on second dates.