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Love is a Story

vcruz's picture

In Love is a Story by Robert J. Sternberg, the author presents a theory about love being a story. He argues that in order for a love story to function in a relationship, both individuals need to have a similar love story in which each one plays a harmonizing role in the other’s story. However, this does not mean that these individuals need to have similar life stories (i.e. their background, careers, or personal ambitions) but real simply love stories; meaning, the conscious or unconscious stories that each individual has formed in his or her brain about love.  The theory presented in this book about love being a constructed story is an example of the topics that we have been discussing in class about the formation of stories—either conscious or unconsciously—and the ways in which they influence the ways in which we act or behave in certain aspects of our lives, in this case, unconsciously formed love stories affect the ways in which people perform in their personal relationships.

            Robert Sternberg has studied love since the early 1980’s. During his early studies, he focused on the structure of love. He developed his first proposition about love, “a psychometric type of theory” in which he argued that “love could be understood in terms of a large number of disparate emotions, thoughts, and motivations—things like caring for another person, communicating well, and being supportive” (Pg. ix). However, the problem that he found in this theory was those emotions are simply elements of love and this did not explain we “love some people but not others” (Pg. ix). He then, came up with his second concept of love in which he proposes a “triangular theory of love.” This theory proposes that “love could be understood as comprising three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment” (Pg. x). Yet again, this did not answer why people are able to “fall in love or be able to maintain a loving relationship with one person but not another” (Pg. x) It was after further studies that he landed in his third theory, which seeks to understand this key issue about the likelihood of some relationships to perform well and while others fall apart.           

Thus in his theory, he analyzed a number of stories that he knew about relationships, including his own. He realized that in order for relationships to work, both individuals need to have a “matching” story, he explains “the basic idea is that we tend to fall in love with people whose stories are the same as or similar to our own, but whose roles in these stories are complementary to ours […] if we happen to fall in love someone whose stories are quite different, our relationship and the love underlying it are both at risk.” In this concept, Sternberg talks about the stories (i.e. hopes, ideas, and dreams) that each person has developed in their minds about their ideal love story.

It does not mean that the personalities of both individuals need to be equal, but that what they envision in their love story needs to be compatible. Sternberg explains “For example, if someone wants to live a romantic fairy tale, but finds herself actually living a war story, she is likely to be dissatisfied. Others prefer the war story, and would feel bored out of their minds in the romantic fairy tale” (Pg. 4). This concept relates to the idea of cognitive unconscious and how that affects our response to certain things. In these examples, people may not realize that the reason why their relationship is failing is because they have different ideas of what their love story should be like.

Similarly, someone can form an idea about the “perfect” significant other and find him/herself disillusioned as the person turns out to be different, even if this person is great, he or she just does not fit in the ideal story that his or her partner had envisioned. The author states, “If the partner does not quite conform to the desired role, the individual will act in ways—consciously or unconsciously—intended to encourage the desired behavior on the part o the partner” (Pg. 12). As a result, conflicts start to occur in the relationship when, for example, one person in the relationship starts to feel pressured to change things about him or her in order to “make the relationship work.”  

Thus, conflicts arise because love is “not quite the same thing for any two people” (Pg. 10). Since each individual has his or her own love story, “sometimes each partner in a relationship sees different meaning in the same actions or events, because each partner interprets the actions or events in terms of a different story” (Pg. 7). While they both know that they share a love story, what is in that story can differ widely from one partner to the other. It is for that reason that Sternberg argues that in a relationship, both individuals need to “somehow create a shared story in addition to their individual ones” (Pg. 10). In this sense, they keep what they believe to be their ideal story, and at the same time, they create one that works for both of them.

Finally, in this theory, the author adds that despite the already constructed stories of love, we are able to change them in order to make our relationships work. Sternberg provides the example of the movie When Harry Met Sally to explain this better:

Harry’s relationship with Sally and his perceptions of her fit into his preconceived notion of a story not about love, but about friendship. Despite their close relationship, Harry spent many years seeking romance from other women. He ultimately changed his story about love, in part because of his relationship with Sally. But until this story changed, Harry could not view Sally in a romantic way, no matter what either of them did. When Harry changed his story, his relationship with Sally improved and even transformed itself (Pg. 6).

This book argues that, like Harry, we all have our preconceived stories about love, friendship, and other relationships that may not really fit well with the reality of those relationships. Sternberg argues that learning about our preconceived love stories may be the most amazing thing that we learn about ourselves and in doing that we may improve our relationships with others.           

In class we discussed the formation of meanings in our brains as being part of our cognitive unconscious. We defined meaning as a set of contingencies which we tend to trust or believe in. In this sense, the theory provided by Sternberg in Love is a Story is similar to the concept of meanings. Love as a story that we consciously or unconsciously form in our brains is something that defines how we deal with relationships and how we interact with our partner. Yet, like meanings these love stories can also be challenged and deconstructed to create new ones. Sternberg adds that the theory presented in his book is “a work in progress rather than a final statement” (Pg. x), since knowing about love and about ourselves is an ongoing process.  His theory helps us think about love in a new light as we learn to analyze and understand ourselves, our beliefs, and our desires in order to understand and perform better in our relationships.




Sternberg, Robert J. Love is a Story. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.



Paul Grobstein's picture

love as a story

So one has to have the same understanding both consciously (the story, in our terms) and unconsciously?  And to be continually adjusting both?  Sounds rich .... and challenging.