Over the last few years, I have discussed several different ways to identify and make decisions about relationship satisfaction and romantic compatibility. Past posts have explored strategies for noticing the differences between traits that spark initial attraction versus those that promote longer-term connections. I have also written about the benefits of self-control and conscientiousness for relationship satisfaction over time. We have even looked at decision-making styles to maximize your chance of picking a satisfying partner, along with the various decisions and trade-offs that people generally make about a mate.
Beyond that, however, romantic compatibility can also be considered from a more symbolic and narrative perspective. Specifically, to help us make sense of the world and our relationships, we often follow stories, scripts, and metaphors. Therefore, by connecting with a partner who believes in a similar relationship and love story, we can increase our chances of compatibility. At least, that is what the research seems to show...
Research on Love as a Story
An empirical evaluation was conducted by Sternberg, Hojjat, and Barnes (2001) to explore the notion that different stories of love may guide our romantic behavior and influence compatibility between mates. In the first of two studies, the team identified 25 different love story themes that people use to guide their relationships. Those themes were further grouped under the following seven categories:
1. Stories where both partners are equal and work cooperatively together.
2. Stories that involve strategy and logical planning around relationships.
3. Stories where there is a focus on the past.
4. Stories with a focus on fantasy and idealizing a partner.
5. Stories where one individual performs for the other in some way.
6. Stories in which one person is clearly subordinated to the other.
7. Stories involving manipulation and inequality.
A second study evaluated the effects of these different stories on partner compatibility and relationship satisfaction. The results indicated that some stories were related to relationship dissatisfaction — particularly those involving subordination or manipulation of a partner. Beyond that, individuals in relationships were found to be more satisfied with partners who believed in the same types of love stories. Overall, an individual's satisfaction in a romantic relationship is influenced by both the type of love story they believe and the degree of agreement on that story with their partner.
What This Means for Your Love Life
The above results suggest that it might help to consider the themes and expectations you hold for love — and to explore those stories with your partner. Testing for compatible stories can even be a part of building overall rapport and connection with your partner. Particularly, it can be used as a topic of conversation to build romance, or even as a discussion of longer-term plans.
In addition to looking for compatibility, you might want to consider how your overall choice in love story impacts your relationship satisfaction. This is particularly true if you repeatedly find yourself in relationships that are manipulative, negative, or unfulfilling. In those cases, you might want to consider choosing a story where relationships are more positive, fair, and equitable. Also, consider stories that foster relationships to better satisfy both your emotional and practical needs.
The stories we tell ourselves about love have an impact on the quality of the actual relationships we create. If you are unsatisfied in love, it may help to consider what story you are following, as well as whether your partner is reading from the same book. From there, you can better choose a story to meet your romantic needs and help ensure your partner is on the same page. With that approach, you are more likely to reach the ending you truly desire.
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© 2017 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Sternberg, R. J. (2001). Empirical tests of aspects of a theory of love as a story. European Journal of Personality, 15, 199-218.