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This Thing Called Love
People know it when they feel it, but can scientists tell us why? Two Yale psychologists are trying.

In the late 1950s, a rock and roll group known as the Monotones wondered “who wrote the book of love?” Philosophers, poets, and couples consumed with passion—as well as those trying to determine why the flames went out—have been asking the same questions for eons. And now, even scientists have entered the fray, wiring the brain with electrodes and watching for telltale signs of electrical ecstasy, as well as searching for the elusive molecules that bind one lover to another.

To be sure, no one has been entirely successful, but Robert Sternberg ’72, Yale’s IBM Professor of Psychology and Education Psychology, has at least come up with an intriguing answer to the Monotones' plaintive query. “Love is a story,” Sternberg says, “a story each of us is constantly writing and rewriting. Love develops, grows, and lasts when a person finds someone else who fits what his or her particular story is all about.”

There are a number of Yale researchers examining various aspects of love’s mysterious tale. For example, Laura King, an assistant professor of English, is studying medieval texts that warned people about the dangers of romantic love and encouraged them to pursue more spiritually oriented liaisons. Sociologist Joshua Gamson is investigating the phenomenon of homosexuality and the social movements that it has spawned. Susan Treggiari, a visiting professor of history, is looking at love and marriage among the ancient Romans.

Surprisingly, given the University’s strength in the neurosciences, there are no Yale physiologists involved in scholarly pursuits of an amorous nature. “Lab rats don’t fall in love” explains Eric J. Nestler, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology. “There’s no appropriate animal model, and it’s difficult enough to look at normal human physiology, let alone at some subjective human emotion.”

As a psychologist, Sternberg works the middle ground between an approach that would reduce amour to a wiring diagram and a collection of chemicals, and one that looks for universal, but fuzzier truths. The psychologist’s research into an area that some feel can’t be—or, at least, ought not to be—examined scientifically, is, in part, an offshoot of his landmark studies of human intelligence, including The Triarchic Mind: A New Theory of Human Intelligence, published in 1988. Those studies led him to argue that traditional iq tests are not accurate predictors of later career success because they do not take into account such intangible assets as creativity and “street smarts.” (He has since developed an alternative test that attempts to do that.) “I’m interested in things that are central to people’s lives,” he says. “Love is certainly the thing we crave the most and have the most trouble getting, and love also involves a kind of intelligence.”

When Sternberg started examining love relationships, in the 1970s, he discovered that ideally each had three major components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Taken together, the three formed the sides of a triangle, which, when love was mature and balanced, would be of the equilateral variety. And as love grew, so would the triangle’s area, with the three equal sides lengthening in equal measure. When a couple is in geometric harmony, the result is what Sternberg calls consummate love.

Of course, such a blissful state is rare. All too often, the sides of the triangle are mismatched, and many times, one of the critical components is missing altogether. There is, for example, infatuation—passion without intimacy or commitment—along with romantic love—intimacy and passion, but no commitment—and fatuous love—commitment and passion with no intimacy. There are other possibilities as well, notes Sternberg, who has explored his triangular theory of love in several books and numerous scientific papers."Having compatible triangles matters,” says Sternberg. “If one person, say, wants intimacy, and the other person is a distancer, that relationship may be intriguing for a while, but then it gets frustrating. Similarly, if one partner feels commitment is important, and the other person is seeing people all over the place, that gets tiresome.”

Another Yale researcher, psychologist Kelly Brownell, has found Sternberg’s triangular theory useful as a framework for examining the shape and building blocks of love. In his popular course on human sexuality and intimate relationships, Brownell teaches amour a la Sternberg. “It’s pretty much the dominant theory,” Brownell explains.

But dominant or not, several years ago, Sternberg realized that it left a key question unanswered. “The triangular theory tells you, almost geometrically, where you are. It doesn’t say how you got there,” he says. “If you really want to understand love, you have to look at how it develops and evolves.”

You have to look at stories.

“The story is who you are,” says Sternberg, adding that such lifetime tales are crafted from a wide variety of disparate elements: family experiences, religion, school, watching television and movies, reading, culture in general, and time in the back seat, to name some of the more obvious inputs. “And it’s never completed,” he says. “Your personal story is very dynamic.”

Although everyone’s personal narrative is as individual as a fingerprint, Sternberg, by analyzing the thousands of detailed questionnaires he’s distributed in the course of nearly 20 years of studying love, has learned that the tales can be grouped into roughly two dozen fundamental categories. Along with the hearts-and-flowers romance, there is what he calls the police story, the mystery, the gardening tale, and the pornographic essay. There are humorous stories, with one partner cast as Johnny Carson and the other playing Ed McMahon, and there are science fiction thrillers in which the plot line calls for a person to team up with someone who seems to be as incomprehensible and strange as an alien from another planet. Some tales are pure Erich Segal; others might have been written by Franz Kafka—or Stephen King.

Only by understanding one’s personal literature, says Sternberg, can a person find a suitable coauthor for an amorous tale. “You have to know your own story,” he says, “and it has to mesh with your partner’s story.”

The psychologist has dubbed one of the fundamental tales “love is an addiction,” and like all of the narratives, there are two roles. “The partner who’s telling this story needs a mate the way an addict might need cigarettes or drugs, and when he or she finds someone, there’s an actual high,” says Sternberg, pointing out that such a tale can easily become a tragedy. “If the partner doesn’t need to feel needed all the time, there’s a risk of suffocation.”

Then there’s the war story. “You see a couple that’s always fighting, and an outsider might wonder, ‘what are they doing together?’ Well, it works because to them, love is war,” says Sternberg, adding that such a match wouldn’t succeed if a “Rambo” attempted a long-term liaison with someone whose story was akin to Romeo and Juliet.

“A story isn’t necessarily good or bad,” says Sternberg. “The important thing in determining the outcome of a relationship is finding someone who fits in as a character in the story you feel comfortable writing.” Even so, some forms of interpersonal literature are more likely to succeed than others. A couple may, for instance, be involved in a “love as a fantasy” story, which has one partner expecting a knight in shining armor and the other looking for a princess to save. There are advantages to this way of seeing a relationship—admiration and respect for each person, and a willingness to walk the extra mile to keep the knight or the princess happy. But coupled with the plus side is a potentially fatal flaw, for reality rarely lives up to anyone’s fantasies for long. Unless the participants in this story can temper their expectations, the likelihood of the union’s lasting is poor, says Sternberg.

On the other hand, those writing narratives that portray love as gardening, sewing and knitting, or travel have an “excellent” chance to succeed. Gardeners, says Sternberg, are forever nurturing their partner and the relationship (the danger here is overwatering). Knitters continually create and recreate the pattern of their love lives (and only run into trouble when they can’t agree on the pattern). Travelers see love as a journey both partners plan and enjoy (a surefire outlook as long as neither has a change in direction).

Sternberg is quick to point out that the story idea is not astrology dressed up in psychological costume. “The acid test is whether or not a theory predicts behavior,” he says. “My astrological sign happens to be Sagittarius, and as near as I can tell, it has no influence on who I am. But stories are of great interest to psychologists because they can predict, explain, and help us understand what people will do and why they do it.”

One might expect to find an almost ideal source of material in that search in Yale’s pool of 5,000 undergraduates. But when it comes to matters of the heart, Sternberg reports, students make disappointing subjects. Most of their stories turn out to be short ones. “It’s a sign of a low commitment to long-term relationships, which is about what you'd expect on a college campus,” he says.

An impromptu survey conducted last fall during Kelly Brownell’s psychology course confirmed Sternberg’s impressions. Brownell posed the following question to the 200 undergraduates attending his lecture: “Is Yale a good place in which to fall in love?” Their answer was a resounding “No!”

Brownell, who in his class routinely brought up personal issues for discussion—and received surprisingly frank answers—used the responses to the love query as a springboard to a freewheeling exploration of topics including fear of feminism, the effects of stress on desire, and performance anxiety. Throughout, he was low-key, nonjudgmental, authoritative, and warmly reassuring. He never blushed (a result, he explained, of his work as a sex therapist).

“There’s no part of a person’s life that’s more important than intimate relationships,” says Brownell, accounting for his course’s popularity (400 people showed up to vie for the 200 seats). “We explore issues that are personally relevant, as well as intellectually interesting.”

As to why the students in the class were living lives more akin to monastic, or, at best, platonic ideals than to those of collegiate hedonism, there were complaints about too much work, too little time, an overabundance of cynicism, too few social skills, and a pervasive perfectionism that precludes the give-and-take that is usually necessary for a relationship to develop and thrive.

All of these may be true, says Hope Royston, an Ezra Stiles sophomore, but she feels the main reason for the oft-noted dearth of romance on campus is a basic fear of rejection. “Love is a personal thing—and a risky one,” she says. “You’re putting yourself on the line, and there’s just not a lot of personal risk-taking here. Failing at love is very different from failing a test.” Accordingly, most students seem to avoid the issue and instead pursue goals that are within an individual’s ability to accomplish: academic and athletic success, or achievements in any number of extracurricular activities.

But instead of interpreting the lack as grounds for despair about the fate of the upcoming generation, Sternberg explains that the avoidance of commitment can be seen as an encouraging sign of intelligence and maturity. “When you’re between 18 and 22, you don’t really know who you’re going to become, and the kind of relationship that might work on a long-term basis is not yet clear,” he says. “You can look at it as being realistic.” His hope is that when they get ready to settle down, the question they ask a potential partner won’t be, “What’s your sign?” but rather, “What’s your story?”  the end


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