Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sternberg and the Theory of Love as a Story

I've been pondering some of the contrasting opinions about relationships which emerged from a recent debate over at the Smart Bitches.1 Najida wrote that
What concerns me is that the ‘ideal’ world that some women want would have boys for men or at least those with teeny weenies, no chest hair, no muscles and itty itty schlongs that would never mess up or bother a delicate female HooHoo.2 And men who aren’t men, just beaten down creatures allowed to live in the presence of the Princesses.

And sex would be this vapid, super quiet thing with the woman totally in control at all times, because if the man dares get passionate, she’s being victimized.
Later on in the same thread, Miranda posted a link to a webpage about the writings of Andrea Dworkin and the ways in which her work has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. Dworkin commented that
[I]f one's sexual experience has always and without exception been based on dominance--not only overt acts but also metaphysical and ontological assumptions [...] [i]f one has eroticized a differential in power that allows for force as a natural and inevitable part of intercourse [...then, for such a person] Equality in the realm of sex is an antisexual idea if sex requires domination in order to register as sensation.
It seems to me that there are widely varying ideas about what constitutes the ideal relationship, yet perhaps because, as Robert J. Sternberg found when he began to analyse people's ideas about love, each person "believed they were carrying around a set of rock-solid facts about what love is," there can be a comprehension gap between people who have different ideals. What one person considers ideal might seem boringly prosaic and lacking in passion to another, and the fantasies that turn the second person on might seem abhorrent or alien to the first person. In his theory of love as a story Sternberg describes stories as being crucial to shaping people's ideas about love and romantic relationships:
All of us are exposed to many different stories about love. They reach us through our own experience, as well as through literature, the media, and so forth. [...] Under the spell of the stories we absorb, we gradually form our own personal stories about love—models of how love is “supposed” to work. How we develop our own stories and what they turn out to be depends on our personality and our environment, but once we have a story—or, like many of us, a set of stories—we seek to live it out in reality. [...] It seemed reasonable to suppose that people are more likely to succeed in a relationship with a partner whose story closely matches their own. [...] It didn’t take long to discover that certain types of stories tend to dominate Americans’ conceptions of love [...]. There’s love as a cookbook, for example, where lovers build a relationship by following a “recipe,” or love as a fantasy, complete with knight in shining armor, or love as a game or sport—26 stories in all. (Tufts Magazine)
The list of the 26 stories can be found here, along with a short description of each.

When Sternberg says that "once we have a story—or, like many of us, a set of stories—we seek to live it out in reality" he doesn't mean that every individual will truly seek to live out the story in every detail, but rather that the expectations and power dynamics which underlie their love story/stories may inform that person's real-life choices and behaviours.

Different stories have very different power dynamics, for example there are two variations of story 9, "Government. (a) Autocratic. One partner dominates or even controls the other. (b) Democratic. Two partners share power equally."

So could it be that our internalised story/stories about love affect which romances we prefer? Candy says, for example, that
I enjoy the antagonism and sparring between alpha types as much as anybody else. One of my all-time favorites is Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example; Dain and Jessica are both Type A personalities, and it is a true joy to watch them duke it out. The two of them are well-suited to each other; they’re equally strong, and best of all, they’re equally fun to watch.
Is this sort of response more likely to come from someone who finds story 25 a close match: "War. Love is a never-ending series of battles. The partners may both be willing combatants, or one may be unwilling"?

Jane from Dear Author wrote that in romance
Heroines are often portrayed in isolation, no friends, often estranged from family or an orphan, teetering on the brink of financial ruin. They are depicted as sad sack individuals whose sexual identity was created for them out of one miserable experience with a man more interested in the growth of his own toenails than the satisfaction of his partner in bed. The whole driving motivation for the female is to achieve a better sense of completion through the love of a good man.
If Jane's right that this is a common type of heroine, is it because a lot of romances are drawing on the following stories: 1 "Addiction. Partners show clinging behavior and anxiety about losing one another. In some relationships, one partner is a codependent, living off the other’s addiction"; 6 "Fantasy. You expect to be saved by a knight in shining armor or marry a princess and live happily ever after. The knight or prince tends to serve the princess"; 17: "Recovery. After the trauma of the past, you can get through practically anything. One person helps the other recover from a past event"?

Do romances about virgins being taught about their sexuality by older, more experienced men appeal more to people whose internal love story is 26: "Student-teacher. Love is a relationship between experienced and inexperienced parties. One partner teaches the other, although the roles may sometimes reverse"?

Will people with a strong predisposition to story 19 sometimes find love stories without a happy ending even more powerful: "Sacrifice. To love is to sacrifice one’s own interests for those of one’s partner. (Humphrey Bogart toward Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman toward Paul Henreid, in Casablanca.)"?

How many of us, when we read romance novels, have a strong preference for works which match our own personal stories about love? Could it be that some readers strongly reject romances which are based on stories which are very different from their own "story about love"?


1 The discussion began when Candy posted On Alpha Heroes, Sarah followed it up with a post about Alphas in Marriage, and Candy then picked up on some of the issues which had arisen, in a post titled Feminism and Masculinity. The result was a lot of very heated argument. As the issues have been discussed there in considerable detail, I don't want to write about them here.

2 It's interesting that, as with William Sheldon's theory concerning somatotypes, different body types are being correlated with particular personalities. Sheldon's classification system was as follows:
Endomorphic -- tendency to put on fat, soft roundness of body, short tapering limbs, small bones, velvety skin; viscerotonic temperament, relaxed, comfortable person, loves luxury, an extrovert.

Mesomorphic -- predominance of muscles, bone, and motor organs, large trunk, heavy chest, large wrist and hands, lean rectangular outline; somotonic or Dionysian temperament, active, assertive, aggressive, unrestrained.

Ectomorphic -- predominance of skin, lean, fragile, delicate body, small bones, droppy shoulders, small face, sharp nose, fine hair; cerebrotonic temperament, sensitive, distractible, insomnia, skin troubles, allergies. (O'Connor)
However, although "the body composition analysis is still considered a valuable way to look at general body types, [...] the psychological component of the early work is not" (from this website). Discredited or not, the psychological associations of particular body types would still seem to exert considerable force in popular culture. Romance heroes, particularly the alpha romance heroes, are generally mesomorphic. Here's Germaine Greer's description of the type:
The strength of the belief that a man should be stronger and older than his woman can hardly be exaggerated. I cannot claim to be fully emancipated from the dream that some enormous man, say six foot six, heavily shouldered and so forth to match, will crush me to his tweeds, look down into my eyes and leave the taste of heaven or the scorch of his passion on my waiting lips. (180)
  • Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: Paladin, 1971.

The first picture is of a study for Sir Joseph Noel Paton's The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (c. 1849). The study is from Wikimedia Commons. See this page for more details about the quarrel between these two lovers, and to see the final version of the painting.

The second painting is Edmund Blair Leighton's 1882 Abelard and his pupil Heloise, from Wikipedia. More details concerning their relationship can be found here.

11 comments:

  1. Well I wonder then: What is our very first "story" of love? Adam and Eve? Probably not--a wonderful story no doubt, but where is the "love" there? So--can someone tell us what the first love story is?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think it would be impossible to say for certain which was the very earliest love story, since one would have to try to work out which story had existed longest in oral form before being written down, and there are so many such stories, from so many different cultures. For example there's Rama and Sita, Cupid and Psyche, BrĂ¼nnhilde and Siegfried, Isis and Osiris.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I can see something of the erotic in most of the 26 stories, whether or not I would want a relationship based on them. For example, along the lines of "26. Student-teacher", I find your blog name sexy. There's an intimacy to teaching and learning in any context, and I agree that's part of the reason for all the virginal heroines.

    I'd have to think about whether I have favorite "stories". I often like reading about relationships with multiple stories, or a shift in the direction of the story. Although Aristotle was talking about tragedy, his ideas of "recognition" and "reversal" (as necessary to a "complex" plot) describe some of my favorite narratives. In a romance, a relationship that evolves as characters come to new understandings often interests me more than a relationship with a fixed dynamic or "story".

    I think it's possible for (initially?) perfectly matched stories to be dull reading. In terms of reading a bedroom scene, I said on Dear Author lately, "in one of the Crusie novels, the sex started out imperfect–that’s a much more vulnerable state for both characters than presto!perfecto!"

    Imperfect sex isn't necessarily the same as mismatched stories or first-time sex, but there's learning to be done in either case. Whatever the initial story in play, showing a change in how the pair relate in the bedroom (e.g. the role reversal) can be a concrete way to show the pair realigning their stories through their power balance, trust, or knowledge of each other.

    Discredited or not, the psychological associations of particular body types would still seem to exert considerable force in popular culture. Romance heroes, particularly the alpha romance heroes, are generally mesomorphic.

    In the elephant section of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, she says females strongly prefer older males. (Dr T isn't a book that applies directly to humans, but it provokes some interesting reflections.) For elephants, there's a considerable size difference between younger and older males, and young males can be unpredictable and violent.

    I sometimes see "wild kingdom" or "survival" arguments for why large human men should be preferable, but I doubt that a "story" based on such an emblematic approach is easy to fulfill in real life. If I want a specific story, e.g. "6. Fantasy", and I only look for it among large men... that sounds a friend's experience with online dating. The system was so picky about creating perfect matches based on appearance and self-described "story" that she felt she never met people who might be "close enough" that she'd be willing to compromise her criteria, or who were different enough from her to be interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I can see something of the erotic in most of the 26 stories, whether or not I would want a relationship based on them. For example, along the lines of "26. Student-teacher", I find your blog name sexy.

    The blog's name was Eric's idea, and I really hadn't thought of it this way. I'm sure you're right about it being sexy, though, because there's a porn site with the same name and, apart from them not having "blogspot" in it, the same url. A while ago, when we weren't as high in the Google rankings as we are now, someone looking for this blog said he'd ended up there by mistake.

    I think I must have rather limited tastes, because there are relatively few of those 26 stories which I find sexy or erotic. Most of them seem a mixture of scary/incomprehensible or boring. And I can definitely see how my own thinking about relationships affects my choice of reading material. That's not necessarily a good thing, particularly as I'm trying to study the genre relatively objectively, so I try to be aware of my own personal biases and not let them cloud my assessment of the literary merit of romances that don't work for me on an emotional level.

    I have the impression that quite a lot of romance readers have favourite storylines because otherwise there wouldn't have been any call for AAR's Special Title Listings, of addiction romances, arranged marriages, best enemies, friendships, guardian-ward romances, held captive etc. Those categories would probably fit quite neatly into Sternberg's list of 26 stories. [There are also other AAR listings which are made according to other criteria, e.g. the size of the heroine, and those don't have much to do with Sternberg's classification.]

    ReplyDelete
  5. there are relatively few of those 26 stories which I find sexy or erotic.

    I wouldn't necessarily find all the 26 stories erotic myself, but I can see why some of them might be to some people, or some particular aspect of them might be erotic to me.

    However, apparently I have more teacher/student kink than you, because I'm amazed you never thought of this site's name as being sexy! (Mind you, I don't mean any kind of schoolgirl eros; more about the intellectual/trusting side of teaching/learning, which forces people to communicate honestly.)

    otherwise there wouldn't have been any call for AAR's Special Title Listings

    I hadn't seen that page, but I'm not surprised. On the Diana Palmer Fan Board, there's a section on "Step-sibling or adopted sibling books". That's pretty specific. And actually I can see the draw--instant intimacy and a mildly transgressive relationship within very safe boundaries.

    ReplyDelete
  6. the intellectual/trusting side of teaching/learning, which forces people to communicate honestly

    I'd never thought of teaching/learning this way either. I mean yes, one tends to assume that teachers are being honest in what they're communicating in terms of the curriculum and aren't subverting young minds by teaching them that 2+2=5, but I'd never gone beyond that to thinking about more intimate, emotional honesty on a personal level. Well, not emotional honesty which goes much beyond a very broad indication of where the teacher's personal biases might affect the teaching, e.g. a lecturer might reveal what her/his political leanings were, so that students could be aware of that and take that into account when drawing their own conclusions about the subject under discussion.

    In general I'd be wary of a teacher who was so charismatic or so forthcoming with personal information that the students were more emotionally involved with him/her than passionate about the subject matter he/she was teaching.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'd never gone beyond that to thinking about more intimate, emotional honesty on a personal level.

    I think we're talking at cross-purposes. I'm not talking about personal relationships or information, or even opinions outside of what's meant to be taught. I'm thinking of the kind of strictly non-squicky teaching/learning that can be had in a good mentoring/advising relationship. There's a large space between teaching simple facts like 2+2, and developing a cult of personality. I think when the teaching hits a more theoretical level, there's potential to get to know each other on a much deeper level. Again, NOT personally, but intellectually. To me, understanding how someone thinks is intimate.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think we're talking at cross-purposes.

    I thought we might be, but when someone says "teacher" I think of primary/secondary school teachers and possibly university lecturers, not a closer mentor/supervisor sort of relationship.

    I'm thinking of the kind of strictly non-squicky teaching/learning that can be had in a good mentoring/advising relationship

    I've had a PhD supervisor, she was a good supervisor, and we knew each other fairly well, but no, what you're describing doesn't resonate with my experience.

    ReplyDelete
  9. In that case, I can understand your reaction to the student/teacher idea. I certainly wouldn't talk about schoolchildren in the context of adult love "stories". But teaching/learning can happen in such a variety of settings--I assumed Sternberg's "teacher/student" story was about a more general dynamic, not about a really specific or inappropriate kink.

    A few comments back, I agreed with you that the teacher/student "story" could explain some of the virgin-heroine novels. But now I see that you specified "virgins being taught about their sexuality by older, more experienced men". I'd prefer to think it's not entirely an adult/child dynamic in play in virginal-heroine stories (though I'm sure there are some icky exceptions).

    ReplyDelete
  10. I certainly wouldn't talk about schoolchildren in the context of adult love "stories".

    I wasn't talking about children either, because as we're discussing this in the context of adult love stories, in my mind I'd narrowed down the area of discussion to students over the age of consent. In the UK the age of consent is 16 (though of course there are differences around the world), so there are plenty of students above the age of consent at secondary schools, and obviously even more at universities. However, the ethics of student/teacher involvement, even when the student is an adult, are usually on the side of non-involvement. The rules seem to get a bit more fluid if thesis supervisors or tutors are involved (who are usually post-grads or post-docs teaching undergrads). I know of one person who married her supervisor and another who married her tutor.

    I'd always assumed that this sort of relationship formed despite the couple being teacher and student and it had never occurred to me that in some cases it might be precisely that dynamic which forms the basis of the relationship/is a source of eroticism.

    ReplyDelete
  11. in some cases it might be precisely that dynamic which forms the basis of the relationship/is a source of eroticism.

    I think there are a few reasons for it. E.g. teaching in school/university has a structured give and take to it that ideally should facilitate communication.

    However, I wasn't thinking about school/university settings at all when I first read the "Teacher/student" story description.

    I'm sure part of the difficulty in seeing eros in all 26 stories is similar to this one--we have a particular association with each description. E.g. another one with high "yikes" potential is "Addiction. Partners show clinging behavior and anxiety about losing one another. In some relationships, one partner is a codependent, living off the other’s addiction". My first reaction is that it sounds horrible. But I can imagine a couple behaving this way and experiencing it not as anxiety but as being very wrapped up in each other or very attentive.

    ReplyDelete