The Love Story Deconstructed Anthropologist Chris McCollum asked dozens of married couples how they fell in love. No matter the circumstances, people invoked fate or romantic destiny as the reason. McCollum's conclusion: The cultural norm is to believe love is out of our control.
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The Love Story Deconstructed

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The Love Story Deconstructed

The Love Story Deconstructed

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

In Your Health today, two stories about how our expectation shape what happens to us. Kids who are taught to believe they can do better in school actually do. First, NPR's Allison Aubrey has a love story about couples who believe they were meant for each other.

ALLISON AUBREY: Anthropologist Chris McCollum has always been fascinated in how people tell their stories of falling in love. So curious, in fact, that when he told his friends he wanted to write a doctoral dissertation on the subject…

Professor CHRIS MCCOLLUM (Anthropology, Duke University): It was pretty much, you can get a Ph.D. for doing that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Almost making fun of you?

Prof. MCCOLLUM: Yeah, almost making fun of me.

AUBREY: But the teasing didn't stop him. He pursued the research, interviewing dozens of married couples about how they fell in love. When we caught up with him at a café this week in Philadelphia, he explained to us that what he wanted to know was whether the stories we tell about how we get into a particular career are similar to the stories we tell about finding a mate. He says with careers, we tell ourselves that it's a conscious choice.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: You know, really, this inner drive or these inner characteristics.

AUBREY: Based on what we're good at. But when it comes to finding a mate, it turns out the stories we tell focus on destiny, chance, or even magic. Now that doesn't necessarily mean love at first sight. McCollum asked people about that.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: There was plenty of people who say phooey to that, and sometimes even the people telling a romantic destiny's were able to say, oh well, you know, I never believed it before; go through all this caveats or they would say I know this sounds kind of hokey.

AUBREY: But when they really open up and tell their personal stories it's all about giving into fate or losing control, the kind of romances we grow up hearing about, what love is supposed to be. Take for example, Janey and Richard Duncan, a middle-aged married couple who were out on a Saturday night date.

Mr. RICHARD DUNCAN: How we met? We met at a Super Bowl party. We had never seen each other before in our lives, and I looked in her eyes and I said this is the woman I'm going to marry. And we've been together, this will be our 21st anniversary.

Ms. JANEY DUNCAN: Our 22nd.

Mr. DUNCAN: Twenty second. Oops. Screwed that up, didn't I?

Ms. DUNCAN: We've been together for almost 25 years?

AUBREY: And do you remember that moment?

Ms. DUNCAN: Oh yeah. Yeah, I do.

Mr. DUNCAN: Oh her eyes were…

Ms. DUNCAN: It was just wonderful.

Mr. DUNCAN: Her eyes were unbelievable. I just melted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Their story was not part of McCollum's research project. But in listening to it, he says it exemplifies the pattern he found.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: It's very highly romantic and it's very charged. It has the sense of overwhelming change.

AUBREY: As if their lives were transformed by the moment. McCollum says what he's learned is that people rarely let facts get in the way of a good love story. Take for instance two other couples in McCollum's study who met through classified personal ads. He says when they tell their stories they hardly mention this detail.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: You know, it's really discounting the role that this ad played, although it played a very essential one. Its almost as if in their minds romantic fate, or destiny, or something, was bringing them together, it was just a matter of time. They kind of just helped it along, this force that's already in progress.

AUBREY: Helen Fisher, an anthropologist from Rutgers University who studies love, says it's no surprise that couples tell the stories they do. After all, there is a little magic involved since finding the right person takes more than just your desire to find them.

Professor HELEN FISHER (Anthropology, Rutgers University): When you want to go and buy a chicken for dinner, you go and buy the chicken for dinner. You've got a good deal of control over the outcome of it. But when it comes to romantic love, you don't have a great deal of control over it.

AUBREY: So when it does happen, when people fall in love, they hold on to their romantic stories for very rational reasons. Fisher points to research that shows that when people believe they're with the person they're meant to be with, they also report happier marriages.

Prof. FISHER: So no matter who you marry, if you believe that that is the right person for you and that this is a magical relationship, you will be happier.

AUBREY: As for researcher Chris McCollum, after analyzing his stories of love and publishing his research in a highly regarded anthropology journal, he's still not jaded. And he doesn't pretend to be rational about the love of his life.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: I think I'm with the one. I do, I really do.

AUBREY: Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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