Why romantic meet-cute tales are invented by online daters
Online dating's reputation is getting better, but couples who found each other on the web are often still uncomfortable sharing "how-we-met" stories.
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I’ll tell your mom we met at the grocery store. I’ll tell your mom we met at Starbucks. I’ll tell your mom we met at church. I’ll tell your mom we met anywhere but the internet.
Many, it seems, are “willing to lie about how we met,” at least according to their online dating profiles. All kinds of beliefs swirl around online dating: it’s not safe, it’s just for vapid hookups, it’s phoney, it’s maybe even the dawn of the dating apocalypse, if you believe Vanity Fair.
Tinder and similar apps have revolutionized romance including the how-we-met story, which is now just a swipe away. Yet the Hollywood meet-cute — a plot device described by film critic Roger Ebert as “when boy meets girl in a cute way” — has enduring power for a variety of reasons deeply ingrained in the human consciousness.
In psychology, the concept of “first encounters of the close kind” was introduced in 1980. This manifests as a shared recollection with which couples seem to have an unspoken agreement of the significance of the moment, and these first encounter memories “anchor a couple’s story and reflect the current and future hopes of a relationship,” according to a 2010 study in the journal Memory.
That survey of 267 adults from age 20-85 found memories that were more vivid, positive and emotionally intense were related to higher marital satisfaction.
No wonder there’s so much pressure to tell a great story.
When Sarah Sullivan, 25, worked at the McMaster University bookstore as an undergrad, an engineering student named Sean Watson kept coming back, first to visit, then to chat, then to finally ask her out.
At least that’s what they tell people. Sullivan and her now-partner of more than three years actually met on OKCupid. They concocted “a ridiculous story” to create something rosier out of what felt utilitarian compared to others.
Sullivan’s mom is an emergency room nurse and her father was an injured patient. He asked her out; eventually she said yes, and they’re still “hopelessly in love” 26 years later. Her brother met his wife at the gym. Friends found love at coffee shops and on airplanes.
“We felt that our story is not remotely romantic,” said Sullivan, who was the first among her friends to experiment with online dating. With online dating, “you’re making an active decision to find someone rather than just hoping it will happen. It was kind of viewed as a little desperate by some people.”
The white lie continued until this story, even though Tinder has “blown up” among her single friends in the past few years.
“The reason I’m changing my tune now is that it’s more common than it used to be,” she says. “I found what I wanted in a person, and I don’t think I would have found that, as quickly, in the old-fashioned way.”
Despite their relationship starting with a lie, Sullivan and Watson dreamed the story up together — something that actually does bode well for longevity.
“Couples doing well will remember their history a lot more fondly and will be more positive about it. They remember negatives about the relationship but they glorify the struggle,” said Lawrence Stoyanowski, a Vancouver-based couples therapist and Master Certified Gottman Trainer at the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Wash.
“How a couple met is less important than whether there was positivity and negativity surrounding how they met.”
American clinical psychologist John Gottman suggested 25 years ago the “story of us” could provide significant clues about the stability of a relationship. Gottman led a series of observational and longitudinal studies of romantic couples starting in the 1970s aimed at finding the patterns of successful relationships. A 1992 study published in the Journal of Family Relationships asked 52 married couples to provide an oral history of their relationship, including how they met, how they courted and their philosophy of marriage, and tracked them down three years later.
Researchers were able to predict marital satisfaction and the likelihood of divorce within three years with 94 per cent accuracy from the oral histories. Not only do “the variables that describe how the couple thinks of their past relationship predict the future of the marriage,” a positive oral history produced less stress and less arousal of the autonomic nervous system, such as heart rate, during a laboratory test.
According to narrative psychology research, there are different layers to self-identity, such as traits, goals and life stories. There has been a surge in research on narrative and the self — the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — though less on narrative and the self in connection with others.
Relationships are embedded in cultural master narratives, well-worn tales such as love at first sight, the hero saving the damsel in distress or the random but charming encounter, says Katherine Panattoni, a PhD candidate in psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark, who wrote her dissertation on how romantic partners vicariously interpret each others’ life stories and how those are affected by cultural master narratives.
“There are master narratives of what relationship stories are supposed to look like. We’ve all seen romantic comedies. There’s supposed to be some meet-cute thing,” Panattoni says. These ideas are ubiquitous, from movies to the “how we met” section of a wedding’s RSVP website.
“If your relationship is not a beautiful romantic comedy (plot), it’s going to take more work to turn it into a coherent story that makes sense to others and has a positive ending.”
Sharing the stories themselves is beneficial because it produces a sense of “we-ness,” which means a strong identification with the relationship. Stories represent the way the jigsaw puzzle of two different lives fit together, Panattoni says.
And, ultimately the “we story” is likely predictive of success if both partners agree.
When Chandra Sullivan (no relation to Sarah), 24, was asked the perennial question, “How did you two meet?” she would just say Tinder. Her boyfriend of a year, Errol Gonzales, would get stiff and uncomfortable.
“At the beginning, he’d shut down and avoid the question,” Chandra says. “He was a little more anxious about talking about it candidly.”
Gonzales, 26, had joined Tinder as a lark, but realized it suited his schedule as a broadcast technician with irregular work hours. He and Chandra met in person at Toronto café Snakes & Lattes and have been dating ever since.
His father still believes the couple met in a bar, but Gonzales has become more comfortable with the true story the more he sees friends and family meet and marry someone they met on Tinder.
“It’s definitely a lot easier talking about it now than it was a year ago,” he says. “I think I was somewhat, a little, embarrassed about how we met.”
For Chandra, a social work student at Ryerson University, the meet-cute is superficial.
“Being concerned about the manner in which you met is superficial compared to the substance of the relationship itself,” she says. “If you’re romantic the rest of the time, it trumps the story. At the end of the day, who cares? As long as it’s a happy relationship.”
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