How do we decide we are in love? How can we know if it is the right person? Today’s guest tells us that we are all enacting a “love story.” These are the stories we tell ourselves about how romance and relationships should go. They are largely unconscious, but they form the foundation of all relationships throughout our life. Tune in to figure out how to find your personal love story and how to know if you and your partner have compatible stories.
Dr. Karin Sternberg is an entrepreneur and research psychologist based in Ithaca, New York. She has a PhD in psychology from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, as well as an MBA with a specialization in banking from the University of Cooperative Education in Karlsruhe, Germany. She completed some of her doctoral research at Yale University and her postdoctoral work at the University of Connecticut. Afterward, she worked as a research associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and School of Public Health. She has held a grant from the National Institutes of Health for the development of a cognitive training program for seniors. Karin teaches at Cornell (most recently, child development), and is writing a child development textbook that will be published by Oxford University Press in fall 2022.
Karin’s interest focuses on the application of psychological/behavioral research with the purpose of improving people’s relationships and lives (https://lovemultiverse.com).
Karin is the author of a textbook on the psychology of love, “Love 101,” and coauthor of “The Psychologist’s Companion,” “Cognitive Psychology,” “The Nature of Hate,” and “The New Psychology of Love,” amongst other books.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Greetings, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Dr. Dr. Karin Sternberg. Dr. Sternberg has a PhD in psychology from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and completed some of her doctoral research at Yale University. She is the author of a textbook on the Psychology of Love, “Love 101” and coauthor of “The Nature of Hate and the New Psychology of Love,” among other books. Dr. Sternberg, welcome to the show.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here with you.
Gabe Howard: In your official bio, the one that we print on the episode page, I noticed this sentence. Quote, Karen’s interest focuses on the application of psychological behavioral research with the purpose of improving people’s relationships and lives.” Now, we’re a research driven podcast. We love research. We fact-check everything. But this is love that we’re talking about and it struck me that love, romance and relationships, just, they shouldn’t be researched. They should, they should just happen. They’re magical. It just sounds incredibly science fiction-y. And love is supposed to be easy, right?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Yes. You know, it should really be easy, shouldn’t it? And mythical, just like a fairy tale. But now think about it. In the United States, we have a divorce rate that’s almost 50% of first marriages, and the divorce rate is higher for second and third marriages. So I don’t think it’s really so easy for people. And what we’re always trying to do with research is we’re trying to make people’s lives better. And how do you do that? Not by giving them well-meant opinions, but rather by trying to figure out how things really work and give them advice that works where you can say, yes, you know, this is how it works, and I can even tell you why.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Sternberg, when you say research, it conjures up this idea in my mind of, like romantic couples living in cages, like in a zoo with a bunch of doctors and lab coats, observing them and taking notes in their day to day. But what’s like an overview of how you research love and relationships?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Well, there’s a lot of different things that you can do to research relationships. One thing, for example, that you can do is ask people about their relationship. Ask them to rate their feelings for each other and say, you know, like on a scale from 1 to 10, how happy are you with your partner? How happy do you think your partner’s with you? And then you ask them about different aspects of their relationships, How are things going? You can follow them into the future and see, well, you know, the couples who said they’re talking a lot with each other, they’re sharing all their intimate feelings, how do they fare as opposed to other people who don’t really speak a lot with each other or who argue a lot? And figure out where are there commonalities? What you have couples in common that have very happy and long lasting relationships and what’s going on in couples that do not have those happy relationships?
Gabe Howard: And the whole goal of this research is to figure out sort of what mistakes maybe many couples are making so that we can get ahead of that. I think about when I first got married, I went to premarital counseling. I believe that’s what it was called, and they were just like, Hey, here are five things that every newly married couple fight about and we want you to avoid those pitfalls. And they were like, have you talked about how you’re going to handle money? Have you talked about your living situation? Have you talked about children? Have you talked about how you’re going to handle the new extended family, your in-laws? And I was taken aback because my soon to be wife and I had discussed like none of those. We had discussed the money one,
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Yes.
Gabe Howard: And that was about it. And we sort of touched on the children one. But the whole idea of like, Oh, hey, how we how are we going to deal with Christmas now that we have two families never even occurred to us.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Also it’s really important about our research is that we found the variables that people look at, the factors when they think about compatibility. It’s not really what matters that much. So when you think about what is important, when you’re looking for a partner, you might think about age, culture, hobbies, religion, education, these things that are obvious. You don’t even really have to think about them. But what’s really very important is the unconscious things that people are not aware of. So, for example, we have found that everybody has a set of love stories, and when we talk about love stories, we talk about a set of ideas, beliefs and preconceptions about what a relationship should be like. The problem is you’re not consciously aware of your love stories, but they influence everything that you do and feel. Your love stories influence what kind of a partner you’re looking for, your behavior, your expectations, how you interpret your partner’s behavior. But people aren’t aware of them. And so just being aware of those love stories is very important because you can only have a happy relationship when your love story matches the love story or one of the love stories of your partner.
Gabe Howard: So let’s talk about these love stories, because I believe that everybody has a love story before they have a romantic partner. We start thinking about these at a very, very young age. And it’s sort of reached a tipping point. Right. But by the time an actual, you know, romantic love interest enters the room, we’re already positive we know how it’s supposed to go.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Yes. So your love stories essentially represent your experiences over a lifetime, because, as you said, you grow up, you observe the relationships of your parents or friends and neighbors. You create your own relationship and you see relationships and you learn about them in books, on TV and in the movies. And so in time, you create your very personal idea of what love should look like. Your very own love stories. And then you set out to make them come true. And everybody has not only one love story, but several. And they’re arranged in a hierarchy and different partners may make different stories come out. So you might have I don’t know if you’ve experienced it yourself or you’ve seen it in other people. There is a couple who’s happy and then one of the partners meet someone else and they fall in love and suddenly that first relationship that was happy starts to fall apart. And that is because that person met someone with whom they could live out a love story that’s higher on their hierarchy than the love story that they lived out with their previous partner. So suddenly what they had and what made them happy isn’t enough anymore because now they have something that looks even better.
Gabe Howard: I imagine it’s probably very difficult to keep track of these love stories. Are they in categories? Is there only one? Can you give us some examples?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: In principle, there’s like an infinite number of love stories because everybody is different and is unique. But in our research we have identified the 26 most common love stories and we have grouped them in five different groups. So one group of love stories has a theme of working together or working on the relationship. So, for example, people may have a business story where they see the relationship as a business. That kind of relationship tends to be not very passionate, but people try the partners try to work together. You know, one person may be responsible for bringing in the money. The other one is organizing everything at home and with the children. And sometimes other stories can also turn into a business story when everyday life sets in. And then we’ve got stories that center around power plays where there’s a power differential between the partners. So, for example, we have a war story where people say, you know, for us, love is a series of battles. You might know some of those people who always fight and you think like, how long can they possibly stay together? But overall, they seem happy. They’re always staying together.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: That’s because they’ve got a war story and they feel like it’s important to fight for the right thing and there’s some satisfaction for them in their fight. And then another kind of story. That we found has a theme of saving the other or being dependent on the other. For example, an addiction story where somebody is very anxiously attached to their partner and they feel very dependent on the partner and they’re very scared to lose that partner. They don’t want them to travel for business. They don’t want them ever to get out of sight. A fourth category of stories is object stories and a person with an object story. They look at their partner with some detachment and they value them for a certain characteristic, for example, for their beauty. And one of the stories that goes into this group is the collection story where someone really values people for that certain characteristic. And for example, once one partner because, you know, like, oh, they’re very attracted to them for their beauty and they have blond hair or whatever, and then they want some other partner because they can live out some of their hobbies with them. For example, this is someone with whom they can play tennis if they’re like really playing tennis or there’s someone else in their life who.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Has a lot of money, so people with a collection story tend to have more than one partner at the same time. Although those other partners may not know that because every partner tends to impersonate one thing that’s important to that person who has that collector story. And then we’ve got narrative stories where people are trying to live out some kind of a story. And you said that, you know, isn’t love supposed to be very romantic? Yes. And some people have a fairy tale story. So they look for their prince or their princess and they try to live out that story. And depending on what kind of story you have, your relationship is more or less likely to be successful or not. So, for example, if you’re willing to work together and to adjust course when things don’t work out, you have a higher likelihood. For your relationship to work out. Then when you have, say, a police story where one of the partners is a policeman and constantly is suspicious and tries to spy after the partner, especially if the partner doesn’t like that. But what is really important is that the stories are somewhat compatible so that your story fits the story of your partner.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing love stories we tell ourselves with Dr. Karin Sternberg. How can you find out what your love stories are?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Yes. So how do you even figure out what your story is? Because the stories are unconscious and that is something that is somewhat tricky to do. There are several things that you can ask yourself to figure out what is your story? So, for example, ask yourself, what are the relationships that you admire or try to live up to and what characterizes those relationships? Ask yourself, what was the relationship of your parents like? What are you trying now to avoid or to reproduce in your own life, in your own relationships? And think about your own current or past relationships and which events stand out. They can be positive or negative. And as you think about that, don’t get stuck on the events themselves, but try to identify the deeper meaning of these events. When that happened, did you want to be taken care of? Did you want to provide for someone or did you want to sacrifice yourself? Were you afraid to be left alone yet again? So ask these questions to figure out what it is that you really want. How do you want to interact with your relationship? Where do you want your relationship to go in the long term? Do you have any recurrent thoughts or behaviors that determine your relationship and how you behave in your relationship? Ask these things. And then once you know more about yourself, I think it’s really also important to talk with your partner about these things. I mean, it’s always best to be open and you do have to ask questions to find out more about people’s dreams and hopes, what they expect of their relationship, how they expect to resolve conflict, All these things where your love stories really play an important part in what you expect and what you want.
Gabe Howard: Up until now, I’ve been asking these questions from the vantage point of looking to get into a relationship or maybe in a new relationship. But what about for the folks that have been married five, ten, 15, 20 years and they’re listening to this and they’re thinking, huh, do my partner and I have the same love story? How can they go about navigating this and using your research to determine the health and status of their current long standing relationships?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: I think the very biggest sign of mismatched stories is miscommunication. For example, do you feel like you’re talking with each other but you’re not connecting? Or do you say one thing and your partner hears another? So if that’s happening to you a lot, then your stories may be a mismatch. And that is not a sign for despair, but it’s rather, you know, because people live and they develop throughout their lifetime. So it’s possible that you kind of start, you know, developing a little bit away from each other, but ask those questions and see if you can’t find a way back to each other just by asking, you know, where do we want to go? How is it we want to spend our time? What is important to us in our relationship? And that’s why I also said I think this compatibility issue is really important to everybody at every life stage, because, yes, it’s important when you date, but even as you enter marriage, you’re facing often decades together and a lot of things happen. You may have kids and raise them. You may change jobs, you may face, you know, disasters of one kind or another. Relatives or a partner may get sick. So there’s a lot of dynamic components that influence the relationship. And so it’s very important to actually be aware of where you are and where you want to go as a couple.
Gabe Howard: In any of your research, have you uncovered what is the most important to long-term happiness in a relationship? What thing do you need?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: So what you really need to understand is that love is dynamic and you enter in a relationship. Things are not going to stay as they are because you age. You will become, at least to some extent, a different person because you keep having different experiences in your life changes. It’s very important to understand that and something that I haven’t mentioned so far. So your love stories also give rise to a set of feelings, intimacy, passion and commitment. So intimacy is when you share your thoughts and feelings with your partner. Passion isn’t only sexual, but also when you can’t stop thinking about your partner. And commitment is a decision that you want to or not want to stay together. Your love stories also give rise to these feelings. And those are dynamic as well. It’s not only your love stories that may change through your life situation and your development but also those feelings. Understand that it’s okay that you may have more or less intimacy at certain stages in your life. Same with passion or even with commitment.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: It’s important to be flexible. You need to adjust to the situation, to obstacles and to the times. For example, we have a travel story where people see themselves as traveling together and they as a couple set a goal so they know where they’re going together. But part of the traveling is really the journey and it’s not always clear how to get to your goal. So you might have to navigate all these things. T he travel story is actually one of the stories that we have identified as a very common story. But then we’ve also got the art story where you value someone, for example, for their beauty, and that is a story that is not very flexible because when you get married to someone for their beauty in 20 years, they’re not going to look the same and there’s not so much they can do about that. So that is a story that is likely not as successful as other stories. But really the key is to understand that life is dynamic and changes, and so you have to be flexible to navigate these changes.
Gabe Howard: The same question, but on the opposite end. Has your research uncovered any surefire way to be unhappy in a relationship?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: Yes, I think one of the best ways to make yourself unhappy, especially in these times where we all live digital lives, is social comparison. You go online, you look at Facebook and you see like all those happy couples, they may not even post much, butw what you see is the great vacations. Oh, and, you know, it’s like they’re so happy at dinner and whatever. They post all those positive things. Or when you see a couple even outside taking a walk on the street or whatever, you’re not seeing the whole picture. What people are presenting to the outside world is not what is really going on. So if you make yourself too dependent on what you perceive others to be, you’re going to be very unhappy because they’re doing their best to project to the outside world how happy they are and what a great life they have, because nobody is going to post about their arguments in their conflict in anything unhappy that’s going on in their lives on Facebook. They’re probably not bringing this out to a dinner date with some friends.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: So when you just look at what you see superficially on the outside, you’re going to be very unhappy because you have a very different view of the details of your own relationship. So instead, focus on what you have and what you can do for your own relationship. When was the last time that you’ve really thought about what you have and what you can be grateful for in your relationship? Do you maybe have a very caring partner? Do you have one who really tries to make you happy or to help you? Do you have a partner with whom you can go sailing, which you really love? Are you a good team raising your children? All these different things. What is it that you can be grateful for and what can you do to make your relationships even better? Maybe there’s something that you haven’t done recently because you were all stressed or someone was sick. So think about these things. Concentrate on your own relationship and not on the images that you see of other people’s relationships, which do not reflect the real thing.
Gabe Howard: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to research this topic. I imagine that that love, romance, being in relationships is important to everybody who is alive. Even if you don’t want to be in a relationship, there’s there’s zero chance that you’re not surrounded by colleagues, friends, family members who are in relationships. So they’re going to eventually seek out advice from you no matter how hard you try to avoid it. So thank you for making this your life’s work and thank you for sharing hints and tips with us. It’s been it’s been wonderful. Where can folks find more about you online?
Dr. Karin Sternberg: You can find me at www.lovemultiverse.com that’s multiverse like universe. It’s www.lovemultiverse.com. And if any of you listeners have any questions, please feel free to reach out. It’s really it’s my passion to help people become happier and create happier relationships. So I’d be very glad to get questions and help you out.
Gabe Howard: Wonderful. Thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Karin Sternberg: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, because everything is, or you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just be heading over to my website at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and do me a favor. Recommend the show to a friend, family member or a colleague. Recommending the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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