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Birds & Bees

Sure, True Love Sounds Ideal, but What Does It Actually Mean?

May 15, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The notion of a true, ideal love waiting to be found somewhere dates to Plato. But popular culture is in love with true love more than ever. Witness the steady stream of romance novels and Hollywood flicks ("Return to Me," "Titanic," "Sleepless in Seattle") featuring variations on loves that were meant to be.

And even though most of us believe in the concept, there is no consensus on what, exactly, true love is. Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale University and author of "Love Is a Story" (Oxford University, 1998), theorizes that every person constructs a mental story about love and that true love is an ideal match to whatever that story happens to be.

"We love only through our own stories, so what is true for us probably won't be for someone else," Sternberg said. "If you have a 'mystery' story, it is a person who is consummately mysterious. If you have a 'fantasy' story, it is the ideal prince or princess."

The challenge is making true love endure.

"It lasts if people constantly develop their story and do not let their relationship stagnate," he said. "For me, the main thing is to keep traveling down the road together, seeking new adventures in and with each other. But then, I have a 'travel' story, so I am commenting on my own story."

True love is not infatuation, which generally lasts two years, according to Cindy Hazan, professor of human development at Cornell University.

" 'True love' is the post-infatuation stage, which not every couple reaches," said Hazan, who added that her research shows that it takes 18 to 30 months for a "true love" bond to form. "It's characterized by calm contentment rather than wild excitement and by more realistic than idealized views of each other."

Historically, Americans have tended to search for the Holy Grail of love, for that someone perfectly suited to us, said Paul Abramson, a UCLA professor of psychology and author of numerous books on love and sex. But true love, as Abramson sees it, is an unrealistic, romantic illusion. (And in a recent New York Times poll on intimacy, 61% of respondents agreed that "it has become more difficult to find true love in society.")

"The disillusionment people have about finding true love today has to do with the way we have perceived love," he said. "That it is this euphoria and that it unfolds naturally--with that one person they are destined to fall in love with. It is almost like you are looking for that perfect puzzle piece. It is a mystical kind of love."

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A more pragmatic approach, Abramson said, is one in which two people who are compatible come together and manufacture love.

"I believe that we are capable of creating love with someone who has comparable characteristics."

If true love is within grasp, three fundamental stumbling blocks can turn true love into untrue love.

"The most common problem has to do with the ability to be close," said Elaine Aron, a San Francisco clinical psychologist and author of "The Highly Sensitive Person in Love" (Broadway Books, 2000). "This is something we learn in childhood [through the strength of child-parent bonds]. We know from research that about 50% of people have an insecure-attachment style. These people either push people away because they are afraid even though they want to be close, or they cling and worry about being betrayed or abandoned. That can drive a partner crazy."

Other barriers are that old relationship bugaboo: communication breakdown and cases of mismatched temperaments.

"It is not that there is any one temperament that is wrong: It is that people often expect their partner to change temperament," Aron said, ". . . which is like expecting a left-handed person to become right-handed."

In short, true love is work, not magic. But hanging in there is well worth it.

"There is a limit to infatuation," Hazan said. "True love can last forever."

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Kathleen Kelleher is at kellehr@gte.net.

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