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The Story of Us: How a Couple Tells It Says a Lot

October 30, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The first date was Coney Island," recalled Jim Sweeney. "She was so totally the opposite of any girl I had known. She said what she felt. She was a challenge. She also had the greatest legs in the world. I went home that night, and I was so stoked. I said, 'That is the girl I am going to marry!' "

Though his date, Cecily Traynor, didn't fall in love quite so fast, she remembers all the details of their courtship. "Jim was nice and polite, and he took me to plays and the theater--but I hadn't let him kiss me. Finally, about a month later, we went to his uncle's farm in Woodstock. We took a walk in the woods, and he kissed me. I got all dizzy and excited. I thought, 'This has got to be love.' "

Ten months later, the young couple were married. That was 1957. When the Sweeneys, who live in Culver City, tell the story of how they met and fell in love, they speak almost in one voice. They complete each other's sentences, laugh in agreement, echo observations (Jim: "You were opinionated." Cecily: "Jim loved me because I was opinionated."), and offer affectionate compliments about each another.

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Telling the how-we-met-love story (called a "relational" activity in the lingo of social psychology) is an important bonding ritual for couples, said Robin Gilmour, a visiting professor in the department of communication at UC Santa Barbara. "It reinforces the reality, importance and characteristics of the relationship," said Gilmour, who added that couples' stories almost always follow three romantic templates: Love at first sight; we were friends first, then fell in love; or we met, hated each other, overcame it and fell in love. "The construction of the story is an intimate thing," said Gilmour. "The significant thing is people are talking about the relationship, developing and articulating it."

What lies beneath the narrative of meeting, falling in love and telling why one chose a particular person to marry are crucial clues to the state of the marriage and offer signs of what is to come, according to psychologists. "The degree to which couples offer spontaneous compliments about their spouse predicts whether they are going to stay married," said Sybil Carrere, a research psychologist at the University of Washington. Carrere co-authored a recently published study in which oral histories were taken from 95 married couples over a seven- to nine-year period. Couples were asked to tell the story of how they met, how they knew the other person was "the one" and how they survived marital stresses.

With 87% accuracy, researchers were able to predict which of the couples would divorce. "Sometimes we got things like: 'Well, I can tell you it wasn't his manners that first attracted me,' " explained Carrere. "Some couples are cynical, snide or hard-pressed to tell what attracted them to their partner." People forget the glowing moments, said Carrere, when such moments are no longer symbolic of the marriage.

"A negative mind-set makes it hard to make a switch to thinking about or recalling positive qualities and memories," she said.

Unhappy couples also reported fewer positive interactions with their spouses than did objective observers watching the interaction. "It is really important to always be looking for what makes your partner so special and not stray from that perspective," said Carrere.

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The what-makes-my-spouse-so-special stories and memories come naturally to the Sweeneys, who seem to have hit the marital-bliss jackpot. Jim Sweeney adores his wife, and he still cherishes her ability to say how she feels. As for Cecily Sweeney, being with her husband still stirs up glimmers of the love and excitement she experienced the first time he kissed her. "It is still that way even after all these years," she said. "I just love seeing him and being with him."

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Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at kellehr@gte.net.

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