Thursday, September 11, 2008

Founding Myths and Modern Romance

Sounds like the title of some Gender Studies academic publication, doesn't it?

Anyway, I have a theory that has been floating around my brain and I figured I'd run it by you all.

Every organization, whether it is a nation-state or a political party or a small business, develops some sort of founding myth. The interesting (sometimes righteous, sometimes funny) set of events that led to its development. Think about it: the movement against taxation without representation that led to armed revolution and the establishment of the USA; the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s as a way for Midwestern politicians to stand against the evils of slavery; Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard and inventing stuff in his garage, etc.

In a way, a romantic relationship, at base, is an organization. A smaller organization, sure, but an institutionalized set of interactions no less.

It is commonplace for new and established couples alike to be asked how they met, and often they have a fun little story, a "meet cute" in the parlance of Hollywood. You don't often hear something simple and pedestrian like, "we met in a bar" or "through" and if you do, then the cute details come along in the context of the meeting. Or the boring details are dispatched with a heavy dose of irony, a decent cloak for the couple's shame that they don't have a more compelling story to share.

Once a couple meets, they quickly find new shared narratives, whether shared strange preferences or experiences or whatever. This becomes the frame through which the couple views itself, and portrays itself to others, both at first and down the road. Over time, the myth may evolve or just disappear (along with the relationship), but sometimes the same myth may persist, hardly changed, for the duration. In such a situation, it is possible that the version of events Grandma and Grandpa tell the assembled kiddies about how they met a half-century ago is the very same version of events they told themselves (or their close friends) when it actually happened in the first place.

How about some examples:

The last girl I went on a date with turned out to be born on the very same day as I. That fact probably got me the date in the first place. It certainly was a neat story to frame the entire situation by.

Or, take the time I met my ex. In reality, we were both at the Beachland to see separate bands, me the opener, she the headliner. I was talking to a guy I barely knew, but since I didn't know anyone else, that was my only option. This tall, basically drunk girl comes up, joins the conversation, clearly knows the guy way better than I do, and they start talking about stuff I don't understand. I excuse myself, get a beer at the bar, and stand there. Some time later, the tall and drunk girl comes and stands by me. I see that she has a pin on her hat that is the old school Cavs logo. This is the day or so after the trade that brought Ben Wallace here, and I ask her what she thought. The conversation lasted through the rest of the show, carried over into emails and phone calls, and didn't end (completely) for six months.

The founding myth of that relationship, though, is sorta the same and sorta different. Her telling went, in abbreviated form, something like this: We met at a show (note: not a bar), he complimented me on my hat, pretended to be interested in the Cavs because I was, I thought he was funny and nice, and sent him an email the next day. Most of the stuff has been excised, and as time went on newer (and often funnier) facts were added. If I were to ask her today to describe how we met, I'm positive the meet-cute scenario would be recited, and not much of reality would remain.

That's not a bad thing. I'm not being critical. I'm just saying, this happens. My parents have their founding myth, so do my grandparents. None of these stories are entire fabrications, but they are narratives that try to make thematic and predictive sense of original events that often weren't all that Hollywood the first time around. They, I guess, are verbal road maps explaining how two people went from point a to point z, with a bit of human interest surrounding the trip.

This morning, as I steel myself to begin moving yet another load of my stuff to Cleveland Heights, I've been doing a reverse history of my relationships, ticking off names and corresponding myths. And, yep, pretty much all of them have one. Some are clearly ridiculous, some are sweet. None of them are entirely factual, although I can't always remember the real facts for several of them.

Some of them I can't actually remember any myth development. Unsurprisingly, those relationships didn't last or become big deals in my memory.

Other ones, though, include the time in the fall of my freshman year in the dorm when my eventual girlfriend and I both went to the same utility closet to borrow a community vacuum cleaner and found only one left. As we were doing the "you go first and bring it to me when you are done" dance, the power went out. By the time it came back on, she and I were sitting on the patio, having the first conversation of many that would occur through the rest of the year. We broke up sometime that spring.

Or the time, my junior year, when I was working at this cavernous warehouse of a campus bookstore, the kind where students would bring in their schedules, hand them to employees, employees would venture into the storage are, and come out with the books they wanted. I sold my books to many people, including this beautiful sophomore. She was really cute in a unique way, and I would recognize her every time we passed on the quad or in dining places or wherever. One day, I can't study at home because my roommate is watching WWF and talking to the television, as he was wont to do. I had a quiz (for my Latin class, I think) to study for, so I hiked over to the student union. As I did so, I pass this same girl on the path. We are both looking quizzically at one another, like "Where do I know this person from." We stop, chat, chat, chat, chat, have lunch, do laundry, and hang out for another several months.

Or the time when I was down at a recruitment weekend for the place I eventually got my ph.d. from and, when this girl says she wished we had had a better chance to chat and that she hoped she'd see me in the fall, I (stupidly and embarrassingly) said I'd be in room 401 at the La Quinta in about an hour if she wanted to come by. Two years later we finally split up.

There are a bunch more, but at this point I've tested your patience enough. And I have closets to pack and move.

Anyway, what do you guys think? Is my theory off the mark? Have any founding myths of your own to share?


Mel said...

My ex and I met at a bar -- Shooters (save me from embarrassment, please).

Our "meet cute" morphed from the "time we met at Shooters when I was with with my Dad" into the night of our "first date" when he thought I didn't like the steak he made or it was undercooked or something (which I like anyway, but whatever). He just didn't realize that I eat REALLY, REALLY slow. Which, of course, perpetuated the hokey narrative as we went along for another four years.

Truly interesting though, is once you're engaged, nobody cares so much for the "how we met" story; it turns to the "how did he propose?" and your initial meeting really loses its grand purpose.

Anyways, my grandparents have been together for over 60 years. I still love the story of how they first met. I think, mainly because my Nana tells it still with stars in her eyes.

CB said...

That's perfect!

Also, I didn't think about it before, but you are totally right about the engaged part. I've, ahem, never been engaged (much to the chagrin of my parents, who think I'm gay since I went to graduate school and don't have kids yet), but I know that I am guilty of asking the "how did he propose" question. I do think, though, that one the engagement/newlywed status wears off, the question reverts to "how did you meet?".

After my post, I thought a little more about it and decided that there are probably a limited number of categories for the relationship founding myth:

1) serendipity (i.e., if things hadn't worked out just perfectly, we never would have met)
2) implausibility (i.e., the confluence of events that led two otherwise totally different people to be together)
3) inevitability (i.e., we were in the same social/professional/religious/etc circles and had such shared interests, it was only a matter of time...)
4) Humility (i.e., we were going to have a one-night stand and I got so drunk and he held my hair while I puked and made me scrambled eggs and, well, here we are today...)

Any others?

Mel said...

I hate to say it, but desperation? Or does that fit into your humility category? LOL

CB said...

Oh, I'm sure desperation occurs in all of these myth typologies, but how many people actually admit that - to others, if not themselves - that desperation played a key role in landing (or being landed by) their current partner.

Now, down the road, yes, it is much easier to plead desperation.

Kelly and José said...

The way Jose and I met was slightly serendipitous -- kind of like the domino effect, where the peices were in the right place to continue to fall in place. . .

And, for whatever reason people seem to ask us how we met each other much more than how Jose proposed to me -- our engagement story being the more interesting of the two*


Matt said...


For me in my last relationship, people always asked for the story, but also wanted to know "when are you guys getting married."

And then after we were engaged, you'd think the pressure would be off, but then we hadn't set a date, so they start nagging you to find out "what date."

And then we broke up...ha - there went that happy ending...of course, now that I think about it, perhaps it really was a happy ending...I'm happy, happy is good!

On a related note, it always amazes me how many questions people will ask a couple that are really none of their business. Questions that might seem innocent to them, but to me, are rude and intrusive.

Matt/Addicted to Vinyl

CB said...


That's a good point. I think people feel more comfortable asking probing questions about couples (as opposed to the private life of an individual) because there is such a rich and nearly universally shared history of this mythology I've been talking about. Every couple has a story and, more importantly, by telling that story a couple's relationship becomes more real. Sort of like the tree falling in the woods, is a relationship a relationship if only the two people in it know about it? Anyway, I've never found those types of probing couple-oriented questions too discomforting (nor have I been averse to asking them), but I do sometimes get irritated when people get up in my business about stuff that is related to just me. Weird.

Anyway, good points.