Across a crowded room
Does the way we meet determine how successful our relationships will be? Elizabeth Heathcote reports
Sunday 10 January 1999
It's hard to get much more romantic than that. You can imagine them in 50 years time, re-telling the saga to their grandchildren, the way that the craggy old couples did in When Harry Met Sally. What's harder to imagine is them splitting up. How could they, after a beginning like that?
We all love a romantic how-we-met story. We love it because it taps deep into our psyche, the part of us that longs for Something Bigger to take control of our lives rather than us having to do it for ourselves; the part that believes in fate and the match made in heaven. Divorce statistics, sadly, prove this to be a flawed hope. What, after all, has the way you meet got to do with the day-to-day mundanity of a relationship? Why on earth should it matter how you found each other - you're either right for each other or you're not, you can either make it work or you can't. And yet the resonance of a romantic beginning can be enormous.
James Michael, who is 41, knows all about this. Four years out of a marriage, he decided last year that he was again ready for a relationship. With his social life curbed by childcare responsibilities, he decided to try to meet a partner through personal ads. He saw one woman for several months but ultimately he ended it. In retrospect, he feels the contrived way in which they met affected the way he viewed the relationship. "If she'd been the love of my life, then of course we'd have stayed together regardless," he says. "But it is true that the beginning, the fact we'd met through small ads, affected my impression of her. If I'd met her in a bar or somewhere, I'd have seen her in a much more romantic light. First impressions are important and the impression I had of her - of all the women I met - was somehow tainted by the fact they had to advertise to meet someone. I know it's unfair - I was doing the same thing after all - but it's true. It just wasn't romantic."
There's some evidence of a scientific basis to the way that James feels. Research for Channel 4's recent The Anatomy of Desire series showed how we are much more likely to feel attraction or fall in love when our emotions are heightened by fear and adrenalin. But it's not just about hearts afluttering as eyes meet across a pond full of crocodiles; romantic love can seriously mess with our objectivity. Those first few moments are crucial in our perception of the other person and it can take years to fully overcome the image you establish of them the first time you meet them, however romanticised it is.
If you meet a woman who is on her own at an art gallery and you find her attractive, the chances are that the impression that she is, for example, independent and cultured is going to be stamped on your brain and pretty hard to shift, even if the truth is that she's wandered in off the street because it's raining and she's on her own because her friend let her down. Similarly if you're rescued from a crocodile pond by a strapping young man you're likely to see him as a selfless hero for a long time to come. As counsellor Mo Shapiro says, "If you meet someone in a very exciting situation, you'll associate excitement with them. The problem is," she adds, "how long can you keep that up?"
And there's the rub. A fantastic meeting can create pressures of its own - namely, living up to it afterwards. Forget Paris, Billy Crystal's romantic comedy, is all about coping with the reality that follows the romantic start - in this case eyes meeting over a coffin at Paris airport followed by a blissful week in one of the most magical cities in the world. It's the classic holiday romance - followed by the classic holiday romance comedown as they try to construct a real life together back in America. Both of them are sad, confused, unsure and both keep harking back to that week in Paris, the best week of their lives, as they talk to their friends. "You've got to forget Paris," their friends tell them. "You've got to forget it."
Forget Paris was a rare case of Hollywood following a story through - more traditionally, the story ends at the beginning. We never wanted to see Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter leave their respective partners and discover they couldn't make it. Classic romance, in books or on film, is all about how a couple gets together and and that's the way we like it - we want sweet how-we-met stories, not how we struggled to stay together and most probably fell apart, and that applies to our own lives as much as to what we see at the pictures.
Joe Berlin met his wife in ludicrously romantic circumstances - on the Trans-Siberian railway in Mongolia. She was leaving China for the first time in her life to come to the West; he was travelling. They fell in love in the buffet car. "It felt like destiny that we should marry and live happily ever after," he says.
In fact they didn't - they divorced but, not for another 10 years. For that time, says Joe, "the story of our meeting was so romantic that it was built into a self-fulfilling myth by everyone we knew. When you are part of a long-term couple, especially when you're still in your twenties and lots of your friends are single, you become this constant in their lives. Your relationship itself is mythologised and the myth of our meeting was part of that."
But fantasy is an inevitable part of all of our relationships with romantic love and although that can be destructive - when unreal expectations turn the reality into a brutal disappointment - fantasy can also be positive. The memory of a romantic beginning can be sustaining in the chillier years ahead.
Janie, a writer, fell in love with her boyfriend, David, without even meeting him. They had a mutual friend who had described David to Janie and Janie liked what she heard, so one day she mentioned him in an article. He saw it and a couple of days later he contacted her by fax. She wrote back and for three weeks their office faxes buzzed as their correspondence crescendoed, until it became almost a full-time job for both of them. During that time, she travelled abroad but that didn't get in the way of their courtship - he faxed her hotel, several times a day. It was a lovely way to begin.
Finally, the couple decided the time had come to meet, but they were both conscious of the dangers. "It had been so romantic, so exciting that, by the time we met, we'd both created the person we wanted to see in our minds," she says. But they adjusted to the reality and two years later, they are still together.
"A special beginning sets the tone for the whole relationship," says Janie. "You try to do it justice and so you make more of an effort, and that's still the case two years in. And when we have a bad week or we fall out, I look back at those faxes and I remember the person I fell in love with."
Sometimes a romantic meeting involves a sacrifice, and that can be sustaining in itself because it raises the stakes of the whole relationship. Helena met her Australian boyfriend, Paul, in Sydney - three days before she was due to fly home.
"I'd been given Paul's address by a mutual friend as a place to stay for a couple of nights. I'd met him once before, very briefly, and I'd thought he was attractive, but he had a girlfriend and I had a boyfriend and I didn't think anything more about it.
"Anyway, I needed a place to stay for the weekend before I flew back to London, and because I'd been given his number through a mutual friend, called to ask if I could stay and he said yes. When he took my suitcase and put it in the spare room I was surprised by the intensity of my feelings - I felt incredibly angry and indignant, as if he should have known to put it in his own bedroom. We spent this amazingly intense day together and the next morning he just looked at me and said 'I'm in love with you' and I said, 'that's OK, I'm in love with you too'."
She returned to England as planned a couple of days later, only to pack her bags and head back over - despite her parents' concerns. But four years later and back in England, the couple are still going strong. "We had so much at stake and I'd invested so much in this relationship that I couldn't go home with my tail between my legs. There was a great pressure to make it work, and it was all or nothing. If we split up then that's it - we're back on other sides of the world, not just down the road from one another."
James Michael wants a story just like that. His ambition for 1999 is to meet someone by chatting them up in the street or at a bar or on a plane; to create a beginning that is dramatic. The truth is, of course, that if he meets the woman of his dreams it won't matter where it happens - he'll mythologise it just the same because that's the point of falling in love: the everyday becomes special. But he wants a kick-start. "Relationships are hard," he says, "and anything you can do to make them magical can only help. A romantic beginning is like a giant step forward - it's like you're starting with a big deposit in the bank."
Additional reporting by Claire Seeber
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