Ever sink deep into your seat in a darkened movie theater as you realize the love story projected on the big screen is your own? It's not uncommon, according to Marcia Millman, who says many romance movies strike emotional chords in audiences because they reflect plot lines and themes that emerge time and again in our own lives.
"These are kind of universal stories," says Millman, author of the new book "The Seven Stories of Love: And How to Choose Your Own Happy Ending" (William Morrow). "I don't know how deliberately or consciously the studio people are thinking about this, but they are coming up with plots that key into very profound experiences and emotional fantasies."
Hollywood scripts its passion plots for entertainment and box office boffo. Millman sees another value altogether: Many classic romance movies can be instructive, even therapeutic, in helping us understand our romantic attractions and disappointments. Then we can rewrite our romances with happy endings.
Buried in the plot lines of films such as "Casablanca" and "Dirty Dancing" are the answers, she says, to such timeless questions as "Why do I always fall for the wrong guy?" and "Should I risk everything for love?" By recognizing these seven basic love stories that are reenacted over and over in films, fiction and life, Millman says, we can connect with the motives and early experiences that unconsciously drive our choices and behavior in relationships.
* First Love: "Titanic" and "Dirty Dancing." This is a powerful plot line for youth when finding romance has much to do with "breaking away from our parents and finding our own identity," says Millman. Later in life, as in "The Way We Were," some people long for their first love to recapture their youth or when something's missing in their current relationship.
* Pygmalion: "My Fair Lady," "Educating Rita" and "Working Girl." The mentor-and-protege plot revolves around the older partner's need for admiration and control and the younger one's desire to grow. This story line often triggers emotions in women who lost their fathers at an early age.
* Obsessive Love: "Play Misty for Me" and "Fatal Attraction." This often is wrongly characterized as "loving too much," says Millman; instead, it's more about a lover whose fear of abandonment and anger drive him to control his partner.
* The Downstairs Woman and the Upstairs Man: "Pretty Woman" and "You've Got Mail." One of the most popular stories usually involves a bright, ambitious woman from a poor and unconnected background who falls in love with a powerful and wealthy man out of her reach. "Her aim is to win the love of a powerful man to make up for the father who paid no attention to her or rejected her," says Millman.
* Sacrifice: "Casablanca," "The Bridges of Madison County" and "The End of the Affair." This more typically middle-age story is ostensibly about sacrificing once-in-a-lifetime happiness for a higher moral purpose or principle--not hurting someone else, a higher calling. "What these people are often afraid of is passion," says Millman. "So now, in middle age, it may be they are less afraid of it."
* Rescue: "Beauty and the Beast," "Run Lola Run" and "What Dreams May Come." Common for both men and women, it's the tale of falling in love with someone who's been wounded in the past, and unconsciously seeking to rescue oneself by saving the lover.
* Postponement and Avoidance: "An Affair to Remember," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Forever Young." Perhaps the all-time favorite, it's about having the faith that love will survive every obstacle. Such stories are about "someone who has been inhibited or afraid and finally takes a chance on love and it works out well," Millman says. "That really brings tears to people's eyes."
Millman says the seven basic love stories, like myths, reflect existential human problems--all evolving from common childhood experiences that have an impact on our later loves, influencing the kind of mates we choose and how we behave in romantic relationships. While we can never change our primary love stories, we can, however, change their endings.
"We all have one major story we keep coming back to," says Millman.
"Your significant partner is the person you're projecting a lot of the things from your childhood on that you are working through," she explains. "At different points in life, different scenarios become prominent. When we are youngsters, love and obsessive love are more common. Some of the other stories are reflecting psychological experiences that last a lifetime, like rescue, or sacrifice or avoidance."
While some people live out their scenarios with hardly a heartache, others never find happiness.
"There may be an optimal degree in which your partner taps into your scenario just enough that it gives the relationship an extra zing," says Millman. On the other hand, if you find yourself "intensely repeating one story over and over again, and it always ends up badly, that's when you need to understand your scenario and consider other choices."
Millman, a sociology professor, first began using the plots of romance movies to analyze how people love while teaching her course on romantic love at UC Santa Cruz. Academic colleagues sometimes tease her about being "The Love Professor," though her research background includes five books based on real-world narratives, including "The Unkindest Cut: Life in the Backrooms of Medicine" and "Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America."
But is narrowing the possibilities of romantic love to seven basic scenarios, as seen in the movies, pop-culture reductionism?
"Not at all. It is not reductionist to observe patterns in human behavior," says psychologist Judith Sills, author of four books on romance and relationships, including "How to Stop Looking for Someone Perfect and Find Someone to Love" and "A Fine Romance: The Psychology of Courtship from Meeting to Marriage" (both from St. Martin Press).
"If you observe the patterns keenly enough and wisely enough, you leave room for tremendous variation in the details. But there are only so many stories in the naked city, and that's just a fact. Not only can you look for patterns in romantic relationships, but it is very helpful to," Sills says.