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Pop Culture Corner: Love Stories That Work

Taylor Swift holding up a sign that reads “I Love You” in her music video You Belong With Me

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they say. As a common saying, over-analysis of it is useless. But it’s a saying because it contains an important kernel of truth: changing after doing something one way for a long time is hard. We all get into routines, and breaking out of those routines is just hard, even if the routine itself takes effort. Humans are creatures of habit, and it’s why your college professor could confidently place your graded essay on your desk even though the class technically had open seating.

Changing is even more difficult when you truly start to think through the complex soup of who we are and why we are that way. The nurture vs. nature debate is a fascinating one, but it highlights just how many factors go into how we are as people. Our environment shapes us. Our experiences shape us. Our relationship with other humans help shape us.

But change doesn’t happen all at once. Relationships don’t happen all at once. Deep relationships take time, and changes of character take time. To be sure, one can have a truly magical day, a magical week, and have that leave a lasting impression on people. But those days are rarely the moment where the boulder is pushed over the proverbial mountain, unless it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back—if you’ll allow the mixed metaphor. People are complicated, and there are a lot of things to have opinions about, a lot of ways to behave, a lot of beliefs to hold.

All this is to say that I really despise awful love stories, which abound.

Alright, maybe despise is strong. To phrase it another way: I am not hooked by a lot of love stories. That’s because there a lot of love stories simply aren’t believable, in that they don’t make me feel anything for the characters.

A good love story invests into each character. People don’t fall in love in a day, fundamentally changing who they are in the process. You can become infatuated with someone instantly. That person can become infatuated with you. But it’s not love until you give it time. You can’t take shortcuts in relationships. They develop based on shared experiences and time spent together. And if you don’t show that, then I simply don’t feel it.

Recently, my wife and I watched the 2009 Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog. It’s a fine film, with some really great musical numbers. But it has a core problem, one it shares with a lot of other fairy tales: it takes place over one night, and lo and behold both lead characters fall in looooooove with each other whilst simultaneously going through major character development. It’s a sweet story and all, but I hardly felt for them.

Ultimately, a love story should be like a math problem: you’ve got to show your work. Space the story over weeks, months, or longer. Establish that the characters already know each other. A relationship is complicated, and that complexity is frankly necessary.

People don’t get married to their Tinder date the very next day for a reason. Why would we expect that to be the case for a love story?