One contributor to sociopolitical misunderstanding and confusion is the use of terms in particular ways by one side or another – even while talking as if ‘we all know what X means.’ As a way to get underneath some of the warfare dynamics, then, it can be helpful to illuminate some of the basic differences in interpretations – starting with this thing called ATTRACTION.
Last week, I went to dinner with Tracy Hollister and someone she is falling in love with, Lisa. It wasn’t hard to see why Tracy would be drawn to this amazing woman – gentle, kind and well-qualified to be writing a book called “Being Love.”
This is how Tracy described her: “My heart is bursting with gratitude for our deep connection. I feel so safe, cherished and at peace around her. She is beautiful, loving, smart, playful, fun, communicative, and compassionate. I adore her, especially when she is singing!”
Clearly the draw between these two is a whole-person, broad-spectrum attraction – not quite the way we typically ‘do’ attraction in America these days!
One Approach to Attraction. A couple of years ago, I did an interviewing study exploring contrasting narratives of romance in our country – with the ‘dominant story’ of attraction centered on three themes:
Embedded within the American cultural soup, the (primary) attraction many of us end up seeking to confirm an ideal mate is essentially being attracted to someone’s body. Even so, a 2007 American Psychological Association task-force on sexualization reported that “many individuals have become uncomfortable with ‘real bodies.'” People have become so accustomed to high levels of visual novelty and stimulation, other experts note, that they’re often “unable to focus” on real human beings– reflecting “eroding individual appreciation of the unaltered human form” where “suddenly a normal [person’s] body looks abnormal.”
And there you have it! You see, this is not about merely finding a trusted companion or a good match; within this Story of Romance, we’re looking for much, much more. How about, “Super Relationship”?! Historian Simon May describes a turning point centuries ago where human beings began to believe that “a single human being” could be “experienced as embodying the greatest good and be worthy of the sort of love that was formerly reserved for God.”
This Story is seductive enough to most human beings that arguably one commonality in this conversation is simply how this larger Story of Romance tugs at us all.
Living out the Story. So what does this Story mean for real-life couples trying to make a life together?
Like all good stories, this one starts off feeling pretty exciting at first (when the sparks fly). But what happens when (not if) the hyper-sexual arousal between a couple cools down?
That’s the moment at which (according to the Story), it’s time to let the person know, “I’m just not feeling it anymore…sorry!” Johnson writes, “When we fall out of love the world suddenly seems dismal and empty, even though we are still with the same human being who had inspired such rapture before.”
In this moment, he continues, we begin to hear a “whispering that ‘true love’ is somewhere else, that it can’t be found within the ordinariness” of this current relationship. This voice tells us that “life will only have meaning if [we] go after” that romantic intensity again – “Nothing less will do, for [you deserve] passion, and passion is all.” 
Out of this mindset, we naturally begin to wonder if our relationship was right in the first place…noticing new deficiencies confirming ‘I’m not getting the experience I deserve.’ Those who hang on in a relationship can see themselves as martyrs – sacrificing one’s larger happiness and losing one’s chances for true love. After all, at this point, Johnson writes “it is hard for us to imagine that there could be any love, at least any worthwhile love, still alive for a couple outside of the presence of strong romance.” Indeed, it’s exceedingly hard for someone fully committed to the Story not to desperately miss the ecstasy and rush – and to feel as if he or she is getting “cheated” by continuing the relationship – “giving up” on something he/she really wanted – and “something that excited and thrilled” them. In light of these pulls and tensions, Johnson writes “suddenly our human loyalties…are going in different directions ..in a terrible conflict of values.”
And then one day, another person catches our eye…”On that day,” Johnson continues, “two opposing armies in the Western psyche take up their swords and go to war” inside us. On one hand is everything good experienced and felt in the current relationship – including commitments, memories, peace and whatever potential you’ve glimpsed – each of which calls for more hope and patience. On the other hand, a voice continues “insisting fervently that it is a wonderful thing to search” more for something better…”rather than settle for the flesh-and-blood [individual] that real life has put into [our] arms.”
For any of us (of any orientation and any perspective), the possibility of happier possibilities and truer love just out of reach can drive us to grasp after ‘something better,’ while walking away from the person and relationship we’ve already embraced. If we choose to stay with that person, the Story often “booby-traps relationships with an impossible expectation,” resulting in relationships left in “shambles from the crushing burdens…placed on them.”
In summary, then, a second commonality across the LGBT/religious conservative divide is that the Story reviewed above potentially hurts us all – in both subtle and profound ways. And to be very clear, the weight of this Story falls on not just people who are conservative or liberal or religious or secular or gay or straight. It comes down on all of us – especially those seeking a committed love.
This can be a particular burden, however, to those in the middle of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation, who find themselves often trying to navigate message, impulses and ideals that can feel paradoxical.
The Story’s Confounding Influence. One of my close friends experiences same-sex attraction, but wants to be in an opposite-sex relationship (due to his faith – a Story for another day). After an evening date with a new girl friend of his, he started telling me how amazing their conversation was and how much fun they had.
Then his face suddenly clouded over, “but I’m frustrated, because I just wasn’t feeling what I’m supposed to…”
I asked myself, “what just happened?” In slow motion, it’s as if I was witnessing a relationship with some admitted potential (and excitement) suddenly asked to measure up to The Story.
The weight of this contrast shows up in other accounts as well – including these men (who all identify as either gay or same-sex attracted) recounting their past experiences in a Romance-crazy society:
Clearly, there are many other things happening in these accounts beyond the influence of the Story of Romance. As Arthur points out, individual physiological differences clearly play a huge role in co-creating the experience , interacting with surrounding context, inner values, and the Stories themselves. In future weeks, much more will be said about the various Faith Stories at play as well.
Narratives, then, don’t operate in a vacuum – interacting with potentially hundreds of other details. To bound the conversations in some way, I’ve chosen to “chunk” up the various narratives into 30 pieces – starting with this one.
On that note, it’s important to point out that the same Story of Romance can be as much of a confound in committed gay relationships  – as in the accounts I’ve gathered from heterosexual relationships: “Why can’t I feel those feelings for her? She’s perfect in every other way!” (available for download here).
Multiplying the Awkwardness. On a broader level, this Story arguably plays part in some of the awkward cultural pressure faced by those who experience same-sex attraction growing up in America – which can press someone into chronic fake-ness, like one woman who spoke of “made-up crushes, pretending to like some guy’s eyes – just because everyone else did” (FB-ME). One man similarly said:
As you get older and they start asking you about girls and who you think is cute or hot and I just remember having to make up stories about it; having to pretend like I understood what they were saying or I agreed with them. I just kind of went along with it because I knew if I said what I really felt that it would be completely different and completely awkward. So you put on a façade and pretend like everything is fine and I guess you get really good at it and keep your mouth shut. (VH-ML)
Is it any wonder (speaking now to my religious conservative friends), that many individuals opt to pursue the attractions that come more naturally to them? Two men who identify as gay/SSA recount:
Attempting to invite more empathy, one gay man told a straight friend, “you know, like you’ve been attracted to men your whole life, but imagine, you know, someone telling you like, ‘Okay you have to be with women and you have to love them and you have to marry them and that’s what’s normal.’” (FB-DA)
This is a point on which religious conservatives can, I think, have more empathy and understanding: What would it feel like for you to experience this same kind of conflict between larger cultural expectations and your own personal affections? If it’s your own experience, it’s not so easy to know how to move forward, right?
Surrounded by this Romance Story, of course, one could argue that ultimately any couple (and likely every couple at some point) will face the question that many mixed-orientation marriages do – namely, staying in a relationship “that is comfortable and safe or taking the necessary risks to find true love” (FB-KK). Most every couple has to face that question at some point – betraying the Story on some level. For those in “mixed-orientation” marriages, in particular, this larger awareness might help identify where some of the difficulty arises.
Bottom line: this larger story arguably makes things more difficult for all of us. Within this cultural pressure-cooker, a third commonality involves a hunger for a broader, deeper kind of intimacy in our romantic relationships.
Another Approach to Attraction. Contrasting with the dominant story, is a viable alternative – romance re-branded – pointing towards something more, something better.
Saraceno writes in her historical essay on Italian families about “tranquil affection” as something that used to be widely understood to develop over the course of a long-term relationship. Rather than needing to feel ‘everything’ right now, a couple may thus look for just enough confirming emotional assurance to begin. Rather than needing to be ‘madly in love,’ ‘head over heels,’ or find a partner ‘the most amazingly attractive person ever,’ many couples decide to embrace a romance and love more subtle with potential to grow over time.
From this vantage point, the affection of romance may go deeper than what individuals see alone. Instead of de-emphasizing the body, this is about embedding our romantic experiences in a kind of “full spectrum” attraction. While enjoying whatever sexual enjoyment a relationship offers, this approach does not place so many huge demands on either the sexual attraction of one’s partner or ‘how it has to be’ between the two of you. Deeper qualities may thus ground love powerfully, with individuals drawn together for reasons far beyond the immediate physical appeal. “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
The psychologist M. Scott Peck adds, “When love exists it does so…. with or without a loving feeling. It is easier – indeed, it is fun – to love with..the feeling of love. But it is possible to love…without loving feelings, and it is in the fulfillment of this possibility that genuine and transcendent love is distinguished from mere loving of an object.”
By contrast, Johnson continues, this moment may be seen as “the crucial point in an evolution,” the opening of an “awesome possibility” – namely, loving someone because of who they are, not simply what they’re giving you. Scott Peck proposes “real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving.”
Living Out Another Story. Quite a contrast with the first story, no? There isn’t time to detail all the practical implications of this second story. Suffice it to say: Just as the first narrative impinges and burdens real human beings trying the messy practice of love, this alternative story can equally de-burden and disabuse couples wanting to stay committed.
I have seen real love in my faith community and I have seen it in friends’ relationships in gay community. Wherever it arises, I’m arguing that it is harder to find, harder to practice and harder to sustain (for all of us) when we take the dominant cultural story of romance for granted.
By contrast, if we choose to adopt a broader story of affection, romance and love – all relationships could potentially be benefited. Rather than being driven to a particularly narrow kind of beauty and a particular kind of affection-experience, more space opens up for people to seek the relationship in which they find the greatest happiness. [But wait a minute, what do we mean by ‘greatest happiness’…? Better stop here for now! Thanks for indulging a lengthier opening essay; upcoming ones are much shorter! I would love to hear what you thought!]
But first, some Flirting with Curiosity Questions:
 With any key term, of course, there are always naturally arguments for “one true definition” that should be obvious for everyone – whether via religious or scientific authority. Conviction around various definitions is not a problem – as long as we can still acknowledge the role of interpretation in permitting others to define the same word in profoundly different ways. My past work has focused on doing just this in the area of mental health – exploring different things we might mean by “recovery” (Hess, Lacasse, et al., 2014) or “successful outcome” (Hess & Lacasse, 2010) – and what follows from these various meanings. In collaboration with a small group of dialogue practitioners from the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, we are also finalizing a Red Blue Dictionary in time for the 2016 presidential race – that will succinctly address this word and many others.
 I find it fascinating to notice the influence of this Story for couples deliberately making decisions that fly in the face of its expectations. Describing the beginning of his relationship (a man with SSA) with his wife, one man writes: “I remember going home from that just being totally devastated. I sat there next to this girl I told everybody I liked, but I didn’t feel anything at all, it just felt uncomfortable. It was kind of the same thing with our first kiss too, like I had these feelings, I really really wanted them to be there. I really liked her a lot and at this point I had known her for a long time and I loved her, but feeling this really strong desire and this sort of anticipation and hoping that…I just want to kiss her again and again kind of thing, but it didn’t. The first time we kissed it was…I think that is why it wasn’t a great experience for me” (VH-BLH)
Notice the challenging contrast between this man’s experience of knowing “for a long time” that he “loved her” – and his emotional and physical experience that didn’t appear to match. Is that okay…or not? Does it perhaps depend on the STORY of romance we adopt as real and true and good?
Despite this challenge at the beginning, other aspects of their relationship drew them together: “We were so close in other ways besides sexuality that when sexuality didn’t turn out exactly like it does in the movies it was okay. We could talk about it and work through it.” They described how the sexual closeness developed eventually: “We have a healthy intimate life. sometimes more so than other people that I’ve talked to at least… I feel like we have a really good romantic relationship” (VH-BLH)
Related to these kinds of stories, some people speak of experiencing same-sex attraction initially as broader expression of healthy affection, rather than a “problem to be fixed” :
One woman married to a man with same-sex attraction felt similarly:
“A lot of what I missed, a lot of what I appreciated in women, was that emotional closeness and my husband’s great at that. You know, if I were married to somebody else it might be a different story, but I get a lot of spiritual and emotional support from my husband. He’s very good about talking about feelings or opening up to that; and that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about him” (VH-LC)
From a religious conservative perspective, then, the same-sex attraction may also be considered a strength, an advantage – and even a part of Godly attraction. One person noted, “I believe being gay has a lot of divine qualities. I believe that in the next life we will all be attracted to each other in the exact way that Heavenly Father meant for us to be and that there will be more affection among men” (FB-Al). Reflecting this perspective, one Mormon friend, Ty Mansfield, writes:
If we understand intimacy in it’s purest form/meaning and note that in the Church of the Firstborn we will ALL see one another “as we are seen” and know one another “as we are known” (see D&C 76)–and experience there a deep kind of celestial intimacy, as an entire community, beyond anything any of us will ever experience here (including a a divine expression of same-sex love).
 Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperOne, 1985), xiii, 72. Sheff (2011)
 Nancy Etcoff, Susie Orbach, Jennifer Scott and Heidi D’Agostino, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty and Well-Being” StrategyOne, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (2004), 13, 47.
 Cited in Deborah Schooler and L. Monique Ward “Average Joes: Men’s relationships with media, real bodies, and sexuality.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(1), 27–41 (2006).
 Ian Kerner, “How porn is changing our sex lives.” CNN (2011, Jan 20).Susie Orbach, Bodies (Bodies. New York: Picador, 2009),Maggie Hamilton, What’s Happening to Our Girls? Too Much, Too Soon – How our Kids are Overstimulated, Oversold and Oversexed. (London: Penguin Group, 2009).
 Simon May, Love: A History (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 237.
 Simon May, Love: A History (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 12. The idea began to spread across Europe – with the French population by the mid-1800s beginning to speak of “marriage by fascination.” In one man’s letter to his lover in the late 1800s, he wrote, “I breathe by you; I live by you.” New Orleans lawyer Albert Janin (as cited in Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking Books, 2005). 147, 178). As reflected here, in the intimacy of romance we came to expect answers to some of our deepest, most profound needs. In addition to bringing people together, this kind of intense love was understood to be unchanging over time, with couples expected to “maintain their ardor until death do them part,” writes historian Stephanie Coontz. Regarding these “unprecedented goals for marriage,” she continues, “Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable.” For many, then, falling deeply in love has come to be anticipated as the central transcendent experience of life, an “all powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life” – the very questions, Coontz continues, “that the previous generation had sought in religious revivals.” This was “what we had always longed for,” Johnson adds – namely, “a vision of ultimate meaning and unity – suddenly revealed to us in the form of another human being.”
 Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 72, 100-101, 129.
 Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 44. 184-185.
 Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 67, 72, 100-101, 129. “Unfortunately,” Johnson continues, “it is exactly at this point in our evolution, where our possibilities are richest, that most people miss their opportunity…and jump to the wrong conclusions.” One or both partners begin talking about breaking up “in order to ‘find themselves.'” At this point, we decide that “it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or ‘true’ love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after [or separate].” “In order to be true to the inner ideal” Johnson writes, individuals may feel compelled to walk away: being “faithful” to their ideal – by betraying their current partner.
 Simon May, Love: A History (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 237.
 Arthur responded: “Are you sure it was The Story that [your friend’s experience] didn’t measure up to? Ask yourself why, after having a wonderful conversation with, say, [a good guy friend], and after enjoying the camaraderie and the brotherly love—that is, after going on a bromance kind of date—why you wouldn’t want to take it further, to maybe hold hands with [him], or kiss him, or meld your heart with his… Is it because your feelings didn’t measure up to The Story? Or is it simply because the “it” that was not there was whatever ‘it’ it is that makes you heterosexual and your SSA friend, well, gay?”
My answer would be – they’re both relevant! Certainly those physiological distinctions are also a big part of the conversation, and something to be explored in a future post as well.
Certainly no narrative researcher (including me) argues that narratives are the only thing at play; instead, we believe that they co-create our experience in complex interactions with physiology, socialization, values, etc. Within that mix, there’s certainly a lot of other factors – including, as Arthur points out, the various physical sensations and pulls moment by moment (sensations that themselves can be understood, interpreted and worked with in different ways – see biology essay in this series*).
Amidst the complexity, however, it’s far too easy to overlook the play and influence of interpretive/narrative frameworks – an oversight that complicates all our efforts to seek understanding. For that reason, I raise the question here regarding the role of narrative here – starting with the Story- that tells us what we ‘deserve’ to feel and who is or is not an acceptable partner in our path to true love and happiness.
 I have talked with friends in gay relationships about this challenge – and it seems fairly universal. I would be happy to add stories and examples for how the Story pushes apart gay couples as well – send them my way! [Part of the attempt to illuminate common ground is also highlighting examples in both mixed orientation relationships – and the gay couple at the beginning. Additionally, while gay and straight couples have more support, so called “mixed-orientation” marriages are arguably especially vulnerable due to the very clash of narratives outlined in this paper].
 Saraceno, The Italian Family, in Antoine Prost & Gerard Vincent, eds., A History of Private Life: Riddles of Identity in Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1991), (Coontz, 2005, p. 487).
Arthur raises a concern worth mentioning in this section:
I suspect that for many gay people who have been told that they should not even be feeling the attraction in the first place, that any whiff of trying to limit or underestimate the importance of those feelings and attractions might seem subtly manipulative. I don’t think you are, in fact, being manipulative, but it might be worth some thought about how any attempt to put limits on SSA “eros” can be seen as simply more of the same kind of anti-sex, anti-pleasure, anti-gay, conservative agenda.
I’m grateful to Arthur for raising this point, which makes a lot of sense given the history of persecution the gay community has received. I will leave it to readers to judge the merit of these dialogue-facilitating questions. I certainly don’t pursue the writing with an “agenda” to crusade against sex, or gay people, or pleasure, for heaven sakes…If anything, my goal would be to make more space to deeply understand and receive all these things – adding my voice to contribute to a conversation where we have more clarity together on all the above.
 Nancy Etcoff, Susie Orbach, Jennifer Scott and Heidi D’Agostino, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty and Well-Being” StrategyOne, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (2004), 1, 5, 35-36. “The great majority of women” concludes Susie Orbach, researcher at the London School of Economics, find mainstream standards of beauty “too narrow, as inauthentic and as insufficient” – with an aspiration for something much bigger and broader. As a result, there is a growing movement to “democratize and make accessible to all the idea of beauty” she writes – involving a “redefinition and expansion of the ideals…away from the limiting, narrowed and restricted body shapes and sizes.” Orbach concludes, “For the idea of beauty to become truly democratic and inclusive, then beauty itself must be revitalized to reflect women in their beauty as they really are rather than as portrayed in the current fictions that dominate our visual culture.” Speaking up “for the beauty of the un-blonde, the un-tall and the un-anorexic,” one author writes that “confidence and beauty come in many forms…even the ones our eyes have been trained to forget.” “Our results” one research team summarizes, “demonstrate the need to present a wider definition of beauty than is currently available to women. “As we used to know, beauty is so much more,” writes lead author Nancy Etcoff from Harvard University:
It is time to “reclaim” beauty…time to lift the quota system on images of beauty. The diversity of human beauty has been strained through a sieve of culture, status, power and money and what has emerged is a narrow sliver of the full panorama of human visual splendor. Ethereal weightlessness and Nordic features are not its only incarnation. Let the discussions and debates begin and let us reclaim and rejoice in authentic, diverse human beauty once again.
 Gary Zukav, Soul Stories, (Free Press, 2000)Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 107-108.
 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled (Touchstone, 1988), 118-119.
 Italics mine. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled (Touchstone, 1988), 88, 119. I would add that this very moment in which you see this imperfect human being by your side, in which maybe you are not getting everything you want from a relationship – this very moment, rather than a crisis or a tragedy, could actually be the moment you get to start loving them for real – not because you’re driven to, but because you choose to be there. Rather than a crisis, this is an opportunity to begin practicing real love.
 One of my conservative friends recently claimed that everyone in the gay community is inherently selfish and prioritizing after the needs of the flesh. That’s simply not true! My own experience confirms a potential for profound, real love in gay relationships – reflected in all the gay couples I know – Tyler & Michael, Jolene & Colleen, M.J. & Wendy – seeking to practice true self-sacrificing love in being there for their partners.