Why Do We Feel the Need to Embellish Our ‘How We Met’ Stories?

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That’s how I’d describe my first date with my girlfriend of three years, if I’m being honest.  Which I’m usually not.

She arrived ten minutes late wearing an outfit so casual I couldn’t help but wonder if she would forgotten all about our date if I hadn’t emailed her that afternoon to confirm.  The conversation was your typical fare: we talked about our siblings, our favorite restaurants, our TV addictions—nothing we hadn’t already shared with hundreds of virtual strangers via Facebook.  We had both been single for so long that it was easy to shift into dating autopilot, and wecoasted through the evening with minimal turbulence.

I ended up asking her out again, mainly because she was so beautiful that even if our next date was equally unremarkable, I would at least get another chance to study her face.  She said yes, but it was clear that she was equally ambivalent.  By the time I got off the subway I had already stopped thinking about her.

That’s the true story of our first date, but it’s not the version you’ll hear if you bump into us at a party and ask about how we met:

Me: “Do you want to tell it, or should I?”

Her: “You start.”

Me: “OK, so we agreed to meet at this bar in the West Village—”

Her: “Ugh, skip all that.

Me: “Yeah, it was just your standard first date—totally awkward.  Things really started to click on our second date, when we hung out at a hipster bowling alley until 1:00 am on a Sunday, eating overpriced mac and cheese and nerding out about our favorite children’s books.”

Her: “We both read A Wrinkle In Time five times.”

Me: “Actually, I only read it three times—I wasn’t a total loser.”

Her: “This coming from a guy whose sixth-grade wardrobe consisted entirely of anime t-shirts and JNCO jeans.”

And so on.

When relationships fall on tough times, when the present is bad and the future suddenly becomes murky, sometimes all we have to rely upon is the past.

We’re not the only ones guilty of turning our story into shtick.  I once heard a friend tell someone that he and his wife had met at a local speakeasy and bonded over their shared love of classic R&B, which was playing on the jukebox.  It took all the self-control I could muster not to set the story straight: “Dude, I was there. It was a divey meatmarket, not a ‘speakeasy,’ and I don’t think most people would classify ‘The Thong Song’ as ‘classic R&B.’  You both got sloppy drunk and ended up making out in the bathroom.  I know you remember, because I’ve been teasing you about it for the last five years.”

Why do couples do this?  Some stories obviously need a bit of editing before they’re passed along to grandparents and young children, but there’s more to it than that.  The fact of the matter is that tens of thousands of people fall in love every day, mostly in the usual ways—they went to school together, they met at a party, a friend set them up, etc. If they had skipped that party or gone to a different school, they probably would have ended up with someone else. From a strictly rational perspective, falling in love is simply the nexus of compatibility and proximity.

But love isn’t rational, and my guess is that most successful couples secretly believe they were fated to be together. That’s why the stories they tell about how they met often sound like something out of a Nora Ephron script. Amplifying the charm and quirkiness of their first encounter is a way of telling the world that their love was written in the stars and can’t be reduced to probability or demographics.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with any of this. Believing in fated love might not be entirely rational, but it does serve a very real purpose. When relationships fall on tough times, when the present is bad and the future suddenly becomes murky, sometimes all we have to rely upon is the past. If the memory of your first encounter keeps you going, does it matter if that memory has been embellished?

I don’t think so, as long as you don’t lose sight of where the embellishments end and reality begins—you can’t expect your partner to always be in character.  And as you’re creating your public story, be careful not to banish the awkward silences and crossed signals from your private recollections.  They are as much a part of every young relationship as mind-melding late night conversations and electrified first kisses, and we sell ourselves short when we forget that.  Even the most effortless infatuations require a leap of faith, and we should give ourselves credit for being brave enough to risk the fall.