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Exploring Three Stages of Romantic Love Through Three Films

Meg Ryan & Billy Cristal
One way of looking at romantic love is through these three stages:
–    Love without Knowledge
–    Knowledge without Love
–    Love with Knowledge

The first film we’ll look at in this context is Sleepless in Seattle (1993), a prime example of Love without Knowledge. This film does much to promote the myth of romantic love, as prevalent today as it was 20 years ago. In it, Annie (Meg Ryan) hears Sam (Tom Hanks), a caller on a late-night radio show, talking about his feelings about his deceased wife. Based on this, Annie goes on a quest to meet him, feeling like he might be The One.

Sam’s young son ends up arranging a meeting at the top of the Empire State Building (homage to An Affair to Remember) and, at the film’s end, we see the couple walking hand-in-hand into the proverbial sunset. This film serves to perpetuate certain fantasies that we have about romance: that there is someone out there just perfect for me, that my life will be complete once I meet him or her and, lastly, that I don’t even have to know (or get to know) this person to know they are my soul-mate. This last point is what would be called Love without Knowledge.

[As one of the characters points out to Annie, “When you’re attracted to someone, it just means that your subconscious is attracted to their subconscious, subconsciously. So what we think of as fate is just two neuroses knowing that they are a perfect match.”]

Our second film is The Story of Us (1999). In it we get a good look at the second stage, Knowledge without Love. Ben (Bruce Willis) and Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer) have been married for 15 years and feel that they have fallen out of love with one another (what author John Bradshaw calls “Post-Romantic Stress Disorder”). Indeed, they know each other very well by now and everything seems to irritate the one about the other.

They pretend in front of their teen-aged children that everything is fine, but decide to have a trial separation while the kids are away at summer camp. In the end, they come back around to Love with Knowledge, and re-commit to their relationship. Philosopher Stanley Cavell writes “only those who have been married can get married,” meaning we can’t make a true commitment to be married to someone until we know them, and we can’t truly know someone until we’ve been married to them.

[Another film that shows Love without Knowledge and then Knowledge without Love is Blue Valentine, but those characters don’t arrive at Love with Knowledge]

Our third film is When Harry Met Sally (1989). In this film, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are thrown together as strangers on a long-distance car ride, and don’t even like one another. Over the years they develop a friendship, and the audience knows long before Harry and Sally do that there is a basis for a loving romantic relationship based on their knowledge of one another, idiosyncrasies and all.

Although we aren’t looking at the particular psychological impetuses behind individual choices in this article, it is interesting to look at our own relationships through this filter and see where we might be within the three stages. It’s important to realize, too, that not every relationship will arrive at Love with Knowledge; sometimes our growth edge is in staying and sometimes in leaving.

Creative Commons License photo credit: quicheisinsane

Exploring Three Stages of Romantic Love Through Three Films

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2011). Exploring Three Stages of Romantic Love Through Three Films. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Aug 2011
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