my interview with Nicholas Sparks on what makes love work

Posted on December 4th, 2011

This week in Sunday Life I discuss The Notebook

If you ever find yourself in the laundry at a party skewered against the tub of stubbies by some eye-glazing, go-nowhere conversation, try this tactic. Ask everyone’s thoughts on The Notebook. In my experience everyone has a take on this 1996 novel, turned into a film in 2006. And it’s always pleasantly diverting.

I mean, most of us admit to only having half-watched the movie, and only to witness Ryan Gosling work his magic. Right? Blokes will say their wife made them do it. But in the next breath they’ll confess it made them cry. I know an ex-world number one light heavyweight boxer who’s watched it 14 times and a burly fireman who’s seen it nine. Both cried every time. Which is a phenomenon in itself.

But what I find interesting when I spike party small talk with such a conver-bomb is that invariably women say they love the film because the female protagonist Allie – who’s faced with choosing between first love Noah and her posh, sweater-n-chinos fiancé – eventually goes with her heart. Chicks love this.

Blokes, however, say they get all prickly-eyed because the dude who sticks to his belief that he’d found his girl (and built a house in readiness for her return) wins the day. The nobleness entailed in this and the fact he stands by Allie through all kinds of calamities hits a waterworks nerve for men. Chicks also love this.

Choosing to go with your heart, and determined, stoic nobleness – it’s fundamental Venus vs Mars stuff. But at the core of both takes is the same principle, I think. A “good” decision was made. And committed to. Simple! Phew!

Since seeing the film myself, I’ve always wanted to know author Nicholas Sparks’ take on love. Is he a romantic? A cynic? This week I got my opportunity during his visit promoting his seventeenth novel The Best of Me. Sparks, who’s sold more than 55 million books, is an Anthony Robbins-type figure in zeal, gum-chewing ability and all-American jock-like stature. He also doesn’t mince his thinking.

I ask him for his personal formula for noble, heart-led happiness. “It’s about wanting the same kind of life,” he says without hesitating. “Do you both want to get married? A church wedding? How many kids? Shared finances? Private schools? Sit-down dinners?” Stunningly, he discussed all this with wife Cathy on their second date, aged 23. Thus, a “good” decision was made and they both committed to marriage six months later.

I left our meeting a little overwhelmed. But it all kind of clarified the mass-appealing vibe of his work – he simplifies love in a world where we’ve made it terribly complicated. As Sparks says, it’s the “what ifs” that plague us, and are thus the predominant theme in all his books. What if we married the wrong girl? What if we waited longer for The One? Today, many of us are bogged down with these what ifs, adding more and more options to the to-ing and fro-ing – What if he holds me back from my career? What if I can find better? – which often stalls our happiness.

It’s become a theme of this column: options drive us mental.  Author of the wonderful book The Art of Choosing Sheena Iyengar makes this argument eloquently. She cites an Indian study comparing arranged marriages with love marriages. In the first year, love marriage couples cited more satisfying unions, but after ten years those in arranged marriages – where partners were chosen according to pragmatic qualities – were far more satisfied. The explainer: the latter were confronted with a “good” decision (albeit made by others) and then they simply committed (albeit in a culture where this is supported). Love grew from the decision and the commitment.  Simple! Or at least simpler. Iyengar makes one of my favourite sociological points: marrying for love is a modern concept, only about 400-500 years old. Prior to that we all married to get a job done. Then love grew.

I’ve talked to hundreds of people about this theme. It’s fun, fundamental stuff. I’m certainly not about to let Mum hunt me down a husband. I like the fact deciding to not marry is a great option. I also like to be reminded that simpler is better. And that sometimes what matters – and what piques our tear ducts with relief – is a bit of pragmatism, nobleness and making things work.

What do you reckon? Do we lack an ability to just decide and commit? Is it the times? Do we allow too many what ifs? Do we let “romantic love” rule things too much?

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  • Laura

    I think that a lot of people expect marriage to be like the romantic movies.. just happiness forever. People also pick partners for the totally wrong reasons.. seems to me this is often looks related nowadays. There just seems to be that expentancy of everything working perfectly and when things don’t… -divorce! I have been together with my partner (now husband) for 12 years. It has definitely been up and down, but we have both been willing to try to fix things that aren’t right and find the things that work for us. We are still working on learning to communicate better, too. It is actually quite fascinating to learn how differently our brains work.
    Also not everyone’s path in life is the same. It doesn’t always have to be the ‘get married-get a house-have kids-etc.’. It just doesn’t work for everyone and I think that a lot of people have anxiety about this if they don’t fit into that stereotype. I sure did!


    Jessica Rabbit Reply:

    I love your comment.
    ‘It doesn’t always have to be the ‘get married-get a house-have kids-etc.’ – Thank you for writing that, as a single girl it certainly feels at times that couples who are married with children look down on me for my life choices.


  • Levi

    The Notebook is so gay.


  • Mia Bluegirl

    That makes so much sense! What a great interview. I’ve always found that stat about arranged marriages really fascinating, and really kind of sad for the future of romance. I know a girl at work in a highly successful arranged marriage (she has 2 kids and is really happy.) I have always suspected that the modern problem of “too much choice” was at least partially responsible for our hideous divorce rate. Maybe I just still want to believe that love conquers all..?

    I must confess I am in two minds about about the Notebook though. On one hand, it is truly beautiful and I love the themes of true love and courage. But on the other hand… there is the little skeptical part of me that is tired of seeing vaccuous women in films, who run about damaged everyone else’s lives around them with their poor decisions and then everything ends up falling into place for them just like magic. I kinda found the male lead to be a bit pathetic and creepy too, his canine-like loyalty in the face of being treated badly. And the idea that love ALWAYS ends in heartache in these movies (every single time???) is I think kind of sadomasochistic, and it trains women to associate love with pain/ drama! Which I dont know if I think is healthy. I dunno, maybe I should just stop thinking about it cerebrally and just enjoy it!

    I say this as a single girl who has feelings for her close friend and has let the “what ifs” in my head successfully talk me out of ever telling him. 🙂 I am in no position to offer romantic advice, no way! Ha!


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    I hear you, Mia. Interesting point re the love/pain nexus. I agree – sometimes we don’t believe it can be love without the drama.


    picardie.girl Reply:

    Yes! Love doesn’t have to be dramatic to be real. That idea gives a lot of false positives (and negatives). Sometimes we feel if it is full of drama, it must be love – and vice-versa.


    Vienda Reply:

    I am so grateful you guys have vocalised that! So true! Love is just love! Simply heartwarming endearing stuff ……

    Nicole Reply:

    Mia Bluegirl,
    As someone who has just spent the last 5 years letting ‘what ifs?’ hold her back… please be open with your boy. I told a close friend that I’d always loved him basically moments before my ferry pulled away (we met up while holidaying separately in Europe, with the boy planning to stay on for at least 5 years whilst I was headed home). He said he’d always felt the same. Now there is a possibility of him coming back in 6 months – but it might not happen. Not the Hollywood ending but a pragmatic one.
    So please tell him, Mia… Sure, it might not turn out, but then again, it just might – and you could have something really wonderful. Also, putting yourself out there with no assurance of reciprocated feelings is the most liberating thing you can do.
    All the best


    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    Nicole, that’s such a sweet story. 🙂 I hope it works out for you! And thank you, I’m really touched by your advice.

    In my case it is an age gap that concerns me (I am older) as well as risking the friendship if he doesnt feel the same, however my friends are already annoyed that I am letting social convention dictate my choice of action and pushing me to tell him. So I think it is something I need to talk myself into doing.

    I’ll let you know!


  • Deb

    Thanks Sarah, always love reading your work. Agreed. The Notebook is always a great conversation catalyst.
    It seems that the bible’s ‘love passage’ has been/is a pretty popular pick for weddings.
    “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…”
    Along the lines of ‘simplifying love’- all that this passage says love is- seems to revolve around one thing… putting others before oneself.


  • picardie.girl

    Oh, I was sort of hoping for an actual interview here, given the title.

    But anyway… I think we do often find “just deciding and committing” difficult. Uncertainty plagues us at every step. Being sure we’ve made the right choice – whatever it is – is a beautiful feeling, one at the core of The Notebook. They were certain it was right, and they stuck with that. Who doesn’t want that kind of certainty in their lives?

    I feel like we are told that “romantic love” should rule things – at least most of the major decisions in our lives – and this is hard to shirk. The tricky thing is getting a good image of what romantic love actually is. What is this thing that should be ruling our lives? The Notebook is a beautiful example of real love, the kind that lasts and that sets your life’s direction without ruling every decision thereafter. It’s not all hearts and flowers – they experience setbacks and hardship too – but it is about sharing their life.


  • seeker

    i would be very interested for someone to explain to me what the point of marriage is when divorce is an option?
    i just cant get my head around why it is that in this day an age, we take an ancient tradition and try to apply it to contemporary society …. why people would sign a contract to say they will love honour & obey the other until death, but if they don’t like it for whatever reason they can then change their minds.
    i don’t judge anyone for wanting to get married, (or divorced), but i do wonder if they have really thought it through and in that thinking they conclude that if it all gets too much they can always get out of it. and i wonder if divorce was not legal/an option, would they then still go through with marriage …
    i find myself questioning this frequently and trying to understand if there is something i am missing … :0
    i think that divorce is necessary because of marriage – but i wish so many people didn’t think that marriage was necessary!


    Heather Reply:

    That’s a really interesting point! And I tend to agree!


  • Kayla

    I heard not too long ago that the fairy tales we grew up with ruined our idea of relationships. Think of almost any story; the female and male overcome obstacles and are together in the end to live happily ever after. We have been trained to think that all we have to do is find that one “right person” and everything will fall into place. We don’t spend our time bettering ourselves and our relationship abilities because we think that when we find that “right person” we will never fight and nothing will go wrong.
    Needless to say, this isn’t how relationships work. And when “mr right” begins stepping on our toes we are confused and can only rationalize our trouble by thinking that he isn’t the right guy. Like Sparks said, we need to actually have things in common with our significant other (more than the same favorite color). If they are our LIFE partner…maybe we should have the same desires/goals in our lives.
    (Time to come clean, i have no expertise in this field, i am a single 20 year old. These are just my observations, worth as much as they cost.)


    picardie.girl Reply:

    From Stuff No One Told Me:


    Mia Bluegirl Reply:


    Nail. On the head. You hit it.

    One hundred per cent!!


    Kayla Reply:

    i love this!!! haha


    Maggie Reply:

    I completely agree. I find that in modern times particularly with this return to romantic ideas of love, there’s this expectation that the ‘right guy’ comes pre-packaged and ready for you, which I personally find it to be quite a naive mentality to have when it comes to relationships and eventual life partners.

    My approach has always been – if a guy is 70-80% suitable for you, then ultimately that’s all you really need. The other 20-30% can be worked on, because chances are there is about 20-30% of you that they may also find needs working on. It should be about finding a balance, not perfection.

    After all (and this is me speaking after a massive binge on Downton Abbey), in the old days people would meet and marry in the space of 6-8 weeks. And these marriages would last decades. And I think marriage being a result of ‘women not having much opportunity’ back then has little bearing when it comes to love.

    Anyhoo, just my 2 cents =]


    seeker Reply:

    looove downton abbey!

    i agree … finding the balance and the balance is perfection …. the perfection of imperfection etc, and the choosing to look at the challenging aspects as a whole & with perspective rather than picking on the nitty gritty, and always turning it around to see the other’s view of things and of yourself! … that’s a very good point – are we so perfect ourselves?! ….

    i believe everything in a relationship can potentially be negotiated with those who are willing to learn & communicate, which is challenging enough in itself to get to that point (of being willing to learn & communicate with respect for each other) …

    however, i feel if it’s going to work long term, there is one element in a relationship that can never be negotiated, and that is chemistry. so i would think make sure you’ve both got that before saying “i do”!!

    just my theory … and hopefully as always, my comments are posted with love for all who choose to do what they think is right for them – hope I don’t sound preachy!!


  • Karen

    I was in my first marriage for 20 years and I took my vows incredibly seriously as I believe marriage has to be worked on. Sadly my husband did not agree. I was young and optimistic and I tried hard. It was abusive mostly on a psychological level and that is really the cruelest as the blows are very deep and unrecognisable. Long story short after years of trying I left.

    3 months later a very unsuitable man enetered my life and I grabbed him with all the passion and insanity of a novel and followed my heart. But after years of working on myself within my last marriage I knew I didn’t need this new man only that i wanted him. After 4 years he still washes my hair every time and honors the true goddess I really am. I also honor him.

    We married only because that’s what suits us. I believe as long as you feel peace the surroundings (married, single whatever) have no relevance. The only judgement we should take seriously is our own. Never hurt anyone and honour yourself. Love rocks – even if it’s just you loving you. I left and was prepared to be he weird lady all alone loving myself silly rather than staying in something acceptableI but soul destroying.

    No rules just love in whatever format brings you peace and joy. Be brave.


  • Jess Lowe

    I also LOVE the notebook, I have always had a deep desire for that kind of magical romance. But I was told by my mother that we shouldnt get our hopes up for that kind of thing. Because It will probably never happen. As a result I settled for many boyfriends who couldnt committ, who didnt have a romantic bone in their body. One day I changed my mind on the matter, and ended a one and a half year relationship with a guy who was great on paper, but just did not know how to pursue a woman, to wait for someone who was more like me. I agree with Nicholas that we need to find someone with the same desires and direction as ourselves. I just so happened to find an amazing husband, who loves romance just as much as me. On our first date we talked about how many children we wanted to have, the type of marriage we would desire We were open and honest aout our pasts and shared our desires for the future. Within 14 months we were married! And Noah has got nothin on him! I believe that we have the free will to choose our partners, for their qualities etc, yet at the end of the day it all comes down to committment. This is why the arranged marriages do better! They barely know eachother, yet committ their lives to one another. In the western world we think it is our god given right to chase love based on how good it feels at the time. This is why half of us get divorced when we ‘fall out of love’. But love isnt a feeling, its a decision. Through good times and bad. But where we do have the choice of a life partner, I think we should use wisdom where possible to find someone that wants the same kind of marriage you do. However we are humans, so it IS unrealistic to expect them to be Noah everyday.


    Kayla Reply:

    Congradulations Jess! I am so happy that you are able to find the love and respect you deserve everyday. Too often I find myself settling with guys because I don’t know that I should expect more. Your testimony is giving me faith to to believe that there is a guy out there who is good for me.


  • Two great reads are “Committed” by Elizabeth Gilbert and “Marry Him” by Lori Gottlieb; both address many of the topics everyone has brought up about marriage and love. They’re good to go back to a while after you’ve read them, too; I learn something new from a book every time I revisit it.


  • The Notebook was filmed about a tenth of a mile down the dirt road from my mother’s house on Edisto Island, SC. My old miniature poodle would gallop down the road every day at lunch to beg at their tables. The house that Gosling’s character built was a house I’ve spent many a day wandering around in, peering through the windows covered in the ivy growing out of the kitchen sink, digging through the dusty boxes of books, climbing tilted narrow stairs to the attic. When I was really little a cousin lived there, and he had a chocolate lab with puppies who wrestled on the porch. He died in a plane crash, I believe.
    Anyway, The Notebook was a book in high school that made tears stream down my face, but when I finally watched it, several years after it was filmed, I felt the same way as Mia above. Why is it that we have to tie some notion of perfect love with eventual agony? Why have I always felt that the only people who had found “true” love were also doomed to have some tragic end to it? Stories like The Notebook no doubt contributed to my belief. Yet Sparks’s flatly practical advice about the reality of marriage seems like the only way to have a successful one. At the same time, it seems almost too unexciting. How to keep it exciting and yet stable? Is that even possible? I’m 31, and in a 2 year relationship I can see being in for a long time in the future, and yet I have a difficult time seeing it as possible…


  • Kath

    I’m about to enter the 7th year of the third (and happiest) long term relationship I’ve had in my life. If we had read each other’s profiles on a dating site we would have said ‘they’re hot, but we have nothing in common’. The relationship works because we are extremely independent, and we don’t ever assume that we are thinking along the same lines. We are monogamous, but we are not jealous of each others passions or interests. Everything is up for negotiation, without blame. And yes, we have very similar goals, but we don’t take our agreement there to mean that we can ever take the other partner for granted.

    As for long term excitement… It helps to have a diverse sexual repertoire 🙂


  • Trevor Otto

    A friend told me way back that you need two things to have a happy relationship, that is firstly that you just ‘get on well’ or relate and secondly that you have similar wants or goals. A lot of relationships survive for a while on one but not entirely happy. It’s remarkably simple or not.


  • Myles H

    Well, Sarah thanks for a thought provoking topic and nice to find that the venus and mars gap is only as wide as we as individuals choose to make it. I’ve been married and divorced after 17 years and it broke my heart, however I accept at least half the “faults”. Even when my ex-wife said “I don’t love you anymore” I looked at her and said, “no matter I have more than enough love to see us through this tight patch”. My partners since have asked me to recreate this “love” but alais it was a rare beast that lived for 17 years and died. The previous comments are a delighful reflection on the struggle, commitment and reinforcement of that inner strength of the venus crowd that I love to study and reflect on and truly appreciate that need to seek. As I have matured i now find a need to be mentally stimulated and have vigorious discussions about the hot topics of the day, which leads to more passionate outcomes at the end of the day. I have also felt that relationships in whatever form they take, should be the place to be accepted, to move and to grow, not withstanding the need for respect and LOVE. Cheers


  • Pingback: Monday Links to Love « The Lemonade Stand()

  • I’ve read every one of these almost exclusively self centred posts and find I am disappointed they are almost universally about the writer. Eveyone’s crapping on about True Love and Mr. Right and Perfection.

    Nobody refers to the truly, deeply heart rending aspects of the film and book – the effects of dementia and the enduring loyalty (read ‘love’) of the one “left behind” and the bleakness of his prospect. The subtle way their children are woven into the story almost as an aside is truly masterful.

    For me that is what this book is about. The other stuff is just fluff and necessary only to get to the main game – everyone gets old and some do it better than others, and then everyone dies and what is left?

    as Peggy Lee sang “is that all there is?”


    Lydia Reply:

    Does that mean you missed the part where Sarah asks, “What do you reckon? Do we lack an ability to just decide and commit? Is it the times? Do we allow too many what ifs? Do we let “romantic love” rule things too much?”