Everyone knows them and why are they similar all over the world. Fairy tales contain the accumulated wisdom of the past, handed on to succeeding generations. They are invaluable for all sorts of reason. As a template for life they influence us more than we realise. But that’s just where there’s a risk.

Take romance for example, a vital part of life and a big factor in our fantasies. Romance often starts with dating (at least that’s the common idea). I’ve chosen dating because quite a lot of people seem to think it’s important enough to discuss, not because I do it.

Judging by the amount of airtime and column inches the media devote to it, dating preoccupies people from seven to 70+. For clarity, a date is a pre-arranged meetings between two people with undertones of romance and/or intimacy.

There are two ways to approach fairy tales. The first probably happens to us all when we are very young. As the school years start the playground is populated by little princesses, ugly ducklings, Cinerella’s (sadly) and animals waiting to take human form just as soon as a critical event occurs.

From the age of about seven that changes; we don’t actually believe the fairy-tale version any more, but we’ve taken the model on board, and it slips into the unconscious. Some people believe that fairy tales are a model for life.

(There’s a joke in there somewhere about the princes; little boys are slower to develop than girls, and most don’t realise that they are meant to act like prince charming, and some bigger boys never do.)

No fairy-tale romance

The second way we approach it is that we don’t take fairy tales as a model for life, that’s just kids’ stuff. We grow up free of these delusions (we think). But as life happens around us and relationships are formed, occasionally a piece of the fairy-tale jigsaw snaps into place (love at first sight, a wicked step-parent, destined to be alone, the quest for love, being trapped in an unhappy household, etc.).

Fairy tales aren’t a model for life, but life certainly imitates art. Once you’ve spotted it, happy coincidence is a great antidote for cynicism (as long as it’s your own happiness. Others’ romantic happiness tends to amplify cynicism).

So even if you don’t believe fairy-tales can happen, we are programmed to spot it when something that looks like one comes along. Fairy tales shape our expectations by offering hope and/or confirmation.

Whether you are interested in romantic attachments or not, we all carry unconscious maps about how significant relationships are formed, but there are no stories about what keeps them together.