Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

Sarah Wendell

Part 10

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"They taught me how to discuss things. They taught me that the relationship, the 'us,' is paramount over the 'you and me.' They taught me to respect my partner at all times. And most of all, they taught me to appreciate my partner and to express that appreciation whenever possible. He brought me a cup of tea, whether or not I asked him for it? Thank him. And tell him I love him. It's the little, everyday gestures that show love more than the grand gestures, and romances taught me that."

Even cla.s.sic romances such as those by Georgette Heyer can serve as a prototype for ideal behavior: a commenter at the site who goes by the name DreadPirateRachel told me, "The first romances I ever read were by Georgette Heyer. They taught me to hold out for a partner who would share my intellectual pa.s.sions and respect me for the person I am. I'm glad I paid attention, because I ended up with a husband who is funny, kind, supportive, and adoring."

We romance readers can separate ridiculous from reality, and fact from fiction. We don't expect all men to be billionaire tyc.o.o.n dukes who are also Navy SEAL spies and fluent in sixty-nine languages. Not a single one of those things guarantees happiness, or a happily-ever-after.

But because of what we've learned about healthy, admirable relationships, we do expect men to be partners in our lives, to listen, care, pay attention, and treat us as if we are valuable and special. That is what helps foster happiness. No billions, yachts, or tactical weapons experience necessary.

Reader Caroline learned that lesson from her own romancereading: "Romance novels in general taught me that it isn't about the bling, but the substance behind the bling that makes it last. Always the heroine and hero, at some level, just want to be with one another by the end of the book. I have rarely read a book where the heroine goes, 'Well...He's a billionaire-playboy-oil-baron-secret-Earl-Sheik with a whole barnful of horses, six palatial mansions, and a bunch of jets; I guess I'll be happy with him. Oh yeah, and he's got a magic w.a.n.g.' It's always a little deeper than that. The person usually comes to the surface. The need for the person outweighs the trappings, and there is never a second guess.

"There were a few books I read that taught me love is not easy. It takes work. Just because someone gets you all hot in the pants doesn't mean it's going to be a cakewalk down the aisle. You sometimes have to compromise, sometimes examine yourself first, and talk to one another, not just humpity-hump until you say the L-word and have the Twue Lurve ending. Sometimes s.h.i.t gets in the way and you have to deal."

We romance readers can separate ridiculous from reality, and fact from fiction. We don't expect all men to be billionaire tyc.o.o.n dukes who are also Navy SEAL spies and fluent in sixty-nine languages.

Editor Angela James loves J. D. Robb's In Death series because of its portrayal of the courtship of marriage: "One of the things I love about that series is the progression of the romance, from courtship to lovers to marriage, where you see the relationship grow and build. And Ms. Robb does a fantastic job of showing the give and take of marriage, and being partners and equals. I think this makes an even bigger impression on me than many romance novels because I'm at a different stage in my life. I'm not looking for love or falling in love, but I'm in love with someone I know is 'it.' And since maintaining the relationship in a marriage has its own unique challenges, it's nice to see an author tackling those and not creating a world where the marriage is perfect, without flaws, and doesn't face adversity."

"Nothing gives me greater pleasure in my entertainment than reading about people who, with real (as opposed to contrived) problems, overcome them in a sane, healthy, and productive way that sets them up for life."


Robyn Carr says she envies her characters sometimes: "The unvarnished truth is-I often wish I was as smart as my characters. I wish that, in real life, I could delete and rewrite the things I say, adjust the things I do and make them more intelligent, control the unexpected events in my life. I think reading and writing romances is very good practice for living within relationships-it helps us separate the wheat from the chaff. We know what not to do (in each individual opinion) and we get a good view of things that might actually work. I really appreciate it when characters in trouble get help; I cheer characters who know they're fallible and want to overcome their weaknesses or faults. My heart races with pleasure when they reach a mutual understanding that gives them a chance at happiness.

"Nothing gives me greater pleasure in my entertainment than reading about people who, with real (as opposed to contrived) problems, overcome them in a sane, healthy, and productive way that sets them up for life."

The fantasy of seeing a painful and horrific situation resolve toward hope and happiness is another reason why romance readers are such avid and enduring fans of the genre. Each novel is a safe emotional s.p.a.ce to examine awkward and potentially tricky emotions and see that each experience, and each character, can achieve happiness-a happiness well worth achieving.


It might seem that a mammoth serving of romance novels comes equipped with unending relationship wisdom-and it does, but not because one has read fourteen million novels. Whether one has read a handful or has a book in each hand every day of the year, the basic lessons on relationships and unending courtships are pretty simple to spot.

1. DON'T TAKE PEOPLE FOR GRANTED Whether it's your parents, your partner, or your favorite train conductor, the people in your life won't always be there. It's rea.s.suring to think so, that the people who make your life warm and whole will always be with you, but the truth is, life is far too uncertain to make that kind of guarantee-so you shouldn't take the people in your life for granted. Ever.

You never know when a tyc.o.o.n may sweep you onto his yacht, or when a last will and testament of an aunt you didn't know you had might indicate you stand to inherit a huge palatial property in the Canary Islands-provided you marry a prince and live in that palatial property with your worst enemy and a dog named Doof. Kidnappings, ghost possessions, vampire infestations, getting fired, opening a bake shop and finding out the recipes are all witchcraft, one-night stands in bathrooms at an ex-girlfriend's wedding...look, these things happen. Conflict happens.

Not only should you be prepared for conflict, but you should know that each day brings the chance for more of it-billionaires are not much for advanced warning when they arrive on their yachts with plans for blackmail.

Not only should you be prepared for conflict, but you should know that each day brings the chance for more of it-billionaires are not much for advanced warning when they arrive on their yachts with plans for blackmail. With the chance for changes ahoy each day, it's important that you stop yourself every now and again from presuming that every morning will be like the one before.

Acknowledge the people you like. Merely going through the motions of your routine does nothing to communicate to others how you think of them. So thank people for being spiffy, and find ways to express that you're glad someone is in your life, whether it's the bus driver who always says good morning with a smile, or the person who makes the coffee every single evening and sets the timer so that when the alarm goes off, it's ready.

Demonstrating love and affection for a significant other in a romance is part of courtship, particularly the part that might involve s.e.x. But you most commonly see characters realizing that they're taking someone they care about for granted in plots that involve family as part of the cast of characters-it is very easy to take your family for granted, after all-or in stories where the hero and heroine have been friends for a very, very long time, and suddenly find themselves at a point of ma.s.sive change or departure-he's leaving, she's sick of being alone, whatever.

Being in the habit of saying "Thank you," of making sure that people receive attention so they know you value them, of not presuming that people will always be there-this is a good habit, regardless of whether you're in a relationship or still hoping to find a person who makes you happy in your pants and your brain.

Consider this: The Be Polite Rule: Don't be a douchebag. Make sure the people who are important to you receive attention for being awesome. There's plenty of c.r.a.pful behavior on the part of random douchebags in a given day-make sure to give virtual and actual high-fives to those who rock and rock hard.


One of the most enduring lessons I learned about love was not from a romance novel, but from a romance author. A long time ago, I wanted to write romance-before I realized my writing strength may not be in writing fiction. When I first started meeting romance authors and going to romance conferences back in 2002, I volunteered to pick up authors at the airport before the New Jersey Romance Writer's convention, and ended up driving bestselling author Teresa Medeiros to the hotel from the airport. She is, if you've never met her, among the nicest people you'll ever meet, and her books are good too-a total bonus.

Teresa had to call her husband to let him know she arrived safely, so there we were, flying down the New Jersey Turnpike, me, Teresa, and bestselling author (and later RWA President) Gayle Wilson. Teresa made her call, and ended the call by saying, "I love you."

Now, this may not seem like a big deal, but at the time, I was newly married, a little shy (okay, a lot shy), and would not have been able to tell my husband on the phone that I loved him in front of two strangers. I don't think Gayle Wilson cared in the least but I, personally, was so impressed.

I should mention that I'd misplaced the directions to the hotel and we had to call from the car to get them from the hotel-and I did almost tell the hotel front desk clerk that I loved her, if only because she saved me from more embarra.s.sment.

But I continued to think about Medeiros and her phone call, and to this day, I don't hang up the phone with my husband without telling him I love him, even when I know he can't say it back to me.

Say it now. Don't save it. Right now is the most important moment to tell someone you value them and think they are made of awesome with sauce.

Consider this: The Medeiros Rule: Never miss an opportunity to tell someone or communicate to someone that they are loved.

3. IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU If there is one lesson inherent in romance novels that is important for every person, regardless of gender, to internalize and believe to the utmost, it is the idea that you are valuable, you are important, and your happiness is important. As reader Liz says in a discussion of hero and heroine traits, "You are valuable. You are important. We will never forget that about each other. That's romance, to me."

Yet with all these chapters that examine how romance has helped readers identify what they want in a relationship, and all the plots that rest on establishing and knowing one's own worth, I have some important words about your happily-ever-after: it's not all about you.

No, really, it's not all about you. Consider Liz's words, which I think of as The Liz Rule: "You are valuable. You are important. We will never forget that about each other." Part of being in a relationship that is solid and mature is making sure the other person knows they are valuable in your eyes. The most important relationship you might have is indeed with yourself, but all that self-love can get lonely and unsatisfying if you don't also know how to communicate to someone else how valuable they are to you.



For some, romance novels are not only a lifeline and escape, they are a guideline, proof somehow that a happy ending is possible. The following is a painful, somewhat graphic, and very honest person's account of how romance novels have been a meaningful part of her life. She wrote this as part of a personal recovery exercise, but gave me permission to share it so long as I protected her ident.i.ty.

When I was ten years old, eleven, twelve, I needed to get away. I so desperately needed it, every time my mom's boyfriend would come into my room and rape me, because I couldn't stand to be there and face what was going on. It was too much for me, to be in this world. So, I found some place else I could be, some place I was safe and okay. Some place I was loved and cared about. Some place no one would hurt me, and where good would always, always triumph over evil. And I found it in the pages of books.

I remember the first time I actually jumped into a book. It was a children's mystery book, about a group of friends who wanted to find out what was in the dark, old house on their street, where they'd seen shadows. And I remember reading it, and feeling in the house, exploring it with them. It was so real to me; I could smell the mold and feel the spiderwebs clinging to my arms as I walked through the dark hallway. I could feel the fear of the "ghost" or whatever was in there (it was a parrot, haha), the excitement of a new discovery. I was instantly transported to another world, a world where everything was okay, and I didn't have to be afraid.

Through that hardest time of my life, I read. I read day and night. I read whenever I could get my hands on a book, because I didn't want to be in the real world. I hated the real world. I needed to get away. And I did. Many times, when he would get to me at night, I found myself thinking about the stories I'd read, about the worlds I'd visited, and it kept me from hurting so much at that moment. It didn't work every time, but whenever it did, it was relief from all the pain.

For the first few years after the abuse, I think I was in shock, because I didn't process what happened. It was like a faded distant memory, the abuse. I didn't think about it at all. Because, really, I didn't have time to think. Because I read. All the time. One book after another. I was never without a book. I remember going to school and reading through cla.s.ses, reading in the car on my way home, at the lunch-and dinner-table, waking up early on a weekend to read and staying up late to read. It was all books, books, and books (with the eventual TV show!). And I went through this period of my life so smoothly, thanks to G.o.d and thanks to books, because, honestly, I don't know what would have happened to me if I'd had to deal with the aftermath of abuse at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

When I was fifteen, it finally dawned on me about the abuse. And not only did I keep reading (a lot!), I started writing. I knew when I was eleven that I wanted to be an author when I grew up, because I loved telling stories, because they took me away from the world, and, most importantly, because I wanted to give other people that needed it a safe place to go. I wrote short stories, created my own characters, my own worlds. I kept reading too. I read and I read and I read through the following years. The summer of when I was seventeen, I read seventeen books in a month. It could have been a miserable summer; instead, it was fun and free. I wasn't alone, ever, because I had characters to keep me company. I wasn't sad, because the books made me laugh. I wasn't bored, because, h.e.l.lo? Books! It was one of the greatest summers of my life.

In my late teens, I was going through a huge turmoil. I was extremely confused because I knew exactly what had happened to me, I remembered all of it, and I didn't know how that affected me. I kept seeing at abuse groups how messed up people were, and I didn't want to be like that. I kept seeing how easy it was to give in and feel sorry for yourself, and I didn't want to be like that. So I read. And when I read, I found characters who'd gone through some of the same things I had. Characters who had become strong, independent, healed women, despite what had happened to them. And I looked up to those women. That's what I wanted to be like, not a great big mess. I wanted to be okay! And, in books, I found a way to do that. Little steps, but these fictional characters helped me follow the right path.

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Later things got even more complicated. I made a lot of bad decisions. I did some really stupid things. I started having my bipolar crisis, which left me in a state where I couldn't control myself. I felt the world was falling apart, and there was just no way to stop it. And I wanted out. I wanted out of here ASAP. But there were books. And not only did books take me away when I really needed to get out of here-I could do it temporarily instead of permanently-but they gave me a reason to live. I mean, how could I possibly kill myself when there were so many books for me to read? So many characters to discover? So many worlds to see? I couldn't. And I lived, one day after the other.

You can't drive cross-country without gas in the tank, and you can't have a happily-ever-after without simple care and feeding of your relationship. You can't take people for granted, and you can't ignore those small moments of appreciation and acknowledgement. Romance can be as simple as saying "Please" and "Thank you." For example: Please know that your being here makes me happy. Thank you for making me smile.


Romance is truthful-in the sense that you don't lie your pants off, and you don't pretend to be someone you are not. You should be able to reveal your true self to the person who loves you, and they'll love you exactly as you are. Romance is knowing that you are loved without any requests or demands for change. To quote Shakespeare (Oh, come on, I had to do it once): "Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds, nor bends with the remover to remove. It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken."

ROMANCE MEANS BELIEVING YOU ARE WORTHY OF A HAPPY ENDING-AND WANTING TO GIVE ONE TO SOMEONE ELSE Everyone deserves happiness, and the knowledge that they are loved and awesome just the way they are. The trick to a happily-ever-after is knowing that the ever-after starts now. Right now. No, really.

May we all be happy, may we all feel the joy of romance, and may we all live happily ever after.

"When our heroines walk away from lying, cheating, abusive relationships, our readers stand up and cheer! When our heroes fail to fall for mean, selfish, manipulative women, our readers applaud! Men and women in real life and in romance novels find themselves trapped in unhealthy, destructive relationships all the time, and when they choose to believe they deserve love, respect, and healthy, enduring relationships, when they reclaim their lives and demand only excellent treatment and a love they can fully trust, life is good."



Bahls, Patrick. "DocTurtle Returns to Finish Lord of Scoundrels." http://www.smartb.i.t.c.hestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/docturtle-returns-to-finish-lord-of-scoundrels/, retrieved 12 November 2010.

Campbell, Anna. Personal interview, 12 October 2010.

Chase, Loretta. Personal interview, 12 November 2010.

Crusie, Jennifer. Personal interview, 15 October 2010.

Donnelly, Denise A., quoted in "When s.e.x Leaves the Marriage." New York Times, 3 June 2009. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/when-s.e.x-leaves-the-marriage, retrieved 7 December 2010.

Finlay, Janet, Director of Market Research, Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Personal interview, 16 November 2010.

Hayes, Donna. Speech at Spring Fling YWCA-NY, New York, New York, 24 June 2010.

James, Eloisa. Personal interview, 13 October 2010.

MacLean, Sarah. Personal interview, 12 November 2010.

Medeiros, Teresa. "A Romantic Hero Wouldn't Do That." http://articles.cnn.com/2010-05-31/living/tiger.jesse.romance.heroes_1_romance-hero-romance-writers-true-love?_s=PM:LIVING, retrieved 6 March 2011.

Roberts, Nora. Personal interview, 14 October 2010.

RWA Statistics on Romance Readership. http://www.rwa.org/cs/readership_stats, retrieved 7 June 2011.

Schoenthaler, Robin. "Will he hold your purse?" http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2009/10/04/will_he_hold_your_purse/, retrieved 27 November 2010.

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