Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

Sarah Wendell

Part 7

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Romance novels are full of conflict. Why else would you want to read about the same few people for three hundred pages if there wasn't drama to be had, savored, experienced, and solved? An entire romance where Nothing Happens would be dull indeed.

The awesome thing about romance conflict is that it can be so completely ridiculous. Really. There can be some absolutely crazypants reasons for bringing the hero and heroine together. It's no accident that most romance novels don't often feature a "singles scene," either. Most of the time, the couple in a romance find themselves together whether they like it or not, mostly due to conflict, drama, and ma.s.sive wtf-ery.

Consider the ways in which romance novel characters meet, and the problems that are created:

In a bar when the heroine's ex-boyfriend bets that the smoothest guy he knows won't be able to get her phone number (Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me) At a formal ball in front of everyone they know, with not only their mothers but their grandmothers, great aunts, and a.s.sorted siblings in attendance (any number of historical romances) In an antiques shop where he tries to offend her with an obscenely decorated timepiece, and she not only buys the watch but the figure he was after as well (Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels) At work, sort of, where she's the state's attorney working on a case and he's the police officer in charge, and they reconnect when she overhears a murder and he's a.s.signed to the case (Julie James, Something About You) At her family home when he's sent to marry her, sight unseen, because of a contract his father made, and she's so appalled she dresses up so she's 200 percent more fug-ugly, just to repel him (Catherine Coulter, Midsummer Magic) Next to her trailer after he's directed to protect her (Patricia Briggs, Moon Called) In a cold, abandoned castle where he's been hiding, and she's been sent to kill him (Kresley Cole, A Hunger Like No Other) On a highway when she's dressed as a giant beaver (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer) In a parlor when she shoots him with his own gun (Georgette Heyer, Devil's Cub) Under a tree when he falls drunkenly off a high branch onto her lap (Julia Quinn, Brighter Than the Sun) In a side parlor at a ball after she punched out some grabby-handed bonehead (Julia Quinn, The Duke and I) In a mountain cabin, unnerved but trying to be brave when a man shows up like an angry bear and wants to know what she's doing sleeping in his bed (Jill Shalvis, Instant Attraction) See? Piece of cake! Just put together your romance-novel-inspired hunting kit. If it works for them, it'll work for you. Just acquire a gun, a beaver suit, a betrothal agreement, some super glue, some Shakespeare, a bawdy antique, and go punch out and then shoot the person of your dreams. If only it were that easy to find a good beaver suit.

After they meet, is it a short hop, skip, and a jump to happily-ever-after? Of course not. That would be boring and utterly unrealistic.

Then again, the problems that romance protagonists face can be really quite c.u.mbersome:

He's undead, immortal, and wants to kill her.

The two of them must cohabitate or marry or both for upward of a calendar year to inherit big bucks-no whammies cashola in the amount of incredible wealth from a deceased and postmortem manipulative relative. (I have long said I want to get a law degree and specialize in just that kind of will and testament, the kind that force people to marry.) They have been betrothed to one another since birth, or since the nuchal fold test at twelve weeks gestation-and of course they hate each other.

He won her in a poker game with her wastrel piece of s.h.i.t father and has to marry her or she faces ruin and he faces dest.i.tution, which is almost the same thing, except not.

Her ex-husband, who is completely and utterly crazy, is stalking her across the country.

Two words: Serial. Killer.

They are working the same legal case from opposite sides of the bench.

He's a janitor; she's a nun.

They agree to pretend to be a couple, possibly even a betrothed one, and then break off the engagement at a set time, but of course they fall for one another.

He is buying her father's company, and he's only doing it because he hates her old man, but secretly he l.u.s.ts in his pants for her.

It was supposed to be a one-night stand.

He's on a brief leave from active duty service.

She has PTSD.

She's a werewolf.

He's the DJ; she's the rapper.

They had a Big Misunderstanding.

If they have s.e.x, the world will be destroyed.

If they don't have s.e.x, the world will be destroyed, but they can't stand each other.

See? No shortage of conflict, problems, and obstacles to overcome, from the possible to the patently ridiculous. Yet beyond the ridiculous (and the heaving bosoms), romance novels create a s.p.a.ce where every problem is solved and any conflict is worked through until it's not such a conflict any more, or, at the least, it's bearable and won't harm the happy ending for the characters. Stuff gets worked out, and tough conversations are had in romance novels, all with beneficial results. So even if he's an alien with the power to bench-press a building while undressing the heroine with his prehensile Jefferson Starship, the differences between them will be settled-and a hopeful, optimistic ending will be found.

There's a lot to learn from courtship and conflict resolution. When readers witness communication crises, and even big silly misunderstandings, they learn from the fictional example. Author Darlene Marshall says that romances are great for adjusting perspective to what matters and what can be a smaller (though often painful) problem: "I think reading romance novels, especially during rocky periods of my life when we had financial or health issues, helped me refocus on what's really important. Too often I think we can end up in stale relationships, especially those of us who've been married since dinosaurs roamed the planet. Sometimes reading a great romance reminds me life is about the people we love, and that together we can weather crises and come out better for it."

Most often, in a romance novel, the hero and heroine aren't looking for someone when they meet each other. In fact, amazing romance is often created when the two people aren't sure they like each other that much, but get stuck together-sometimes even literally. Perhaps you might want to pack a little super glue in that beaver suit...just a thought.

A reader who goes by the online handle Brussel Sprout says, "Romances established firmly in my mind that love is something worthwhile, worth hanging on for, and worth nurturing when you find it. Yes, the Emmentaler and Roquefort could be heavily layered, but the possibility that love can work is one that encouraged me to believe that I too would be able to have a sensible, sustainable relationship. I've been together with my husband for twenty years, married for sixteen, and I know that without romance novels, my love life would have been more chaotic and messy."

Plus, adds Shannon, seeing so many relationships intimately in fiction means additional clarity for her own relationships too: "When I was in a relationship that wasn't working out, I think that I was able to a.s.sess things to figure out what was wrong more easily because I had read so many romance novels and had seen so many different types of relationships. Not to say that I started viewing my relationship as a story or something like that, but I could realize that, hey, our only communication this week was that text four days ago. This is a problem."

Liz Talley agrees: "I do agree that romance books promote communication as the root of a healthy relationship. Very seldom do you see this to be false in a romance book."

Reader Amanda sees romances as a lesson in speaking up, and not avoiding the scary, difficult, awkward conversation, especially when the plots are a little ridiculous: "I think many romance novels are a lesson in What Not to Do, because so many involve the same plotline: Eyes Meet, Love, BIG MISUNDERSTANDING, HEA. And, like anyone else, what always gets me is how avoidable the Big Misunderstanding is. All anyone ever has to say is, 'Are you a spy?' 'I heard you killed your last wife,' or 'Did you make a bet that you could sleep with me within a month?' I think romance novels have taught me to just be brave and throw the words out there in the first place. At least then everyone is on the same page."

Reba says that the depictions of women and men in romances are actually, in her opinion, more liberated emotionally and s.e.xually than in other forms of entertainment: "I didn't expect real men to be the same as romance novel heroes, any more than I expected them to be the same as fantasy novel heroes (and let's face it, no man is going to live up to Aragorn, no matter how awesome he is), but one thing I found surprising was how sympathetic I was to the men.

Looking to find your perfect match? Do it romance-novel style! Just acquire a gun, a beaver suit, a betrothal agreement, some super glue, some Shakespeare, a bawdy antique, and go punch out and then shoot the person of your dreams. If only it were that easy to find a good beaver suit.

"They had feelings, thoughts, doubts, fears, stupid habits that got them into trouble. Their strength did not mean they were invulnerable. The most common tropes of movies, television, magazines, etc., about how men were or should be did not take into account their humanity until well after romance novels did. Male vulnerability was either a sign of weakness or illness, or the result of a devastating event-not part of the normal, everyday world of men as human beings. Yes, I'm generalizing, but the exceptions only prove the rule.

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"I think romance novels have taught me to just be brave and throw the words out there in the first place. At least then everyone is on the same page."-AMANDA, A READER

"That was a tough marriage to mend. Rees was terrible in bed and had to learn, slowly, how to actually make love as opposed to have s.e.x. I have gotten a tremendous amount of mail about Rees over the years: many readers say it's their favorite book; others hate him and can't imagine why Helene fell back in love with him. A significant number have written to me about Rees's att.i.tude toward s.e.x and how it parallels men they've met over the years."

Seeing bad relationships improved can also help identify bad relationships in reality. Reader MD says that she "grew up with a very dysfunctional (and conservative) family, and for a while I liked the typical 'big misunderstanding' plots. From my point of view, they reflected reality. Plus the bodice rippers seemed to reflect some sort of reality as well, in the sense that the woman was the 'good girl' overcome by a hero or her own pa.s.sion.

"The big change came for me when I started reading romance discussion boards, and heard people saying that such heroes are jerks in real life, and 'why they don't just talk to each other.' Seeing these reactions from other people opened for me a new way to look at things. Eventually, it motivated me to get into therapy and learn better patterns and better relationships."

One thing to remember, even in the fantasy-ripe environment of romance novels, is that not all problems can be solved. Sometimes, identifying them is enough of a lesson.

Author Sarah MacLean has a cautionary perspective. In real life, it's not always possible to expect someone to make a huge change-though it can be done. And that possibility of hope is its own motivation, whether it's motivation to read another page, or try another day: "Ninety percent of the time, in real life, a relationship is not going to change bad behavior. I must confess that I hold firm to the belief that, in general, leopards (or leopardesses) do not change their spots: neurotic, untrusting women will always be neurotic and untrusting; possessive, dominating men will always be dominating; laziness and lack of motivation does not go away; and cheaters will always lean toward cheating.

"Romance novels help with perspective: 'Yes, my husband's out of work, but at least my virginity was never wagered by a wastrel father in a card game!'"

-COURTNEY MILAN "Of course, romance novels are built on the idea that love conquers all and that a great relationship can evolve a hero or a heroine out of bad behavior and into the light-reformed rakes make the best husbands, do they not?

"And the truth is that we all have these people in our lives-the reformed rake who found love and monogamy, the slacker who found love and a career, the domineering alpha who is now a p.u.s.s.ycat, the untrusting girl who, through love, has come to believe in herself and her appeal. These obstacles (however insurmountable) have been tackled; these stories (however rare) are real. And they give us hope. Which is perhaps why they make such excellent reads."

"I also think that romance novels are valuable not just for the romantic relationship, but for the value that they place on community and friendship and belonging."

-COURTNEY MILAN Romances also serve as a lovely reality check, as author Courtney Milan explains: "Romance novels help with perspective: 'Yes, my husband's out of work, but at least my virginity was never wagered by a wastrel father in a card game!'

"I also think that romance novels are valuable not just for the romantic relationship, but for the value that they place on community and friendship and belonging. In our world, it's so easy to just disappear and be alone, and it's always important to have the reminder that no matter how bad things seem, it will always be better with good friends and family."

Kidnapping and dukes aside, when real and painful issues are addressed in romances, it can be terribly rea.s.suring and comforting, as reader Teshara can attest: "This Is All I Ask by Lynn Kurland is the first romance I read in my adult life and it really did change my outlook on relationships.

"It's OK to be traumatized. It's OK to have PTSD. It's OK to have flashbacks. It's OK to be broken. It's OK to be afraid of life. And it's OK to not be able to change these things on your own. It's OK to question your motivation for loving another person. It's OK to question why that person loves you.

"And the person you end up being with doesn't have to be 'normal.' Sometimes you can only trust people that have been through what you have, and you end up growing strong together instead of having to go it alone."

Romances provide hope and comfort that when things are really awful in the present, they will get better. Alpha Lyra writes that romances served a very crucial purpose in her life: "I didn't start reading romance until after my twelve-year marriage fell apart due to my husband's infidelity. Those years during the deterioration of the marriage and the divorce proceedings were horrible. Night after night, I cried myself to sleep.

"Romance novels not only gave me comfort during these awful times; I think they helped shield me from becoming cynical about love and thinking that all guys will eventually betray me. They made me willing to try again. So I'm still looking for my real HEA."

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