Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

Sarah Wendell

Part 9

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I am a longtime lurker and I am in need of some advice. I have recently met a guy through an online dating site. We IMed every day for three weeks (we also talked on the phone) and then met in person. That meeting lasted the entire day. We continue to talk almost every day and have gone out again. I keep getting mixed signals from him. When we talk he sometimes references wanting a chance with me. But he is continuing to meet people on the dating site. Before we ever went out he told me he was a "friends first and see where that goes" kind of guy.

I am OK with that as that is how I operate. I just think that I would rather he didn't reference dating me and telling me he is going on a date with someone else in the same conversation. I would be OK just being friends with him, but I have the feeling that if I let this continue I am going to get hurt. Am I just deluding myself? Should I tell him that I can't continue this way? Should I just go with the flow and stop worrying? My feeling is if he really wanted a chance with me, then he's got it, and why is he dating other people? If he doesn't want a chance with me, then why does he keep mentioning it?

Sign me-So very confused.

Dear So Very Confused:.

In a romance novel, it's no secret or mystery that the hero will like the heroine and the heroine will like the hero, and at some point between them, lips and a.s.sorted other bits will meet. In real life, there's that pesky lack of omniscience to deal with. It's so annoying, especially when, as it seems from your letter, you're not sure what he wants... and you're not sure what you want, either.

I think there are two problems here. First: his definition of the word "dating" and your definition of the word "dating" may be two very different things. Does "dating" imply exclusivity or not? You seem to think you'd like it to, while his definition seems to be entirely different.

Second, what do you want? It sounds to me like you have a rather fun friendship with this guy, despite his mixed signals of "wanting a chance." You talk often; you see each other. You've told me a lot about what he's saying and what he's doing, but what about you?

So answer these questions: What do you want? What does "having a chance" mean? Is his referring to dating other women a question of manners and courtesy, or is it a question of your being unable to voice aloud that you'd like him to stop dating others and focus on you? Or do you want him to come to that conclusion on his own?

If he'd like to have a chance with you and he says so repeatedly, you need to spell out what has to happen for him to have the opportunity to be your boyfriend. If you'd rather be dating-as-maybe-friends, that clearly means, in his world, he will date other women and meet other women. If that bothers you, you need to speak up.

If you don't really want an exclusive relationship, then ask him to keep the details to himself. You can set the terms of conversation. If he sees you as a friend, then he feels comfortable telling you about other women he's seeing. But if he sees you as someone with whom he'd like a more meaningful relationship, telling you about other dates seems a strange thing to do.

If you want to stop worrying and wondering altogether, you need to figure some things out for yourself. First, ask yourself if you want an exclusive relationship with him. If you don't, then let him do his thing and you do yours, and ask him not to dish about other chicks he's dating as it bothers you a bit. If you do want that relationship, then speak up and tell him what you want.

He may keep mentioning the idea of being with you to gauge your reaction. He may be mentioning it because "having a chance" with you means getting you in bed. Who the h.e.l.l knows? The only things under your control are your actions and reactions.

So: make your signals clear, and see how he responds. Decide if he is the one you want to take your chance on, and then offer him that chance he's been talking about-and explain the terms you're comfortable with. If he is what you want, go for it. A little miscommunication never hurt anyone, except when it adds two hundred pages of conflict when a simple conversation would have solved it.

Being the heroine of your own happy ending does require that you ask for what you want instead of waiting for it to come to you. Sometimes, figuring out what you want before you act on it is the harder of the two.

Lo and behold, a few months later, I emailed So Very Confused to ask whether she was still friends with this person, and things had changed. Her response: "I am actually dating the guy now. Amazing how a little of just asking the other person what's up will answer questions! Getting the guts to do so is another story..."

I asked her for her advice to anyone else in a similar situation, and she wrote:

I guess for me it was a matter of [needing] a yes or a no answer. I couldn't stand the not knowing any longer. I wrote to you in February but I didn't point-blank tell him how I felt until the end of May (I tried the "Let's go with the flow" method first). And I told him exactly how I felt and what I wanted. And he turned me down. Told me no.

And you know what? I survived. Yes, I was upset that first day but I had my answer. The twist to the story is that we continued to be friends (the friendship was that awesome-I still wanted to talk to him). Then about a month later he [came] to me and [said he'd] changed his mind. The last month of friendship [had] made him want to at least try a relationship. And we have been together ever since. The rule of open, honest, let-it-all-hang-out communication stands. And it works for us.

That is my story. I hit my breaking point and just went for it, nerves and all. It didn't go down how I wanted it to...but in the end it worked out. I will also say that after I was turned down I didn't just sit at home and wallow. I went out and did stuff (a road trip, kayaking, hiking, etc.) and I think that hearing about my many adventures also cleared his vision to just how cool I was. (Modest too ;-) ) I'm not sure I can contain my own giddypants at Confused's happy ending. In order to be the hero of your own life, you have to decide what you want first. You are a person worth being with, and you should first and foremost be happy with yourself and have the confidence to say what it is you want.

And, as Confused points out, as scary as it is, you have to ask for what you want, or you'll never get it-you cannot expect anyone, male or female, friend or significant other, to read your mind and antic.i.p.ate exactly what you want. You must speak up for yourself.

There's a terrible vulnerability in admitting how you feel and asking someone to admit their feelings in return. Most people are instinctively resistant to being vulnerable-including emotionally-but the payoff is almost always worth the risk. Even if that payoff comes later, as Confused demonstrates, when the person you've revealed yourself to has realized what a treasure you are.

If you're more than pa.s.singly familiar with romance novels, though, you're probably raising a brow since part of the romance fantasy is often that the guy can antic.i.p.ate the heroine's every desire-and in some novels knows what's best for the heroine before she does. In other books, the heroine decides she knows best and figures out how to bring the hero around to her thinking.

Ultimately, in just about each and every case, the characters figure out what they want and decide to go after it. This step in an active direction usually means revealing everything the person feels, and what that person wants. It's risky, but the payoff is worth the terror. Just ask Confused, who is, right now, happy she took the risk.

We Know That Happily-Ever-After Takes Work.

Here is the number one lesson from romance novels. Ready? You've read this far, you might as well get the payoff now!

As I wrote earlier, happily-ever-after isn't sometime in the future. It exists right now, and starts with you. More importantly, courtship, the process of charming someone and demonstrating in word, thought, and action how much you care about them, does not end with the declaration of love or the commitment between you.

Courtship becomes part of relationship maintenance, but "maintenance" itself is a horribly uns.e.xy word. Getting your oil changed as part of routine maintenance? Not fun. But getting the oil changed and the car washed on your significant other's vehicle? Now that's a very kind and lovely thing to do. That kind of care and thoughtfulness is what sustains the happy until, you'll pardon the bad and sickly sweet joke, it's never ending.

"Routine care and maintenance" are among the most uns.e.xy and uninspiring words. Oil changes, annual physicals, and food and water do not always inspire pa.s.sion or the remote possibility of poetry. While the absence of bad sonnets might be a good thing, the absence of care will wither a relationship faster than an orchid outside in an ice storm.

It's better to think of the care and feeding of your relationships as "courtship," only without that pesky insecurity of not knowing if the person feels the same way about you.

A very wise reader of Eloisa James's wrote to her, "I've come to believe that people need to fall in love more than once if they are to stay together." That is so very true. And while many romances are the depiction of falling in love once and for all, treating your personal romance as a repeated courtship keeps that relationship happy and healthy.

While many romances are the depiction of falling in love once and for all, treating your personal romance as a repeated courtship keeps that relationship happy and healthy.

Is the never-ending courtship present in romance novels? Well, it's not exactly present in a single novel-but it is present in the entire genre, one happy courtship after another. Most romance novels end with the commitment. But if the details of a happily-ever-after aren't always written out explicitly in the text, how does the reader know, and more importantly believe, that the happily-ever-after is going to be happy in the ever-after? Because both the hero and heroine have demonstrated that they know how to take care of the other person, and of their relationship.

It is really bothersome when you read a romance and you don't believe the hero or heroine understands how to make a happy relationship work. With a romance where you don't have confidence in the hero and heroine and suspect that when things get tough, the hero or heroine couldn't find their own a.s.s with both hands, much less help one another, it is easy to fear somehow that the happiness isn't going to last.

There are some people who couldn't spot and copy decent behavior if they were programmed to do nothing but feed other people's parking meters. The hero who remains a.s.siduously dedicated to his preference to jump to erroneous conclusions and never seems to realize his own mistakes is not going to rea.s.sure a reader of his eternal heroism. The heroine who is a selfish or clueless cloud-living goofball who needs a man to save her every third second because she will without fail investigate that strange noise in the kitchen when the serial killer is on the loose and the kitchen door is open-yeah, not so much with the confidence in that person's ability to be an adult and care for an adult relationship. Idiocy and self-absorption are not heroic or inspiring.

Reading about couples who can successfully weather just about any horrible thing, from death, murder investigations, and blackmail to the possibility of interplanetary collision brought about by not enough kissing, gives readers confidence and the belief that those two characters can survive anything, and gives room for the possibility that any real problem can be solved too-with enough interplanetary gun battles, of course. Author Toni Blake says that reading romances helps her with her own real-life relationships because, "Reading books that all come with a 'happily-ever-after' generally keeps me working toward solutions in my own marriage, and seeing things in a more positive light. c.u.mulatively, they send the message that nothing is unsolvable.

"In my observation, sadly, in real life, most people don't overcome truly huge relationship obstacles. But the point of a romance novel is to make you believe that you can, to help you see the possibility. Romance novels show people ultimately sacrificing their pride, putting their hearts at risk, exercising forgiveness, and exhibiting faith in the person they love-not stupidly or blindly, but with the belief that love is of great value and worth fighting for."

There's always another obstacle. Either that problem faces both parties, or an internal struggle exists on one side, but there's always another c.r.a.pful difficulty to deal with. That's why happiness as a present and abiding element to a relationship is so important: without it, those obstacles are impossible. If people treated their relationships like an extended courtship, and made it a point to demonstrate that they care about the people they're with, overwhelming problems may not seem so daunting because there's someone there to help.

One way to demonstrate courtship as a matter of course in an established relationship is to remember that courtship is the act of trying to persuade someone to choose you-by demonstrating that you've chosen them. If you look at each day of your relationship as another opportunity to choose to be with the person you're with, you'll display those feelings of affection in your actions and your words-and you'll refrain from taking that person's presence for granted.

Author Courtney Milan says that another way to keep a relationship healthy is to feed it-but not in the way you might think: "In every romance novel I've written to date, there is a point when the hero feeds the heroine. Nothing elaborate (at least not so far)-but so far, my guys have made their women tea (in a novella) or bought oranges and bread (in a book) or brought her tea the morning after (tea is good; have you noticed?), or he's made her a hot toddy (in another book).

"Sometimes the trick to surviving the mountains of external c.r.a.p that the world throws at you is to make sure that you share the little stuff."

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"In every romance novel I've written to date, there is a point when the hero feeds the heroine...Sometimes the trick to surviving the mountains of external c.r.a.p that the world throws at you is to make sure that you share the little stuff."

"One thing I think most outside the genre don't realize is that romance protagonists earn their HEA. They have to work for it. I believe that above all things, romance novels teach us that HEAs don't come easy. As in real life, these relationships take effort, dedication, and sacrifice."


Author Anne Calhoun says that she sees the happily-ever-after as accepting imperfections, both in one's self and in someone else: "A common misperception about romance characters is that they have to be perfect, that they've earned their HEA because they are already sane, stable, thin, beautiful, ripped, honest, loyal, rich, and/or willing to risk it all for the person they love, but just need a little nudge to get their HEA. While authors have begun to write physically 'different' characters-perhaps 'curvy' (as if curves are somehow indicative of a character flaw...like enjoying food), or 'mousy' or 'librarian'-the characters that resonate most with me are the ones who are truly, deeply flawed and somehow manage to be loved for exactly who they are.

"Maybe that's the key thing for me. For me, characters 'earn' an HEA less than they 'accept' the HEA. I don't think we (or characters) earn love or happily-ever-afters. They/ we don't start out unworthy and become worthy. They/we start out muddled and become less muddled. If we writers do our jobs well, they start out human and become more human. Sometimes that acceptance comes from the hero or heroine loving them just as they are, and sometimes it comes from the hero or heroine learning something about themselves they need to know in order to move past their pain and become more fully alive and in love. That's what really makes romances great. The characters, after their trials and tribulations, are more fully alive, more fully engaged in the world, more fully human. They may live the exact same life, but inside they are changed.

"As a reader I want to see a character grow. I don't really care where they start from, or even where they end up, as long as that character has grown through the conflict faced and their interaction with the hero or heroine."

Sometimes, circ.u.mstances are tough and people are miserable, and big girl pants must be put on with aplomb so that the trouble can be dealt with, sword fighting optional. The effort and work to look at one's own faults is onerous, but any amount of self-examination can make a definite difference when things are in the c.r.a.pper. Debbie Macomber has examined relationship repair tools in many of her books, most notably Hannah's List: "In my book, there's a couple, Winter and Pierre, who have gotten into a routine of fighting, separating, and then breaking up again. It's a pattern that's continued for years. They're in love, but they can't seem to get along. Another character suggests that Winter make a list of everything Pierre does that irritates her and then write down her reaction to that behavior.

"A common misperception about romance characters is that they have to be perfect, that they've earned their HEA because they are already sane, stable, thin, beautiful, ripped, honest, loyal, rich, and/or willing to risk it all for the person they love, but just need a little nudge to get their HEA."


"When she sees how she's nagged and pouted and exploded at him, she recognizes her own part in their troubled relationship. She persuades Pierre to do the same thing, and once they see what's happening to them they're able to resolve their problems and eventually marry. A reader wrote to tell me she'd used the same technique in dealing with a situation in her marriage, and it helped her and her husband tremendously.

"In addition, another character in Hannah's List, Michael, has to learn how to have a relationship with Macy, despite the fact that a) he's reluctant to have a relationship with anyone, and b) Macy is just so different from him-too different in his view. He's still grieving for his wife, Hannah, who left him a letter encouraging him to remarry, even providing him with a list of candidates, which included Macy. So, what drives the story emotionally is Michael's need to figure out how to see Macy on her own terms, not his, which means he has to see himself differently too. This was an interesting exploration for me, the author, as well as for Michael!"

Reader Sybylla agrees that recognition of past behavior and the possible need to change it can make a story extraordinary: "Something I do look for is that the hero/heroine challenges the other person in some fundamental way. It can be because he or she makes the other want to be a better person, or forces them to reevaluate their a.s.sumptions, or even just causes them to change their social behavior.

"One of the things that makes Mr. Darcy so appealing to me is his simple recognition that he had been rude, and that rudeness is not okay. To stick with Austen, I like Persuasion in part because both characters have to reevaluate their past behavior and question why they made the choices they did.

"In Bet Me, Cal challenges Min to accept herself and to see herself as desirable, while she forces him to take a closer look at how he's always acted with women."

Readers and authors also know that happiness doesn't just show up any more than great s.e.x does. Happiness takes work. As Julia London says, "There are ebbs and flows to every relationship, and the trick is to weather the storms and head for calm seas. That sounds trite, but it is so true. Every relationship has its moments. Every couple has its faults. The couple has to work really hard to reach that happily-ever-after, in real life and in books."

Author Robyn Carr says the question of making a happily-ever-after work lies in the focus: "In a conversation with my grown son about the power of intention and a positive outlook on life, I posed the argument, 'But bad things do happen to good people.' And he said, 'Bad things happen to all people, but so do good things.' Focus becomes a compelling force in life, and in writing romances. Concentrating on the positive, on the good in life, and finding a way to get there makes for good relationships and a successful life."

Romance reader Jess Granger says, "My first real boyfriend didn't love me with a pa.s.sion that could lead to my HEA. My second was all pa.s.sion, but no substance. I knew he couldn't be the one to stand up for me and support or protect me. I found my husband later, a perfect balance of pa.s.sion, friendship, and support.

"I recognized those things in him because romances made me think about what I wanted and what I liked in a hero...I learned how I wanted to be treated. I am reaping the benefits of having an open mind, enough s.e.xual power and agency to communicate what I want, like, and need in the bedroom, and a knowledge that every couple has dark moments, but it's how you work through them that leads to your happy-ever-after."

Shannon H. agrees with Jess, and says that romances have helped her figure out that, for her, relationships were preferable to hooking up because she had learned how to create a happy one: "I started reading them when I was around eleven or twelve years old (I'm nineteen now), and immediately set super high standards for myself in what I wanted in a guy. Things like Treats Me Well, Spends Time with Me, Makes Me Smile, Compromises, etc. Things that are perfectly realistic, I feel. It made me choose to not settle when I could have done so just to say that I had a boyfriend, and being in college now I think romance has made me perfectly comfortable in turning down hook-ups in favor of an actual relationship."

Professor Sarah Frantz, romance reader and reviewer, says that romances have taught her similar lessons as Shannon has described: "Romances taught me everything I needed to know about how to communicate in a relationship and I credit them with my twenty-years-and-going-strong relationship with my partner. They taught me to make sure everyone got a say. They taught me to make sure everything was covered-everything. No hiding that one last little niggle. It all has to come out.

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