Lies my romance novels taught me.

Confession: I read romance novels. You know, the ones with the slightly awkward covers, steamy bedroom scenes, and sappy happy ever after endings. I used to live for them. Part of me liked seeing someone’s love story work out when it became obvious that my own love life was more of a farce than a romantic comedy. Another part of me liked reading about the leading man – the tall, dark, handsome, manly yet sensitive heroes that would sweep the heroine off her feet. Still another part of me secretly craved the sex scenes. There is some truth, I’ll admit, to the idea that romance novels are porn for women.
(It should be noted that I now tend towards books where everyone dies in the end.)

We live, I believe, in a culture of Happy Ever After. We read the books, watch the movies, invest years into tv shows that often show us exactly what we want – two people beating the odds, overcoming the unlikely to end up happily together and in love. We sigh at the final page, the final frame, the final episode when years of strife end in a kiss.
“That’s what I want,” we say to ourselves. “That’s the love story I want to live.”

So we go about our lives expecting that. Every guy or girl could be our surprise chance meeting. Every first date could be our last first date, the beginning of the relationship. Even our old loves could come back and rekindle the still-there romance. Someone who saw you as merely a friend could wake up one day and finally see you.

And some of our love stories will go this way. Some happen exactly like something out of a fairytale. But even then, they aren’t going to be perfect or easy. They aren’t going to be relationships with conflict neatly resolved in a chapter or episode. We can’t build love and trust in the span of 120 minutes.

We’ve bought into a set of lies perpetuated by the culture that gave us Disney princesses, How I Met Your Mother, and Nora Roberts. We’ve believed in lies that only make sense in the fantasy land the writers have built from nothing. We’ve allowed these lies to shape our approach to sex, love, and relationships.

Lie #1: Sex will always be perfect.
I’ve never read an awkward sex scene in a romance novel. Whether it’s between two virgins, a virgin and an experienced partner, or two experienced people having sex together for the first time, it’s always perfect. There are no uncomfortable moments or pain, and everyone has an orgasm. Always. Maybe even more than one. The guy has no performance anxiety, the woman is always in an adventurous mood, and the bedroom scenes are always explosive.
Ha. Now, I’ve never had sex, but I have friends who have. I’ve heard the stories about the awkward first time, the pain of the women, or the guy not lasting long. I’ve listened to the frustration and confusion as they say, “It’s not supposed to be like this.”
The truth is, sex is messy. Sex is a tad awkward (I mean you are naked, for God’s sake). And there’s a learning curve. What works for one person won’t work for another, because our bodies are different When it comes to sex, there just isn’t one perfect/right way. There is only the way that works best for you and your partner. (Also, the sex scenes in movies? The hot, intense moments in the bedroom? Fake. Something to remember.)

Lie #2: Sex comes before love.
The couples in romance novels and movies fall into bed pretty quick. Maybe they wait for the socially acceptable 3 (?) dates or they give into the sexual chemistry. We see the sexual tension and watch as the couple admits they just aren’t strong enough to resist.
In the last romance novel I read, every time after they had sex, the man and woman would look at each other and say, “I still don’t love you.” The sex was just sex. Just physical release. The love came later, at the end. But sex was first.
That sexual chemistry is hard to resist. As a virgin who struggles with lust, I get it. But I don’t like the idea that I won’t find love until after I’ve had sex. I don’t believe that my love for a man is less because we’ve never been physically intimate. The idea of using something as unpredictable as sex to determine whether or not you love someone is a dangerous game. I’m not saying you can’t have sex without love, because you can – people do it everyday. But don’t believe that sex determines that love. Love should come first, allowing sex to be a passionate physical expression of that love.

Lie #3: All love stories resolve.
One common motif (fancy, huh?) in romance stories is the triumph of unrequited love. The return of a lost love, the realization that a friend is more than a friend, the childhood crush finally being returned – each have created some heart-wrenching moments. We read books and watch movies where it all falls into place; everything comes together exactly how you think it should. The hero always comes back. There is always a declaration of love. Love always conquers and is always, ultimately, returned.
Only it’s not. Not always, not in the real world. Your childhood love won’t always come back. The best friend you love won’t always love you back. Sometimes the perfect guy or girl that you know is for you actually isn’t for you. We waste time waiting for impossibilities instead of going after maybes. We find ourselves wishing the man or woman of our dreams leaves the person they’ve found happiness with in order to give us what we want. We become selfish.
The truth is that not every love story has a happy ending. Some are tragic, ending in heartbreak. Some just aren’t meant to be. The longer we wait for those stories to gives us the ending we the want, the resolution we’ve been told we will get, the more we miss out on the story we’ve meant to have.

Lie #4: There is no need for God in a successful relationship.
Most tv shows, movies, and novels are of a secular nature. There are no religious themes or implications. God is as absent from the stories as He is from much of our society. So we are given examples of relationships that succeed without God’s presence. A couple meets, falls in love, gets married perhaps, and deals with all the struggles that come with it without relying on God. He quite simply isn’t there.
I’ve seen relationships where God is an important part and relationships where He isn’t. I’ve seen relationships without God succeed and relationships with Him fail. Allowing God into your relationship isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get your happy ever after. But is you, as a Christian, have a personal relationship with God, He should be at the center of every aspect of your life. We try so hard to do things on our own. We figure we can muddle through. But sometimes the problems are too big, the struggles too great. Sometimes we need to sit with our partner and admit we don’t know what we’re doing. But we do have a God who offers love, strength, and peace.
We have a God who will see us into our happy ever after if only we ask. Besides, shouldn’t we endeavor to mirrors God’s amazing love in our relationships and eventual marriage?

I’m not saying that reading romance novels is a sin, or that you shouldn’t watch romantic comedies or cute tv sitcoms. (God save me from legalism.) The problem, as I see it, is the intention with which we read the books and watch the movies; what we hope to get out of them. The problem is what we let them mean to us, what we them write on our hearts, and how we let them affect our ideas of love, relationships, and sex. The problem is when we let a novel or show teach us something it’s not meant to teach us.

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On the perils of unrealistic expectations.

To the ladies, and for the gentlemen:

I grew up watching Disney princesses fall in love in 83 minutes. I would dress up in the costumes my parents bought and imagine I was Belle being swept off her feet with promise of everlasting love and an enormous library. I would bury my nose in Little Women and watch the March sisters fall in love one by one. I pretended to be Anne Shirley as I strolled through the field beside my house, waiting for my very own Gilbert Blythe to confess his love.

As I grew older, I traded in my Disney movies and Louisa May Alcott books for romantic comedies, television shows, and romance novels. I let my childhood imaginings morph into adult expectations as I read and watched couple after couple fall in love. Each ending held the promise of my own happily ever after.

Young people today look at the world and we expect something from it. We feel it owes us something. There is a sense of entitlement, I suppose, when we approach the most mundane things, such as education, careers, relationships, and love. We place expectations on these things.

We have a society drowning in a culture of happily ever after. We read the books, watch the movies, get addicted to the television shows, and we believe that we will have that too. We believe we will have the perfect boyfriend who is equal parts masculine and sensitive. He will proclaim his love in romantic gestures in front of an audience. He will sit with us as we watch Titanic and rub our feet. He will be possessive but not jealous; kind and compassionate; he will tell us about his feelings and hold us when we cry. He will be the perfect sexual partner, an Adonis of a man, and he will make us fall head over heels for him. He will fight for us.

We want a guy who is the living embodiment of a character in a book. And we believe we are settling when he doesn’t come around. We have a mental checklist in our heads, compiled as we read book after book, watch movie after movie. We make our future husband into some impossible amalgamation of Mr. Darcy, Chandler Bing, Marshall Eriksen, Robert Downey, Jr. circa Ironman and Sherlock Holmes, and the Norse vampire Eric Northman. (Okay, so maybe that’s just me…)

But really, who can live up to that?

Ladies, we hate being compared to the actresses, celebrities, and supermodels we see on television and in magazines. We look at them and know we will never be like them. We can’t be that thin, that made up, that well dressed, that airbrushed, that picture-perfect-traffic-stopping beautiful all the time, if ever. When we see a guy we like look at those gorgeous women and say, “Wow, that’s the kind of woman I want” we are crushed. That’s it, we think. We can never have him. We are afraid of constantly being compared, of coming up short and not being enough. We could never satisfy him.

We don’t want to go through our entire relationship being second best.

It’s unfair that we turn around and do this to the poor unsuspecting men who get written off before we give them a chance. I’ve done this. I’ve looked at a guy who was interested and instantly began comparing him to all the characters I’ve fallen in love with over the years. He’s no –insert ideal male character here- I would say to myself. He doesn’t have this or that, and those are important.

There is a difference between having a list of deal breakers and a list of unattainable characteristics. It’s one thing for me to want a man who makes me laugh. It’s entirely different for me to want a real-life Marshall from How I Met Your Mother.

We shouldn’t want the men in our lives and hearts to be carbon copies of a writer’s imagination. We shouldn’t try to mold them into what we want or what we think we need. We shouldn’t expect them to live up to a fantasy that is unattainable. We shouldn’t set them up to fail.

To be in a relationship should be about being exactly the person you are with the person who loves you because of it. It should be about letting the man (or woman) in our life be the person God created without expectations of them turning into our secret book-fueled fantasy. Because here’s a secret, the perfect guy for you is going to be better than anything a writer could have dreamed up. God is the master of design and creation. He can give each of us the exact man or woman to complement our best and worst characteristics.

We just have to be willing to let go of our lists, of the heroes we hold dear, of the requirements we think we need. We need to be willing to trust God and trust ourselves minus the unrealistic expectations from our favorite books and movies. We have to have a little faith that God is the better author for our love story.