Some fear that romances might give readers unrealistic expectations about relationships and unhealthy attitudes about sex, a theory posited by relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam in a July essay in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.
To be fair, one could equally well say that there's only a "handful of anecdotes" supporting the idea that romances are good for you (albeit a large handful). It might be interesting to know whether Burnett and Beto's findings would be replicated across larger groups of romance readers (they only interviewed "15 [...] women between the ages of 18 and 55"), because they found mixed effects:Not so, says Eric Selinger, associate professor of English at DePaul University, who uses romances in his research on love, desire and literary pleasure. "Every year or two someone sends up a warning flare: 'Reading romance is bad for you!' There's no … data, no evidence — just a handful of anecdotes."
The women agreed with Alberts' (1986) findings that the fictional conversations in romance novels inform and reflect the actual male-female conversations of the social world. One participant described how she used the communication in the novels to help her "communicate with the people around [her]." Some of the participants explained that they were able to have the right expectations of their romantic partners, but one participant explained that she "sometimes compares" her husband with the hero, which "flusters" him. Other influences of the romance novels include a change in their mood because "it helps you kind of get yourself out of the context of whatever is going on." A couple of the participants explained that romance novels help you to communicate better with your romantic partner, partly because the novels give "a guy's point of view." The comments stating that conflict was handled similarly to that in romance novels were divided almost equally between "yes" and "no." [...]
The final question asked during each focus group was if the participants thought that romance novels have had an impact on their relationships. They explained that there were some comparisons in their relationships to those in the novels, but even when there was not, they still stayed committed to their "real life" partners. However, two of the women said that they now knew why some of their relationships did not work out--because they were not "looking for real substance." They were "looking for the fairy tale romance novel."The whole of that study is available here. Regarding the question of whether fictions are good or bad for us, Robert Sternberg argues that
All our lives we have heard stories of various kinds, many with love as a leitmotif. We thus have an array of stories we can draw on when composing our own. (26)
We come to relationships with many preconceived ideas. These ideas, or stories, are not right or wrong in themselves, although they may be more or less adaptive - that is, more or less healthy in promoting a good fit to the environment. What is viewed as adaptive varies over time and place. For example, one culture might view love as an indispensable part of marriage; another culture might view love as irrelevant to marriage. In both cultures, these values are likely to be taught not as somewhat arbitrary matters of cultural convention, but as matters of right and wrong. What are viewed as "realities" are rather perceptions of realities - stories. (7)
stories are so powerful in our lives, and also so hard to change. We may continue in a relationship that is dysfunctional in many respects simply because it does represent love to us, "sick" as that love may seem to others. We may even see the culture as supporting the kind of love we have. (221)
|Tristan and Isolde - adulterous love|
|Cinderella waiting for her Prince|
Burnett, Ann, & Rhea Reinhardt Beto, 2000. ‘Reading Romance Novels: An Application of Parasocial Relationship Theory’, North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre, 13.
Lamb, Joyce. "Readers' hearts remain true to romance novels." USA TODAY, 14 February 2012. [Edited to add: A fuller version of Eric's thoughts on the benefits of reading romance can be found at the end of another post, on the USA Today's Happy Ever After blog.]
Sternberg, Robert. Love is a Story: A New Theory of Relationships. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
The first image is of John William Waterhouse's "Tristan and Isolde with the Potion" and the second is of the cover of Louis Ferdinand Gottschalk, David Kilburn Stevens, Edward Warren Corliss and Robert Ayres Barnet's Cinderella and the Prince; or, Castle of Heart's Desire: A fairy Excuse for Songs and Dances. Boston: White-Smitz music pub. co., 1904. Both came from Wikimedia Commons.