I like romance novels. At least some of them. Hey, one of my favorite novels ever is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Lately, romance novels have taken a beating from some Christian writers and speakers and, in many cases, rightly so. It’s a very bad idea to base expectations about relationships and marriage on happily-ever-after fiction. You see, falling in love isn’t the same as staying in love or making a commitment or fostering a long-term marriage. And romance novels are mostly about that falling-in-love stuff.
I think we can read romance novels (of the PG/PG-13 kind; I’m not talking 50 Shades here), as long as we filter through them and don’t pull comparisons to real life. Don’t expect your husband to be as lovey-dovey as the heroine of the romance novel or your sex scenes to be quite so seamless as they are on the page.
The real danger, though, is the underlying themes that we may accept hook, line, and sinker without even realizing. Think of theme as the lesson or moral of the story. For instance, the theme of Red Riding Hood? Be careful with strangers. The theme of The Wizard of Oz? “There’s no place like home.”
But some themes are myths, especially in romance novels. Let’s take a look at a few:
Love conquers all. So what if the guy you love is a time traveler and bounces in and out of your life at various ages? So what if your love interest is a vampire who desperately wants to suck your blood dry? These are minor challenges in the face of Invincible Love! So say most romance novels. Sure, there may be 200-300 pages of figuring out how to make it work, but they always do. Somehow or other, their love makes all of the obstacles surmountable.
The thing is, I believe this one to an extent — in that active love, practiced by both spouses as described in Scripture — can indeed conquer obstacles. But romance and “chemistry” can’t. In the real world, you need someone who shares godly values with you and who will put elbow-grease effort into your relationship.
Real love happens at first sight. One of the hackneyed exchanges in romance novels is a single person asking an attached person: “How do you know when you’re in love?” And the wiser, more experienced person answers, “When you meet that right person, you just know.”
Balderdash! Real chemistry happens at first sight. Real love takes time and care to develop. Sure, you want to have chemistry with your spouse, but if you no longer feel your tongue hanging and your toes curling at the sight of your beloved, no worries. In a long, successful marriage, you will likely have at least once that you wonder, Why did I marry this person? Did I mistake stomach butterflies for true love? Those rushing feelings of being in love can energize you to work on a relationship with someone, but nobody knows for sure that someone is perfect for them on first sight. You have to work for perfect . . . or at least amazing.
(Romantic) Love makes bad people good. You know this one: Good girl meets bad boy. Because of her overwhelming love, bad boy leaves his bad life and embraces a new life — full of light and love and laughter. *cue music* Romance novels often assert that people can change — practically overnight — for the sake of romantic love. They will happily leave behind their wayward ways and fulfill all of their potential because of the love of a good woman.
Now let’s poll all of the women who married men with severe addictions. Did those scenarios all work out . . . easily? As much as we love a good conversion story (yay, Apostle Paul!), changing your character takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of commitment. Few people overcome their inner demons in the time it takes to court a mate. I’m not saying that people don’t change; they do. But don’t count on your romantic love to suddenly yank someone out of a nasty mess. What really changes people is their own determination to turn over a new leaf, the support of others around, and God’s working in their life. Romantic love can inspire, but it’s not enough.
Great sex is key to falling in love. It’s practically a given these days that a fictional couple will have sex, and then decide that they are truly meant to be. Perhaps they suspected, but the way their bodies melded together was so perfect in their lovemaking that it sealed their destiny. *swoon*
Blah, blah, blah. Give me a couple who’s willing to work on their marital intimacy, and I’ll give you a couple with a successful sex life. I don’t care if their first time functioned like a Rube Goldberg machine. I’ve known plenty of couples who had fabulous sex with someone, and the marriage didn’t work. But a working marriage — with two committed, understanding, desiring-to-honor-God spouses — will eventually produce fabulous sex. Romance novels, and our society as a whole frankly, has the cart before the horse.
So can you read romance novels?
As I said, I read romance novels — although I tend toward romantic comedies where things don’t always go right and that’s funny — but I don’t swallow these themes. I’m careful about what I read and how I read. I make sure that my Christian world view informs the way I see novels, not the other way around.
After all, we’re generally okay with our daughters seeing Disney princess movies, but at some point, we expect them to grow up and realize that their future hubby won’t be riding up on a horse or on a magic carpet singing love songs. We know that fiction is a pretend world. It may be entertaining, delightful, and perhaps realistic about some aspects of life, but it isn’t a manual for how to get or be married.
If someone wrote my marriage as a novel, you would fall asleep by page 12. Because much of making my marriage work is the small, seemingly mundane stuff of basic courtesy, carrying out household tasks together, honoring each other in how we spend time and money, hugs and pecks, and tickling and giggling with our children. Who wants to read that? (Although our sex scenes might be steamy . . .)
So my marriage isn’t like a romance novel. I’m fine with that. (After all, things didn’t end so well for Romeo and Juliet.)
Do you read romance novels? What are your standards for what you read? What other themes have you seen in romance novels (or TV or movies) that you believe are myths?