Romance and Romantic Stories

The Power of Love Stories

Posted Sep 27, 2009

Sociologists studying love and marriage report a finding that you probably won't find surprising: people don't describe their marriages as the "happily ever after" bliss suggested in our romantic stories and movies. Most people say that no matter how romantic the relationship felt when they were dating, marriage isn't the achievement of perfection. Rather, marriage itself requires hard work, compromises, working on a friendship, etc. etc. And come to think of it, our romantic stories aren't about long term relationships like marriages at all, they are about people in the early stages of getting to know one another. Think about the iconic romance, "Sleepless in Seattle" in which the couple doesn't even meet until the movie's final scene.

So why do so many people continue to hope for an eternally blissful romantic relationship even though they "know" it's not a possibility? And this isn't just a matter of day-dreaming. I'm sure you can think of people who broke up their families because they "fell in love" with someone else, only to have that new relationship eventually disappear (or else morph into a real marriage like the one they left in the first place).

One possible answer to the question of why people pursue perfect romance when they know it doesn't exist has to do with the incredible popularity of our romantic stories. Last time I checked romance novels accounted for about half of all books sold in any given year. As I have pointed out before, we human beings are really adept at projecting ourselves into stories, so that as we become caught up in a story we actually think and feel from the fictional perspective. Our ability to do this is based in no small part on the imitative capacities that are built into our brains: we can even imitate imaginary situations and easily experience what it is like to see and feel the world from that situation. Maybe a story is not a real relationship, but for a few hours it can come close to feeling like it's real.

So even if you recognize that eternal romantic passion isn't really an earthly possibility, you can still experience it by getting caught up in romantic stories. This puts your mind in the interesting position of having a belief (happily ever after doesn't really happen) that is contradicted by experience. This is probably why many of the same people who explicitly say that real relationships never work out this way continue to describe an ideal relationship as a happily ever after romance.

And that surely bears on the question I started out with. People continue to hope for and try to realize perfect romantic relationships in spite of the fact that they don't see such relationships as possible. It kind of makes you respect the power of a story.

Learn more at Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Sabrina Campagna.