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Romantic Realism and Romantic Relationships

Do romantic expectations strengthen or weaken long-term relationships?

Our culture is saturated with romantic realism-stories and images that depict a world that is just a little bit better than the one you and I dwell in. One of the primary sources of romantic realism is advertising, which depicts products that are beautiful and new, which work perfectly and easily, and are always associated with beautiful, smiling people. Or take a brief look at the programming on your television: there you will see perfect looking people having perfect adventures and romances, or saying really witty things to one another.

We assume that TV dramas and comedies are about human beings like us, except the characters aren't really like us, they are just a little bit better. Even when they are worse, as with the bad guys, they are better at being bad than inhabitants of this world. Romantic realism is these perfected images of our lives, which confront us every time we turn around. (Reality TV is another matter, one I will have to discuss at another time).

So, what is the effect of being exposed to all of these images of perfection? Let's take a specific example: Today our long-term relationships are quite unstable compared to 50 years ago; more people establish and break up cohabiting relationships than they used to, and divorce rates today ar roughly twice what they were half a century ago. Could these changes have anything to do with the growing prominence and power of romantic realism in our culture?

When we watch a romantic movie or read a romance novel, the couple have a love for one another that is passionate and all-consuming. Most of us are familiar with passionate and all-consuming love, because we have felt it ourselves. However, if we are old enough to have had some long term relationships, we very likely have also felt this overwhelming passion fade, to be replaced (in the best of cases) by feelings like love, affection, respect, friendship, mutual attraction, and so on. But this part isn't in the romantic stories, they are based on romantic realism, and in them it's all passion all the time.

One might guess that all the exposure to the perfect romance of novels and movies could influence what we think should happen in our real-world intimate relationships. And indeed we all know of cases (perhaps we have been involved in them ourselves) in which one partner in a relationship starts an affair so that they can once again feel the passion of "falling madly in love." Some authors have argued that romantic expectations are an important factor that led to the spectacular growth of divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, empirical research has not necessarily supported this argument. One study conducted by Susan Sprecher and Sandra Metts found that holding strong romantic beliefs did not predict whether a relationship endured or broke up over a four year period. And indeed, one could argue that romantic beliefs could in many cases contribute to the stability of a relationship, if the couple can manage to continue to feel romantic about one another.

So what's the take-away here? Can we conclude anything at all about the effect of romantic realism on romantic relationships? Although I can't (yet) provide any decisive evidence, I suspect that romantic realism does in fact have some strong effects on us, but these effects occur more at the level of emotions than thoughts.

There is so much romantic realism in our world because it's highly emotionally stimulating to get caught up in fictional situations full of adventure and eroticism and drama. In other words, romantic realism is fun. Our media compete to offer ever higher levels of stimulation, because that's what sells. In this cultural context, we come to want, even need, ever higher levels of stimulation--without it we start to feel bored. This influences our lives in many ways, including our relationships, for it means that we are ever hungry for stimulation and never quite satisfied with what we have. And surely that has something to do with the instability of long term relationships in contemporary society.

For more information, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by SimonShaw.

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