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February 12, 2015

Is “Love Conquers All” Realistic?

Close-up of a rose with text: How Powerful Is Love?

Every month or so, there’s an author or blogger or journalist making news by putting romance stories down. “They’re formulaic!” they say.

Uh-huh, and other genres don’t follow a formula? Mysteries regularly end with the mystery unsolved, do they? Or thrillers end with the terrorist’s plot succeeding? No? All righty then…

“They’re unrealistic!” they say. Well, sure, no one would claim marrying a vampire, sheikh, billionaire, or Lord is likely to happen. But then again, plenty of other genres contain unrealistic plot elements too.

Oh, wait… That’s not what “they” meant by unrealistic.

“They give women unrealistic expectations!” they say. Right. Because “they” believe grown women have never matured past the point of thinking they were Disney Princesses? Or is it that “they” think women are too stupid to realize that vampires, sheikhs, billionaires, or Lords aren’t any more available than Princes? How insulting.

No, too often “they” think romances are unrealistic because they end with love and a Happily Ever After. How is that unrealistic?

Do they think true love isn’t possible? Do they think love can’t be fulfilling enough to last? Do they think love isn’t, in fact, powerful enough to conquer obstacles and lead to happiness?

Now that… That’s just sad.

What Romance Stories Really Say

The message behind modern romances is that everyone—no matter our gender, race, ability level, flaws, beauty, brokenness, etc.—has the potential to find, give, and receive love. For those not in a good, healthy relationship, romance stories give hope that even someone like them deserves love. For those already in a good, healthy relationship, romance stories give reminders to appreciate the love they enjoy.

I’ve learned to ignore the naysayers because they don’t know what they’re talking about. A couple of days ago, Kassandra Lamb blogged about the misleading statistics of divorce rates.

I’m not a math person, so I won’t even pretend to understand what her numbers mean. But her point (and the point of the studies she links to) is that there are far fewer divorces than we assume (closer to a quarter or a third than to a half of all marriages).

The eagerness the media and we as a society have to proclaim love and marriage as “a dead end” or “too hard and likely to end in failure” does us all a disservice. Just as it does us a disservice to proclaim romance stories unrealistic.

I love this quote by historical romance author Tessa Dare:

"Women are constantly told it's fantasy to expect fidelity, respect, & orgasms ... It's not."

Yes, this. Those are the expectations a woman might walk away with from reading a romance. Are those unrealistic?

Absolutely not. I personally know too many people who have exactly that in their real life to think it’s not possible—to think it fluffy, stupid, immature fantasy.

It’s disrespectful to call their real life situations a fantasy, as though they didn’t work damn hard for that happiness. We need to respect when things go right in relationships and not just spout inaccurate statistics that lead people to think that it’s just too hard to bother fighting for happiness.

Can Love Conquer All?

I won’t claim that love can conquer all because “all” encompasses an awful lot. Everything, in fact. *smile* And love probably couldn’t conquer things like our sun going supernova and the like. *grin*

But from my parents’ experience, I know for a fact what love can conquer. In honor of Valentine’s Day, let me share a bit about how my parents’ relationship started…

  • My mom and her serious boyfriend had just “sort of” broken up when my dad walked into her life. (So right away, they’re falling into the “rebound” category. They’re doomed, right?)
  • My dad wasn’t looking for a serious girlfriend because he was getting ready to move. (Yep, “not looking” and a long distance relationship if it does continue. Definitely doomed.)
  • My dad leaves, comes back for a visit a couple of months later, and my mom gets pregnant. Cue the shotgun wedding. (Doomed or shot—maybe both.)
  • My mom moves to be with this guy she barely knows, away from her family, friends, and all support for the first time in her life, is pregnant, and doesn’t even know how to boil water. (Gah! This sounds more like a horror movie waiting to happen than a romance novel.)
  • They’re dirt-poor, and I mean that literally. Their kitchen floor actually used dirt in part. (Okay, now they’re just piling on. This can’t be real, right?)
  • Every nightmare you can imagine about rats, bees, fire ants, cockroaches the size of your hand, maggots, dangerous reptiles, etc. comes true while they’re living in their little backwater shack. (In other words, my mom could qualify as “Too Stupid To Live” for not just screaming “uncle” and heading back to her parents.)

So how does this not-so-romantic story end? As I mentioned on Facebook, nearing 50 years later, this was the card my dad gave my mom a couple weeks ago:

Card from my dad to my mom with text: You Are My Life, My Love, My Past, Present, and Future, My Yesterday, My Tomorrow, My Forever

Say it with me… Aww! *smile*

Was it easy? Nope. My dad worked two full-time jobs until I was a teen, and there were times I thought for sure they’d get a divorce.

But they persevered, they compromised, they sacrificed, they overcame, they conquered… They loved. And they still love.

What gave them the power, the determination, the very idea that their problems could be overcome? Love.

Love gave them the strength to not give in when it would have been easier to throw in the towel. Love conquered all those horror stories. They made a choice to love, and every day they keep making the choices that create their happily ever after.

Happiness Deserves Respect

Romance novels and all forms of love are too often denigrated for being formulaic, trite, and generic. As though hardship and suffering are more noble than happiness.

We see similar issues with pessimists being thought of as realists and optimists being thought of as willfully stupid or blind. It’s easy to see the suffering in the world. It’s easy to be a cynic. It takes determination and hard work to focus beyond the obvious.

Courtney Milan has a brilliant rant about the stigma of happiness (emphasis mine):

“It’s easy to wallow in misery. Anyone can do it. Everyone has. It’s hard to do something about it…

I wonder what world these people live in, where they think that throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Oh, well, life is just one unending bitter cup of misery, and then you have to pay taxes on your deathbed,” is somehow hard and worthy and nonformulaic.

No, guys. Getting up off your duff and finding some kind of sweetener to add to that bitter cup of woe? That’s hard. Walking away from something that doesn’t work? That’s easy. Anyone can walk away. It takes a real hero to stick around and try to make things better. It is a thousand times harder to solve problems than create them, and dismissing the triumph of victory trivializes the hard work and heroism that every happy person puts into being happy.”

Happiness is hard work. It would have been so much easier for my parents to walk away from each other. For my mom to throw up her hands, for my dad to not be the rock in her life.

We see this in our stories all the time. Our characters give up at the Black Moment because it’s easier. They have to make a choice to work harder in the final Act, and only then do they have a chance at success and happiness.

Romance novel writers have to make the Happily Ever After ending seem impossible. And then they have to show their characters overcoming everything and doing the impossible. Finding a way to solve the characters’ situation—that’s hard. Romance writing only looks easy because of the “happy equals easy” assumptions from society.

Life is the same way. Every single happy situation, every happy relationship, every happy family, had to overcome their own obstacles. There was no cheat sheet for how they could conquer their unique situation.

We don’t even need a cheat sheet for how to wallow and be miserable. Yet somehow happiness is seen as easier? And stories about overcoming obstacles to reach that point of happiness are seen as shallow?

I reject that idea. It’s damn hard work to be happy. It’s a choice that often takes digging deep into ourselves and figuring out what we value, what makes us tick. Nothing easy or shallow about that.

So on this Valentine’s Day, I celebrate love. I celebrate romance. I celebrate those who have put in the hard work to be happy. And for those haven’t reached that happy place yet, might I recommend reading a romance novel for encouragement? *smile*

P.S. In case it needs stating, not all relationships are healthy and deserve to be fought for, and some books depict abusive situations and don’t deserve the romance label. This post is not about those exceptions.

Do you think romance novels create unrealistic expectations? How so? Do you have any stories of how love has conquered obstacles? Do you think happiness and the hard work that goes into creating it are disrespected? If so, why do you think that is? Do you want to add any points to this rant? *grin*

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What do you think?

46 Comments on "Is “Love Conquers All” Realistic?"

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Melinda
Hi Jami, I believe love can conquer a whole lot of things. Relationships are very underrated in my experience. This country has a throw away mindset. Something doesn’t work, get a new one. P.S. Also not advocating that all relationships are worth working for. It seems to me that the mindset says if you have to work at a relationship, it’s bad. There’s nothing further from the truth in my experience. I’ve been married 11 years now. We’ve had our ups and downs. That’s life. We’ve both had to make compromises on what is tolerable behaviour. That’s a relationship. We both know we’ll get through any hardship that might come up. That’s love. We’ve both had physical and emotional problems, been down to our last $20, driven cross-country twice, eexperienced a lot.But we always know we’ll make it through whatever life throws at us, as long as we stick together. I’d like to share my story of love the conqueror. My husband is now a retired military man. While he was in the service, we were stationed in Turkey. Shortly after we got there, my vision started going. They sent me to Germany because there was a bigger military hospital that might be able to help me. After 2 weeks in Germany, they decided to send me back stateside for better medical care. I was getting ready to fly back to the states when I told him that I would understand if he wanted a divorce. He hadn’t signed on… Read more »
Carradee
Do you think romance novels create unrealistic expectations? How so? I think romance novels can create unrealistic expectations—just as anything can create unrealistic expectations if read uncritically, without appreciation for the fact that it’s fiction, or with the assumption that the author’s depicting a utopia. As ridiculous as it is, I’ve seen people do that. But women are particularly targeted because we presumably are too emotion-driven to be able to intellectually evaluate things for ourselves. I…I can’t elaborate on that one or give examples. Hitting too close to home. But I suspect all women have experienced at least 1 someone dismissing them and/or their intelligence just because they’re women. Do you have any stories of how love has conquered obstacles? Personally? Um, not really. In what I write? Yeah. One pairing, the physical relationship came years before the love. Do you think happiness and the hard work that goes into creating it are disrespected? If so, why do you think that is? DEFINITELY. Because people who get stuck on how hard everything is can’t see themselves as any lazier or any less persistent than people who are happy. People who are happy therefore must be naïve and unable to see the negatives/downsides, and we’re too stubborn/rebellious/unintelligent to heed good sense. …I’ve had that smashed in my face. More than once. One of the many reasons I’m glad to be far away from family, now. I frankly think the core problem there is an ego issue. Pride. “I have (or have… Read more »
Davonne Burns
I am going to be the first to admit, I used to *hate* romances because they seemed so unreal to me. I’ve realized now that most of the problem I had was because everything I read was geared toward cis gendered heterosexuals and not because there was anything wrong with (most of) the relationships themselves. The thing that most trips me up with romance is my own sexual orientation. I cannot identify with a person who meets someone and a few hours or days later is in bed with them. I personally find it unrealistic and a bit horrifying. This is why I stay away from mainstream category romance. Too many I’ve read have little reason for the couple to be together other than that they find each other attractive and overcome ‘something’ in order to be together. I ran across this last year with an editor. My ‘romances’ are very plot heavy and she wanted me to cut most of the plot and focus on the romance between the two main characters. Except there would be no romance between them without the plot. The vast majority of the book is spent with them learning to respect and trust each other through the events of the plot. I guess this is where my own personal experience and identity come into play in my writing. I find romances which focus on how the relationship grows organically to be the most satisfying to read. Watching people grow together and learn about each… Read more »
Carradee

Davonne, I’ve ranted on here plenty of times, myself—about less-pertinent things—so I doubt Jami’s going to mind yours. ^_^

I’ve always felt a bit off-kilter when interacting with others because, whenever I’m enjoying myself, other person(s) tend to think I’m sexually or romantically attracted, and then I have to correct them—and however nicely or definitively I put it, some folks have always taken offense or refused to believe me.

Turns out, I’m a full ace of spades, not even demi or gray. Just realized it in the past 2 years, and I “came out” a year ago. Since then, I’ve had more than one person say I can’t be asexual because I’m attractive (physically and personality-wise). I’ve even been told I can’t know I’m not interested in experiencing sex because I’ve not tried it.

I’ve ultimately written characters on the spectrum without realizing it, and I’ve some planned stories in the works that would feature aces. (Including one where the girl is a socially adept physics nerd.) Stories that would take romance-story setups and end up with friendships, at most. I have some other things to finish writing before I can delve into those overt stories, but I’m looking forward to them. 🙂

Davonne Burns

I know a whole list of people who are dying to read such stories. I myself only recently came out as an agender demi and I have also unwittingly wrote characters of the same spectrum. I have two full novels to prove it (fanfiction or I’d send it to my agent).

I have had that exact experience with people getting frustrated with me and thinking I am flirting when I am not. Too often I get accused of being bi or a lesbian (I am afab) when sex and/or romance is the last thing on my mind.

It would be nice to see more ‘romances’ show this broader spectrum of both gender identity and orientation. And show them as the loving, healthy and perfectly natural relationships that they are.

Also, nice to meet you. I don’t think we’ve spoken before ^_^

Carradee

Davonne, nice to meet you, too! 🙂

Sounds like Grace McDermott‘s work might match what you’re looking for. (Full disclosure: She and I are friends.)

Davonne Burns

Oh awesome! Thanks so much! Look forward to talk to you again.

deb

Love was good to me.

The only obstacle to love beginning was me believing it could happen in the first place between two people as unlikely as we were.

Love, once it walked in the door, was easy. Cherishing it, nurturing it was the business of our days for all our time together.

As a result of this great good fortune, I’ve had a hell of a time drumming up serious obstacles and conflicts for my story. I’ve read a baker’s dozen or more in the genre and I’m pretty sure I can tell which authors have been as lucky as I have, and those who haven’t….yet.
It happens all the time if you let it.

Marcy Kennedy
I’m less well-read in the romance genre than you are, so I’m not sure if this evaluation is off base of not but…could the “romance novels create unrealistic expectations” stigma be due, at least in part, to the way romance novels were written in the past? Today’s romance novels (in my opinion) do tend to show two imperfect characters struggling to overcome obstacles together. And that message is an incredibly valuable one. But possibly in the earlier days of romance novels, what they created was more escapist fiction where the men involved were perfect and rescued the women from all their problems. I have read older romances where the man involved was unflawed, and I can see how that could create unrealistic expectations in a woman about her husband (who is real, and therefore flawed, just like she is). I know my mom said that she stopped reading romances in her younger days for that very reason. As for whether happiness and the hard work that goes into creating it are disrespected, the answer is 100% yes. I often take a swing at Valentine’s Day because I think it perpetuates that. Happiness and love are both hard. They both involve day to day maintenance, but that’s often not acknowledged. When you have them, people seem to think you got lucky. That’s a load of rot. It’s like saying I got lucky because my pet is still alive, even though the truth is that I feed and water it, keep it… Read more »
Sharon
Sharon

Jami, I loved this post, and it so timely. I sent it out to all my non-writing friends to share with their Valentines. The old card sentiment brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing.

Sharon
Sharon

Jami, do you realize you’ve just created a new romance template?

Beth
Beth

Hmm. My parents hit 57 years ’til death them did part, yet I still haven’t hit “Mr Right” at an age when many of my friends’ children are hitting reproductive age. But I’d rather read romances and be cheered that I’ll find someone eventually, than wallow in negativity.

My parents met on a blind date and married 2 months later. Then waited 16 years to start their family. So one size does NOT fit all! But love seemed to make for a lifetime of adventure.

Robin
Robin

A nice post for valentine’s day. Thanks for sharing the card. 🙂 awww…

Love is a verb. It’s something that you have to keep doing, every day…
Hmm… maybe the idea that romance leads to “unrealistic expectations” is really coming from men who don’t want to measure up? Because, as you pointed out, in modern romance novels, everybody got a flaw or two.
Or, perhaps it’s coming from folks who have never read a romance novel, and think they know about them based on a several decades old predjudice… But then again, that’s kinda like saying getting information from the library is inefficient because of the problem of the paper card catalogue.
I believe in happily ever after, just as much as I believe in 10 plus years of working at my marriage, every day. Because that’s how you get there. 🙂
Jane Austen taught me a very realistic lesson – if your house doesn’t look like Emma’s house, then Mr. Knightly probably isn’t going to propose, so accept young Mr. Martin. A girl could do a lot worse than a decent farmer! 🙂 Ha!

Christina Hawthorne

That’s a beautiful tale about your parents, Jami. Thank you for sharing. Hardship and suffering aren’t more noble, they’re ugly, a blight we should work hard to obliterate from this planet. If we don’t strive for better, for love, then what’s left? Actually, we don’t need to look far to see what’s left, for the media fills our day with “what’s left” whenever they have the opportunity. It’s almost like human beings have come to see happiness itself as trite and that’s sad beyond measure. Romance says that, yes, there’s something more, that there’s hope.

Renee Regent

I clicked through just to see the comments! But really, I totally agree. Keeping a romance going through life’s ups and downs is not easy, but it is worth it. My mother was married six times- and only the last one was a keeper! She passed away a few days ago, and he took care of her for years. Truly saw her at her worst, and loved her through it all, wished it was he instead of her suffering. Yes, love can conquer all, I know it for a fact! I feel sorry for those that don’t, and love Romance stories that show it.

Sharla Rae

I love your blog and loved hearing about your parents. I ‘ve heard all the jokes about romances too and I don’t care. If we give up on the happily ever after, I think we give up happiness period. We’re humans, not robots and emotions are a huge part of that.

I’ve also heard that there’s many abused women who have read romances and realized what “real” love is supposed to be. They got up the nerve to leave the deadbeat hurting them.

I think romances do way more good any than other fiction genre being published.

Kassandra Lamb

I agree with Marcy (and with you, Jami) that the older romances were all too often unrealistic, and they set up unrealistic expectations. I think they are more realistic today. And I totally agree that romance stories give us hope!

My pet peeve is the extremely flawed hero who is going to be changed by the love of the sweet heroine.

People should never, ever enter a relationship with the expectation that their partner is going to change. If you don’t love them the way they are, move on! Love doesn’t necessary change people, and it certainly doesn’t magically rid them of all the garbage in their psyches.

On the other hand, in real life, love can be a big motivator to work on oneself. Both my husband and I have done some therapy at times during our relationship, when our individual issues were causing problems in the relationship. To me, that is true love–being willing to look at your psychological crap when it’s getting in the way!

But the love didn’t change us, it motivated us to change ourselves.

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[…] I read Jami Gold’s blog. I loved her post this week and you might want to check it out too. It’s about the romance genre in general and titled, Is “Love Conquers All” Realistic? […]

Jennifer M

Beautiful post!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hey, I read this post on Valentine’s Day. 😀

Omg yes! There is a stigma against happiness! I also think it’s absolutely STUPID that pessimists are called “realistic” and optimists are called “naive and unrealistic”. (Pessimists are often the unrealistic and overdramatic ones.) Yes, sadness exists in our life, but happiness also exists! I think some people just have a problem in that they DON’T PAY ATTENTION to the happiness that IS out there! Sorry for my rant, haha.

That story of your parents is so sweet. ^^ Thanks for sharing that with us! They indeed show us that love can conquer a great deal of things. Cynicism is too rampant in our society.

And I like the point that everybody deserves true, fulfilling love, no matter what their social category. 😀

Also, yes, true love and happiness require a lot of work, and should not be despised!

And I hate how some people think happiness is shallow and sadness is sophisticated/ profound/ deep, ugh. They are so misled! Happiness can be just as profound and deserving as respect as sadness!

Maggie
Maggie

Of course a readers will have unreal expectations if they are complete idiots. Thankfully romance readers aren’t, on a whole they’re a pretty smart bunch…..but one does have to wonder about the person keeps saying how formulaic romance is. Clearly they haven’t read thrillers, crime, paranormal or any of the other popular genres. Clearly they know nothing about the craft of writing. Ignorance is bad enough, showing it is worse.

Daphne Shadows

I love that you add the “P.S.” at the end. There are too many women in bad relationships that think they’re being ridiculous in thinking they’re bad relationships. That itty bitty P.S. probably helped at least one person. So thanks. 😉

I love this post. I hear the orgasm part the most actually. That women live in a fantasy land if they think they’re going to enjoy sex as much as their partner. (I’ve heard a lot of ‘advice’ that women should just be happy they were good enough to please their men. Or they should just focus on him enjoying it and not worry about themselves.)
HA HA HA! Don’t bother dating me buddy.
Its sad to know that some people think finding their happily ever after is a myth. Or stupid or not good enough to hope for.
I love that about romance novels. The good ones, I mean. They give hope that real love isn’t something mythical like unicorns. It can work. Even if it feels impossible, if the love is real, you have a chance to fight for it. Why give up simply because society says its stupid to even hope?

Killion Slade

I’m a little late to this post since I was out recovering from surgery…

I’ll admit it … I was once a “romance hater”… until I learned what real romance was. Life, for me, did not begin until I was 40 and that is when I met the love of my life. I hated love and romance because it never worked for me. It was a billion-to-one chance that I met my husband, and it’s been wonderful since then. And that’s almost 7 years now!

To me I want to find the real-life passion for the HEA in my stories. When the couple can overcome gargantuan, crazy obstacles and still love one another and respect the growth each one has achieved during that time.

There’s that old saying, “it takes a lot of heat, and pressure to turn coal into diamond.” Putting our heroes and heroines into those situations can be really tough, but helping them become better people in the end in a realistic way is what helps me with today’s romance. 🙂

Thanks for an awesome post! <3

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[…] “Romances are the modern fairytale, and yet contrary to the many digs at the genre, they’re still realistic on a subtextual level. As historical romance author Tessa Dare pointed out, anyone who contends that relationships with respect, fidelity, and great sex are fantasy are, once again, being willfully blind. How sad life would be if believing in love meant we had no grip on reality.” […]

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