October 31, 2019

Romance Genre: How Can We Portray Healthy Relationships?

Shiny beads on red background in shape of an arrow through a heart with text: What Is an Unhealthy Romance?

Last week, I presented my new workshop, Between the Sheets: Create a Deeper Romance with the Romance Beat Sheet. The class went great, and the reviews have all been very positive. Yay!

(*psst* If you missed it, the workshop is now available OnDemand. *grin*)

Despite the title, however, we didn’t focus only on my popular Romance Beat Sheet. The class covers all of the underlying elements that contribute to readers’ sense of a strong, deep relationship between our characters, including how our plot and character arcs intertwine with our story’s romance arc.

Only after developing a deep understanding of those elements can we really use the Romance Beat Sheet to ensure they’re playing well together. Even better, once we understand all the elements that create a reader’s sense of the characters and the relationship between them, we can do a better job of making sure we’re portraying healthy romances.

Let’s take a look…

One Example: Do Our Characters Connect on a Deep Level?

Here’s one example from the class, a “unit” in both the webinar and my extensive 42-page-long ebook-style handout. (You think my blog posts are epic? They’re nothing compared to the handouts I create. *snicker*) For a whole unit, I dug into Michael Hauge’s concept of our characters’ internal/emotional journey from their Identities to their Essences.

Not sure how to portray a *healthy* romance? Here's one example from my new workshop... Click To TweetIn Michael’s teachings, a character’s Identity is who they think they are—in a damaged, self-protective way, which is based on their False Belief of the world. Their Essence is who they have the potential to become when they’re not making self-sabotaging choices out of fear.

So, what does that have to do with romance—so much so that I dedicated a whole unit to the idea? In the romance genre, one way we can use Identity and Essence is to help show how our characters are a “perfect match” when they connect on an Essence level.

What Does It Mean to Connect on an Essence Level?

One aspect of seeming like a perfect match is if our characters are able to see past the other’s Identity. To protect themselves from fear, pain, or what-have-you, our characters have developed a mask or persona to act as “emotional armor.”

But the right person for our characters to be in a relationship with is the one who can see the real person beyond the mask. They’re able to see and connect to the other’s potential—their Essence—and love them as they truly are.

If they’re connected on an Essence-to-Essence level, they’re being truthful and vulnerable with each other. They’re not putting up their Identity-mask as a front with the other person, instead trusting the other person to love them as they are behind the mask.

Obviously, that’s a really hard thing for anyone to do. So if our characters are able to reach a level of trust and understanding with each other to connect on that level, readers see how the relationship is strong and deep—and not just based on physical attraction or other superficialities.

Character Example: Buffy and Riley

My family is currently doing a rewatch of the whole Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, and this past weekend, we got to the breakup episode Into the Woods. (Spoiler warning for an almost 20-year-old episode.)

Buffy’s Identity

In the series, Buffy struggles to find anyone who can truly understand her. The position of Slayer is literally “one girl in all the world…” So instead of a False Belief, she has a not-actually-false idea that the fate of the world rests on her shoulders. After all, she saves the world. A lot.

That truth creates her Identity of never wanting to become fully vulnerable with anyone. The next deadly threat can appear at any time.

In other words, if she wants to stay alive, she can’t explore whether there’s a potential inside her to be more vulnerable than she already feels. She’s almost died—and actually died—more times than she can count. Combined with her all-too-real fear that she’s not going to survive long enough to have a long-term marriage-style relationship, and she holds whatever potential Essence might hide within her deeper than everyone else.

Riley’s Identity

With a military background, Riley sees the world in very black-and-white terms. He’s happy with Buffy…until he discovers that her previous relationship with Angel was filled with angsty passion.

In his very segmented mind, that must mean that she loves him less than she loved Angel. (Because humans couldn’t possibly experience different types of equally strong love. /sarcasm)

Thus starts his downward spiral into insecurity, where his False Belief is that no matter how Buffy acts or what she says to him, she doesn’t “really” love him. That False Belief colors his perspective of the world to the point that he pulls away from Buffy, half out of a way to “punish” her for not loving him the way he wants and half out of self-protection.

He’ll only really believe her if she falls to pieces, weeping and crying in his arms, so he can pick up the pieces for her. If she picks up her own pieces, that must mean she doesn’t love him. (Because nothing says love like turning a wish to help the other person into being all about you. /more-sarcasm)

No Essence-to-Essence Connection

That’s why their relationship ends: There’s no Essence-to-Essence connection between the characters.

She can’t change to be who Riley wants. He doesn’t really love and accept her as she is. And he never grows past his False Belief.

Instead, he spirals ever further down, engaging in unforgivable behavior (essentially cheating on her with a prostitute). And then rather than groveling for forgiveness, he disrespects her boundaries, cornering her into a “talk,” only to put all the blame on her for not doing enough to appease his insecurities.

During their confrontation, she calls him on the truth that according to him, she can’t love him enough to satisfy him:

BUFFY: … I’ve given you everything that I have, I’ve given you my heart, my body and soul!

RILEY: You say that, but I don’t feel it. I just don’t feel it.

BUFFY: Well, whose fault its that? Because I’m telling you, this is it, this is me. This is the package. And if it’s so deficient that you need to get your kicks elsewhere … then we really have a problem.

The fact that she sees this truth means that she’s closer to seeing his Essence than he is to seeing hers. But instead of increasing the intimacy between them, he gives her an ultimatum: forgive him immediately or he’s leaving.

They Weren’t a Good Match—Period

Good riddance! Forget a “perfect” match, they weren’t even a good match.

When he says she doesn’t love him, we’re just supposed to take him at his word despite all that Buffy does and says that demonstrates otherwise. The truth is that he can’t see the love she does feel for him because it doesn’t match what he thinks it should look like. So he gets mad at her for not being who he wants her to be.

What can we learn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer about how (not) to portray a healthy romance? Click To TweetHe claims to just want to feel needed, yet when she does need his help—picking up her sister from school, patrolling for vampires when she can’t, etc.—he flakes half the time. Not helpful when she’s also dealing with her mother’s brain cancer and risky surgery throughout all this. (He even gets mad at Buffy for not immediately calling him when her mom goes to the emergency room, even though she didn’t call anyone else either.)

His issue isn’t that she doesn’t make him feel needed. It’s that he wants her weak enough to need him to rush in with a rescue—and that obviously goes against every aspect of who she must be as the Slayer. He can only feel “needed”—and thus loved—if she’s weak and vulnerable. *gag*

Watching this episode so soon after giving my workshop made me remember just how glad I’ve always been that these characters broke up. (I’d forgotten how bad things got between them before this rewatch. And don’t get me started on how much I hate(d) Xander’s speech at the end, as he tries convincing Buffy that Riley’s the “love of her life.” *sigh*)

Portraying Healthier Relationships

I share all of that example to explain how an Essence-to-Essence connection is one way to show readers that our couple has a healthy relationship. When our characters see each other’s true selves and love and accept each other for who they really are, readers see how much they belong together.

What should we watch out for if we want to portray a healthy romance? Click To TweetEven if Riley didn’t act unforgivably at the end and was really as “nice” as his persona wanted us to believe, he and Buffy still wouldn’t have been a good match because they lacked that connection. Just because the other one is a great person doesn’t mean they’re the right one for our character (and the same can be said for someone being “great” yet not being right for us in real life).

The romance genre comes with many risks for portraying unhealthy relationships. But we can learn to avoid those risks.

Making Our Romance Stories a Force for Good

In addition to the guest post Bran L. Ayres shared with 10 elements of a healthy relationship that romances should keep in mind, Adriana Herrera gave a presentation at RWA19 on relationship dynamics in the romance genre and how we might accidentally portray abusive behaviors.

Luckily, Ana Coqui live tweeted much of Adriana’s presentation to share with all of us who couldn’t attend:

(Click through to view the rest of the fantastic thread, as Ana shares more of Adriana’s excellent and important presentation. And gee, several red flags in Adriana’s list apply to Riley. *rolls eyes*)

The romance genre can be used for good—such as teaching readers the concepts and language of consent—or bad, such as normalizing unhealthy relationships or abusive techniques. I hope the more we share ideas of how to portray healthy relationships—through posts like this or Bran’s guest post, Adriana’s presentation, or my new workshop that includes more suggestions—the better we’ll become at making the genre a force for good. *smile*

Have you read or seen romantic stories with unhealthy relationships? What made it unhealthy, or what lesson could we take away for our own writing? If you’ve watched Buffy, what was your impression of Buffy and Riley’s breakup? Did this example help explain how the Identity and Essence concepts apply to a romantic relationship? If you attended Adriana’s RWA presentation, can you share any other insights?

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Kassandra Lamb

Essence-to-Essence Connection! Yes, this is what makes a relationship work, no matter the outward trappings. Thank you so much for this post, and for your continued efforts to help writers portray healthy rather than unhealthy relationships.


*gasps* Is that series really already twenty years old? Now I feel old, lol!

Laurie Evans
Laurie Evans

I’ve been meaning to watch that series. I’ll keep this in mind. Thanks.

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber


I clicked through to read the thread — wow! — but I cannot locate the ‘character trauma map’ mentioned in the thread. 🙁

I have a love/hate relationship with romance novels in the BDSM world. Many of them rely on the concept that BDSM is “sick” or “perverted” which just feels lazy to me. It’s been used by “best friends” to split a couple apart. It’s been used to make the Hero hide who he is from the heroine…. You can’t be in your Essence AND hiding who you are!

Thank you for ALL the work you do here on the blog and behind the scenes! I just published my first piece (!!!) in an anthology called Throbbing Tales: Novellas 2019 (Amazon link). Without YOUR blog, I would still be a pantser, unable to complete a project. I tackled this one in just under 3 months! Thank you, Jami!!! You ROCK!


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