Last week, my friend Jenny blogged about how we often use the wrong love stories to create our own romantic goals. We discussed a bit about whether so many people are drawn into unhealthy relationships because our culture romanticizes them, or whether we romanticize them as a form of denial, a way to cope with the uncomfortable fact that many of us are in unhealthy relationships. Isn’t it nicer to believe that he’s possessive of you because he loves you so much, and not because he doesn’t respect you enough to let you make your own decisions?
From the time that I was twelve to the time that I was twenty-five, my sister, a friend, and I created an ongoing story with one another. My ideas about relationships changed a lot during those thirteen years, and the development of the storylines reflected that. Over those thirteen years, our cast of characters fell in love countless times, in countless ways, sometimes ending up in unhealthy relationships, sometimes ending up in healthy ones (I’ll bet you can guess which ones were more interesting). When I started dating my fiance two years ago, I couldn’t help but think of all the love stories I’d already lived through in my mind. I told my friend that those stories had made me jaded, that even in the best moments, I could imagine my relationship breaking my heart–because that’s what happened to so many of our characters, characters who’d begun their relationships starry-eyed and hopeful and totally believing in the power of romance.
But as my real-life relationship developed, I found the opposite to be true. It didn’t deteriorate after the initial “glow” wore off, but rather continued to deepen in a way that is both comforting and challenging to me. I look forward to the adventures that will await us as our life plot thickens–but I’ll be perfectly content with a relationship that is warm and steady rather than tumultuous and endlessly “interesting.”
And that’s when I realized my flaw in comparing my real-life relationship to all the imaginary relationships I’d created over the years: the goals were not the same. When I’d created a story centered around the same characters for over a decade, the goal was to keep the story alive, to keep it interesting–not to keep my characters happy (in fact, the story was often most compelling when they weren’t). So to keep things interesting, we were always ready to shake things up, to turn our characters’ lives upside down. In fact, those whose lives were too stable and thus “boring” were often banished from the cast entirely.
The goals of a real-life relationship are (or at least should be) very, very different. Keeping the plot thick, tangled, and juicy isn’t the point. The point is having someone to walk beside you in your life, permanently or for the time being. And if that person doesn’t improve your life’s walk, you might be better off walking alone.
So when Jenny raises the question of why we as a culture are so drawn to love stories showcasing dysfunctional romances, I had to wonder why we as writers are so devoted to creating them. Yes, storytelling is about conflict, and unhealthy relationships certainly provide plenty of that. And storytelling is also an escape, and I’m not above occasional guilty pleasures, indulging in reading about or watching behaviors or situations that I’d never partake of in real life. But to write off these stories as “mere fantasy” dismisses the power we have as writers to, in fact, shape the reality of someone’s inner world, temporarily or permanently (I for one know a few people who are still clutching the hope that <fictional character of choice> will materialize in real life and sweep them off their feet.)
So I urge writers to take this responsibility of building worlds and shaping reality seriously. If we depict abuse as romance, there are going to be people out there who start seeing abuse as romantic. And we don’t need to glamorize or romanticize unhealthy behaviors or relationships to provide conflict for our characters. Or if an unhealthy relationship is at the crux of a story’s conflict, perhaps the victory can come not in the characters realizing that all that dysfunctional behavior is “really love,” but in realizing that it is soul-sucking and something they need to move beyond. Now that’s a happy ending I can get behind.