Everything I Need To Know, I Learned from Romance Novels

AdviceGreetings! Welcome to the inaugural post of what I hope will be a continuing feature, wherein I attempt to give advice that’s thoughtful, cranky, and based on the myriad facets of knowledge I’ve gleaned from a shitload of romance novel reading. I’ve heard people say that they’ve learned vocabulary and historical knowledge from romance novels that appeared on the SAT or other standardized tests for academic evaluation. Certainly that was true for me. And I’ve heard many people whispering about the sexual knowledge they’ve obtained from erotica and romance novels, for both their own sexual satisfaction and that of their partners – booyah, says I.

But I also think that romances teach a lot about human psychology, because romances deal with protagonists at their most vulnerable. Is there an emotional state more precarious than, “I really like that person, and I hope they like me, too?” So, I’ll attempt in this feature to answer questions based on, you guessed it, the great sociological and psychological examination of humanity that is The Enter Romance Genre.

No pressure or anything.

Engaged Almost writes:

I’ve been dating the same guy for eight years now. We went to college together, and we’ve been living together for awhile now along with his sister…. [edited for brevity -SBS] He’s proposed twice – once a few years ago when we were both drunk in a bar, and I said yes. Then I sobered up and said no. The second time was a few weeks ago, and he’s still waiting for my answer. I love him, but how do I know if he is The One?

Let me ask you this: have you ever seen a romance hero propose earnestly more than three times? I’m thinking on this one, and no, I can’t say as I have. Not unless the proposer has learned a lesson or two in how to approach a woman.

Think Darcy: he had to propose twice because his first proposal was the mother of all backhanded compliments, worse than when your frenemy says, “Oh, I love that shirt. It makes you look so thin!” The Earl of Banallt in Carolyn Jewel’s Scandal also proposes twice, first out of lust and self-interest, the second out of genuine intentions. Many a romance features a reformed hero who realizes how he ought to treat the object of his affections.

But that works both ways. Playing games with a man, playing hard to get – all bullshit maneuvers designed to humiliate and ultimately treat a man as if he isn’t your equal. And if women all over Romancelandia and in Reality are going to stamp their slippered feet and demand love matches and partnerships of emotional equality, they can start by treating men with equanimity and respect. You want that respect, you have to deal it out first. I’ve not yet encountered a hero who allows himself to be repeatedly debased and mistreated by a woman who professes to love him. It’s not heroic, nor the act of an admirable heroine.

So teasing a guy by not giving an answer ultimately demeans you both. And men are not dumb. The popular stereotypes of single men all revolve around oblivion and debauchery, but even if it takes a man awhile to figure a woman out, men are not clueless, and they won’t stick around when they’ve been told they aren’t wanted. Really, any man with a sense of self-confidence who is worth a woman’s time is not going to hang about and humiliate himself over and over.

I’d say a man asking three times a lady crosses the line from dedication to stalkerish desperation, and any woman who negotiates a situation for that result is looking for someone who she can control, not someone who can be her partner in crime and nefarious sexxoring.

But at root, the number of proposals isn’t the issue here: if you have some hesitations about marrying this guy, then cut him loose. A hesitant maybe is a no. Keeping him around as a maybe, as someone who you’ll commit to if nobody better comes along, demeans you both. Shit or get off the pot. He and you deserve better from a marriage than the words, “I love him but….”

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  1. 1
    karmelrio says:

    Not so much a question as an observation:  One thing I appreciate about novels – romance and otherwise – is that they allow you to vicariously experience an event, and then consider how you might react in the same situation. 

    I know I learned a lot about…let’s call it ‘sexual negotition’ – by reading love scenes during my teenage years, and mentally role-playing some of the scenes:  How did these people get here?  What is she thinking as he puts his hand there?  Is this something she really wants?  If not, does she communicate this to the hero?  And if so, how? 

    Through romance novels, I was able to sample a buffet of romantic and intimate relationships – safely – and really think about what I might want out of my own relationships. 

    Looking forward to this feature, Sarah!

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    I know I learned a lot about…let’s call it ‘sexual negotition’ – by reading love scenes during my teenage years, and mentally role-playing some of the scenes:  How did these people get here?  What is she thinking as he puts his hand there?  Is this something she really wants?  If not, does she communicate this to the hero?  And if so, how?

    I totally agree. Sexual agency for women is something that is explored in every romance novel, but that exploration and the power of it is never given enough credit when people examine the genre with an eye toward criticizing it in pejorative terms. There are very few positive and exploratory accounts of sexual activity for women, and romance novels are awesome in that regard.

    Thanks!!

  3. 3
    shaunee says:

    Dear SBS,

    I like this feature a lot!  And I agree with your assessment, though I would like to know the details of Engaged Almost’s ambivalence.  The end all to every Romancalandia be all is love, which she says she has, so I’m a little confused.  Granted I know nothing about marriage, less than nothing, but still…  Perhaps Engaged Almost doesn’t want a multi-posed proposal a la Darcy.  Maybe she wants to just be taken in the way of the dreaded alpha hero and her almost fiance just ain’t coming correct with the alpha-ness?

    At any rate, the shit or get off the pot advice seems directly on point.

    Will we hear from Engaged Almost about what she ultimately decides to do?

  4. 4
    ms bookjunkie says:

    Well said, SB Sarah!

    And may I say that I totally want a t-shirt/mug/something with the text “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Romance Novels.”

    food56 -yep, food for thought

  5. 5
    LJ says:

    I do enjoy this blog; I find it food for thought even when I disagree. However, if you ladies are going to start dispensing inexpert advice, I’ll be moving on. It isn’t possible to give advice that is the distilled wisdom of Romancelandia as a whole (and are we seriously not making a distinction between fiction and life here? Really?). But even if it were possible, all you are offering so far is a cliche, and an offensive one at that. Shit or get off the pot? So marriage is the shit here? Not my marriage, though I can’t vouch for others.

  6. 6
    Suze says:

    Wow, what a good idea!  And I just know you were sitting around with endless time on your hands, wondering what new project you could take on to fill all your extra hours!

    Everything I know about the Napoleonic Wars I learned from Georgette Heyer.  I impressed the hell out of my Grade 11 Social Studies teacher with the breadth of my knowledge.

    Re Engaged Almost’s more-or-less happy relationship, in which she is clearly wondering if something better will come along.  Dan Savage (I feel fairly confident) would say she needs to either sit her guy down and communicate with him about her concerns and expectations, or have a few flings to find out whether there IS somebody better out there.

    You’re right, just staying together because of inertia is no good for anybody.  And getting married to save the relationship has never (in my observation) actually saved the relationship.  Said the spinster.  Yes, I’ve actually been called that by some of my older relatives who are worried that I’m failing to reproduce and share the wonder that is my family’s genetic code.

    Could this be the Romance Gives Women Unrealistic Expectations backlash?  How do I know he’s the One, if I don’t experience that instant connection that I read about so often?

  7. 7
    krsylu says:

    Amen, Sarah! If a man has made himself vulnerable not once, but twice, he deserves a definitive answer. Stringing him along with the “I love you, but what if…?” is so wrong. My own hubby proposed when he came to pick me up for our fourth date. (We’d been best friends for over two years before we started dating.) That was a Friday. I made him wait until Sunday before I said yes. I knew I was going to say yes.  I don’t know why I made him wait. Shock, I guess. We’ve been married for 18 years (well, as of December 8, anyway) and have 5 great kids.

    “Engaged Almost”, if your man is not THE ONE for you, I think you would have been diverted long since. Give the guy a break. Stop waffling!

  8. 8
    Jessica says:

    There’s a line in one of the Sookie Stackhouse books (must be in 1, 2, or 3 becasue that’s all I’ve read so far” when Sookie says something like, “Yes, I have been educated entirely by genre fiction” (well, that and her word of the day calendar, of course). It’s one of the reasons I love her and these books.

  9. 9
    Gin says:

    I find this line in Engaged Almost’s query interesting:

    I love him, but how do I know if he is The One?

    Romance bashers would say that this is all the fault of reading romance, that women believe there is a “one” and that if they wait, he will come whilst ignoring all the “not quite the ones.” Reading Romance is teaching women to long for a myth, to waste their lives waiting.

    To which all Smart Bitches say bollocks. Romance books teach us that it’s not all about finding the one magical, wonderful, sparkly “one” – it’s about the fight and the struggle and the changes and the ups and the downs and that it’s WORTH it! The “one” isn’t going to fall into their lap (although it’s a nice image!) What many romance books show is that it’s often the very one you think will never on earth be the “one” who actually fits – the person who personifies all that you don’t want may actually have all that you didn’t realise you needed.

    If nothing else that tied and tested theme in romance means maybe more of us are prepared to give someone a second look, or a second chance, even when they’ve seemed less than promising and they – or we – have fucked up once.

    Not sure if that’s made any sense or is relevant to the conversation! I just think Engaged Almost’s question was interesting in that the anti-romance brigade could say “see, those wicked books putting unreal expectations in women’s pretty little heads” – whilst others might say “see, the well read woman knows not to accept second best and knows that “love” isn’t the simple answer in itself.”

    No heroine ever said at the end of a book, “I love him, but…” She’s much more likely to say, “He’s the most infuriating man ever, but I love him.”

    If you’ll pardon really a lame pun, Romance reading has taught me that the placing of the but is all important.

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    No heroine ever said at the end of a book, “I love him, but…” She’s much more likely to say, “He’s the most infuriating man ever, but I love him.”

    If you’ll pardon really a lame pun, Romance reading has taught me that the placing of the but is all important.

    I swear upon the magnitude of my own but(t) that this comment is utterly full of win. Well played!

  11. 11
    Leah says:

    My best friend (26 yrs and counting) each had a “sparkly” guy we wanted desperately to marry…but those relationships didn’t work out (rather dramatically, too).  We each married men who were comfortable friends (not longtime guy friends, but men for whom we felt friendship, and not just lust and chemistry) and swear by this.  I dated my own husband in high school (where I lusted over his gorgeous, thick hair).  When we dated again, the hair was gone and I didn’t feel fireworks—but later on on that first date, he handed me his credit card to go pick up our tickets while he parked the car.  Suddenly, I felt like we’d been doing this for forty years.  I knew right then where we were headed.  He proposed 3 months later—there was no need to wait.  I can’t imagine life with anyone but him.  So,  “Engaged Almost,” you will know when he’s the One, but it might not be the “sparkly” feelings you’re looking for.

    nuclear61—well, once the kids are in bed!

  12. 12
    rebyj says:

    On the negative side, I’ve read romances since I was 12.  As a young woman reading romances back in the late 70’s early 80’s I had some unrealistic expectations about romance and marriage.

    For some reason I thought I’d fall in love with an arrogant doctor and I’d be a nurse and I’d be pretty and thin and take tennis lessons and live happily ever after….

    Ended up, he was a loud mouth aggressive miner who made me laugh and I worked at Hardee’s and got horrid stretch marks and terminally fat with baby number 1. My proposal was ” Let’s get married before our parents catch us screwing around”  Never played tennis either , just badminton in the back yard LOL . Happily ever after lasted 18 years.

    I’d like to think romances are more realistic now but they’ve gone from rich arrogant doctors to rich , excessively tall ,arrogant vampires who’ve waited centuries to find YOU and you’re going to live happily ever after FOREVER!

    On the positive, I actually beat people at trivial pursuit because of the trivial knowledge gained from romantic fiction.

  13. 13
    Tamar says:

    I’m with Leah.  I dated a guy in high school / college who gave me the sparklies, but in both good and bad ways.  Constant drama.  How I knew my husband was The One?  Sitting next to him, snuggled against his side, it felt like coming home.  That feeling has lasted for 21 years. 

    I think there is in fact a potential pitfall with using romance novels to judge whether someone is The One. Not because the books give us unrealistic expectations, we’re not that dumb.  But look.  They’re fiction.  They need the heightened drama to make the story work.  All fiction does.  If it only depicted normal situations, we’d fall asleep over page three instead of staying up far past bedtime to read “just one more chapter.” 

    Also, that fire and flash and giddy high when you’re in love?  It’s fantastic, but it naturally slips into something else over time.  Which most romances don’t show because they’re showing the exciting beginning, the meet-and-fall-in-love part.  Which is part of why I enjoy them, it’s fun to recapture that thrill vicariously. 

    (Plus, my husband is not a reformed rake whose father locked him up in the castle dungeon to teach him how to be a duke and thereby scarred him for life, nor is he a war-battered veteran of Waterloo who has taken a vow of chastity to go with the interesting gash on his face and penetrating golden eyes.  Nor is he a vampire or werewolf or ex-SEAL with Deep Pain in his past.  So, y’know.  Alpha is as alpha does. Fun to read, maybe not as much fun to live with.  Do you have to take werewolves for walks twice a day?  Bring a pooper scooper?)

    I do think romances can say a lot about equality and intimacy within a relationship, though.  And I definitely agree that the guy’s second proposal needs a serious answer, whether it’s yes or no or “I’m scared for X reason, and I don’t know how to process that.”  (X reason NOT being “I don’t know if you’re The One.”  Because ouch.  But there’s probably something else at work making you hesitate.)  He’s putting himself out there, and that’s hard and means a lot. 

    This promises to be a fun series, Sarah.

  14. 14
    Jessa Slade says:

    Ooh, this column will be like going out for drinks with your friends and discussing your love lives… but you’re not sure in this case who’s been drinking.

    JMO, I don’t think she has to count the drunken proposal, but I agree she has to honestly tell him about her reservations.

    “trouble48” Well, that’s not promising…

  15. 15
    Miss Monky says:

    Well said!  I like it and I wanna see more!

  16. 16
    Silver James says:

    And may I say that I totally want a t-shirt/mug/something with the text “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Romance Novels.

    Dudette, MsBookJunkie! I’m so all over that. I want, too! So. Much.

    I’ve been reading romance novels since I was…ten or eleven. Yeah. A bit precocious. I was also 30 before I married my best friend. Yeah. Old maid material. We’re working on year 26. We’ve survived everything life could throw at us. What did I learn from romance novels that brought me to this point in my life?

    1. You have to kiss a lot of toads before you find a prince.
    2. You’re prince may look more like a pauper. Grab him anyway.
    3. Lust is a flash in the pan.
    4. Love makes your mate beautiful in your eyes, despite weight gain, baldness, false teeth, snores, stretch marks, *insert unbeautiful thing here*

    Romance novels are very much a microcosm of life, whether non-readers want to admit that fact or not. Glamorized and fictionalized, yes (I mean c’mon? The Billionaire’s Nanny’s Secret Baby?) But there are life lessons to be gleaned from the pages of a romance.

    I like this feature, SBS!

  17. 17
    Joanne says:

    Women have been offering advice “inexpert advice”—- solace/kicks in the ass/comfort/whatever is needed—-  to other women forever, it’s not only traditonal, it’s worthwhile.

    Whether we get it from our moms or from some thought provoking sentence or plot in a romance novel, it’s all grist for the mill and can sometimes make us move our emotional butts.

    That’s what romance novels often show; women moving on, or past, through, beyond, above …. not real life but just a push in the direction that isn’t Back.

    It will be fun to watch how this new feature developes.

  18. 18
    Joanne says:

    oops, I meant to add that if I read a book where the heroine took 8 years to decide on marrying the hero I would look for a new author.

  19. 19
    karmelrio says:

    Most romance novels only take a couple to the “I love you’s” or to the altar.  Then it’s FADE TO BLACK.  Very few explore the relationship after that point, as it ebbs, flows, and evolves over time.  (Two that I can think of that do?  Nora’s “In Death” series, and Suzanne Enoch’s Jellicoe/Addison contemporaries.) 

    Getting married is easy.  Staying married?  That’s harder. 

    I personally reject the concept of THE ONE even though I’ve been reading romance novels since I was ten.  I don’t agree that there is only one ‘soul mate’ out there for each person – hell, I reject the concept of soul mates too.  Marriage?  Been there, done that, still love him dearly, but for many reasons, he’s no longer my husband.  Current guy?  Happily, blissfully unmarried for over ten years, and going strong.  This might sound cold, but if we were to break up, or if he were to die, I have a high degree of confidence that I’d eventually meet another fabulous and compatible guy.   

    I believe there are thousands of people each of us might conceivably have enough compatibility and spark with to sustain a long-term relationship.  This is a gross oversimplification, but less than 100 years ago, the rate of women dying in childbirth alone meant that a man wouldn’t necessarily have to sustain a relationship to a single woman his entire lifetime. The same goes for women – their men were sometimes lost in wars, skirmishes, and hunting accidents. And guess what?  These widows and widowers sometimes remarried other people.  People whom they loved. 

    Was it Margaret Mead (?) or someone else who said something along the lines that, rather than look at her multiple adult relationships as a “failure to sustain a single marriage”, she chose instead to be thankful that she had had some extraordinary men come into her life at times when she could recognize and appreciate them.  I say rock on, sister.

  20. 20
    Suze says:

    Most romance novels only take a couple to the “I love you’s” or to the altar.  Then it’s FADE TO BLACK.  Very few explore the relationship after that point, as it ebbs, flows, and evolves over time

    Didn’t there used to be a category series that did just that?  Second Chance at Love?  I seem to recall reading a book about a ballet dancer married to a man from a large Hungarian? family, by Sharon & Tom Curtis, under a different name, that I could probably google, but am far too lazy to.  (How’s that for a run-on sentence?)

    Seems to me the series was focused on couples who were already married (the logo was intertwined rings), but were working through some issue.  I enjoyed it, in my teenagery way.

  21. 21
    Jennifer says:

    Wow, this is an awesome idea. I can’t wait to see more of these. Heck, I’m trying to think of a question for it.

  22. 22
    Lissa says:

    What a fantasic column and interesting answers.  I will be watching with bated breath to see what comes up next.

    As for Engaged Almost – if you don’t know after 8 years whether or not he is THE ONE, why in the world are you still with him?

  23. 23
    ML Kramer says:

    Men and women both can be prone to playing “waiting to see if something better comes along” ( remember Daniel from Bridget Jones Diary?) – If the delay in acceptance of a proposal is rooted in the hope of “someone better”… , the one making the proposal should cut and run immediately.  – No one deserves to be misused being strung along.

  24. 24
    ev says:

    the one making the proposal should cut and run immediately.  -

    As fast as they can, in the opposite direction.

    I much prefer the term “fish, or cut bait”, but “shit or get off the pot” works too.

    I like the idea of this feature. It isn’t any different in the end than what we normally do here- bring up a topic and discuss the pants off of it. (insert visual of your choice here).

    LJ- no one said it was “expert advice”. What it is, is the observations of what Sarah has gleaned through years and years and years (is that too many years?) of reading the genre. Think of it more as a Philospohy of Romance Novels than expert advice. There’s one of those for everything out there, why not one from Romance??

  25. 25
    Paola says:

    Oh my God! I think your advice is so good and extremely truthfull.

    I really hope you continue with your “Everything I Need to Learn, I Learned from Romance Novels” column. :D

    By the way, I really loved your mention of “Pride and Prejudice” (I totally love that book :D )

  26. 26
    StephanieL says:

    Wow, you would think after 8 years she would have some indication whether he’s the proverbial “ONE” or not.  And if this guy has put his heart and pride on the line not once but TWICE I wouldn’t bank on a third.  Personally, I would try to see the situation from his perspective.  If it were him who was flaking on the marriage issue would you cut and run or sit around waiting another 8 years?  At that rate you’d end up wasting your whole life waiting.

    As for the drunken proposal…my parents got engaged in a bar after 6 months of dating (true story) and have been happily married for 30 years.  It’s not about where you get engaged but to whom.

  27. 27
    Alpha Lyra says:

    Love this new feature!

    Some 15 years ago, when my boyfriend and I were considering getting married, I had some reservations. I talked to a friend about my anxieties, and she said, look, don’t throw away a good relationship just because you think there might be someone better out there.

    My boyfriend and I did get married. 2 kids and 12 years later, I filed for divorce. The reservations I had in the beginning were well-founded. The problems I’d noticed back then did not improve, but became worse and worse, until finally I had little choice but to end the marriage. I should have listened, back then, to the tiny voice in the back of my head saying, “Something about this is not right.”

    I don’t think a woman should throw away a good relationship because she’s waiting for Prince Charming. But if there’s something making her think, “Hmm… this guy might not be the best marriage partner,” she might want to think long and hard on that subject. That little voice in the back of your head is worth listening to.

  28. 28
    Pearl says:

    Question: what is he going to do now, after 8 years, to convince you he’s Mr. Right if he a/ hasn’t figured it out yet, b/ hasn’t met your extremely high and mysterious standards, or c/ hasn’t humbled himself sufficiently? If the problem is him and his ongoing addiction/abuse/distance/lack of understanding—cut him loose. If the problem is you and your fear of being alone/fear of commitment/need for complete subjugation/need for security blanket, cut him loose. He’s proposed twice and he’s waited this week while you dither. What—exactly—do you want that you don’t have?

  29. 29

    My thought—It’s been eight years. If you still have to ask if he’s “the one”…he’s not.

    Good advice. She needs to cut the guy lose or move forward

  30. 30
    Faellie says:

    “Let me ask you this: have you ever seen a romance hero propose earnestly more than three times? “

    The end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia is the hero Damerel saying “And now, for the fourth time….”  Although to be fair, he was interrupted the first three times, and there’s never been much doubt about the answer.

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