8 Ways Your Idea Of Romance Changes As You Get Older And Wiser

When I was 15, my mom’s cousin gave me my first romance novel. It was Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught, an old school historical romance novel rife with heaving bosoms, manly chests, stupid misunderstandings, and tearful declarations. I read the whole thing in a single day, and I LOVED it. It kicked off a love for trashy romance novels (I say “trashy” with the utmost affection) that lingers to this day; I may be old and cynical now, but give me a ridiculous, sweeping love story, and I will eat that sh*t up. But although my love of romance in books and movies hasn’t changed as I’ve gotten older, my conception of how romance works in real life has altered dramatically. And I think that’s a product of having some real-life romantic relationships and learning the hard way that reality is simply not like a novel.

When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I knew, of course, that real life wasn’t like a romance novel — after all, I didn’t have billowing raven hair or sparkling violet eyes, much to my utter discontent — but I think I still sort of believed that romance should work the same way it does in books: That it should follow a certain narrative, and that there should be lots of drama, emotional breakthroughs, and heartfelt declarations — at least until everything was perfectly resolved, when my One True Love and I would live happily every after, The End. It was only when I actually dated a few people that I realized that a lot of the stuff I couldn’t get enough of in my favorite romance novels was actually terrible in practice.

Read on for 8 romantic stereotypes that are really only romantic in fiction:

The Tortured Hero.

From Mr. Rochester to Edward Cullen to Christian Grey, we love romantic leads with troubled pasts and emotional incompetence, so it’s no surprise that in real life, so many of us fall for people who are “just misunderstood” or who have tons of baggage. There are, of course, lots of men and women out there who have been through terrible, traumatizing experiences, and who have every right to have some emotional and psychological issues. But let’s face it: Sometimes “tortured” just means “assh*le.”

I’m talking about the kind of person who chooses to play the part of the misunderstood, uber-sensitive, romantic lead, who simply needs to find the “One" — the person who will understand them the way that no one else does, who will fix everything, who will magically make them get over their issues with intimacy, commitment, or communication. Often this kind of person will use his or her supposed-“baggage” as an excuse to be a jerk to other people — including, eventually, romantic partners.

As you get older, the mysterious, troubled loner becomes less appealing, and you know who becomes increasingly hot? The person who has his or her sh*t together. Dan Savage has wisely said that people in relationships should be in “good working order.” Not perfect or baggage-free, but OK. Functioning. Self-sustaining (emotionally and psychologically, if not financially). The more you date, the more previously boring traits like “emotional maturity” become attractive.

Saving someone with the power of Love.

Because the whole “tortured hero” stereotype wouldn’t work at all without the “My love will fix you!” convention, right?

A lot of romantic novels and movies run on the premise that some poor, troubled hero can be magically healed through the power of Love — not just any love, of course, but the love of the perfect partner. It’s a compelling idea. After all, who doesn’t want to be the one special love interest who was able to break through the hero’s hard exterior, to magically heal his or her psychological wounds and make everything better?

It’s a compelling fantasy, but the truth is, you can’t “fix” other people. It’s not your job to be a savior, nor can you force someone to change against his or her wishes. Being romantically involved with someone who is self-destructive, or bogged down in self-loathing, is not romantic. It’s hard and painful and frustrating. Casting yourself in this role isn’t simply futile — it’s self-destructive and self-defeating for you. A number of years ago, I stepped back and looked at my own life, and realized that I had been willing to put up with a lot of crap from romantic partners, all because I thought that I was somehow fulfilling a necessary romantic storyline. I had to ask myself, How would I have acted differently if I hadn't been trying to play out what is essentially a fantasy?

Huge gestures and declarations of love.

Remember that scene at the end of Never Been Kissed when Drew Barrymore asks her teacher with whom she is in love to meet her on the baseball diamond at school to make out with her in front of everyone? I thought that scene was so romantic when I was younger. But now I find it sort of horrifying. Leaving aside the whole creepy he-thought-she-was-a-teenager-until-a-few-days-ago-and-still-wants-to-make-out-with-her thing, I look on this now and think, “If someone I liked demanded that I go kiss her in a stadium surrounded by hundreds of people as some dramatic romantic gesture, that would be Game Over for me.” Am I alone in this? Am I just being cranky?

DRAMA.

A happy, low-key, drama-free courtship would be really boring to watch in a rom-com, so I get why romances pack in the drama. But I find that the drama that makes a story exciting in fiction is completely exhausting in real life. All of those ups and downs, blowout fights, and huge revelations may be delicious in movies and books, but in reality, they are awful. I will take contentment over theatricality any day.

I realize that, so far, I’ve been cataloguing a lot of romantic stereotypes that stop being romantic as you gain experience. So before you get too bogged down in my angst and negativity, let’s take a moment to look at what is romantic as you get older and wiser. These things may not fill the pages of romance novels, but, in real life, they are swoon worthy.

The slow build.

A lot of romantic novels and movies have these exciting “Eureka!” moments when one protagonist suddenly realizes that he or she is in love with the other protagonist. While I thoroughly enjoy this storyline in fiction (particularly if the romantic leads hated each other right up to the point of discovering that they are actually madly in love), it’s not one that happens often in real life. Real love usually works more slowly. It grows and deepens over time, and, although it may lack the drama of the big revelation, it’s ultimately happier and more satisfying.

Small gestures.

Big declarations are all well and good if that’s your thing, but often it’s the little things — the small kindnesses and considerations — that reveal to you that your partner thinks of you and knows you, that he or she is invested in making your life happier. It’s those moments that will stick with you.

Laughter.

I LOVE cathartic, wrenching emotional breakthroughs in romance novels. Seriously, A LOT. In real relationships, however, many of the most important moments of bonding and love come through laughter, not tears. Of course, you need to be able to communicate about painful emotional experiences and all of that, but when you look back and remember some of the most romantic moments in your relationship, I bet you’ll find yourself thinking less of intense emotional outpourings and more about those times you were giggling so hard you couldn’t breathe.

Feeling loved.

As you grow older, you’ll find that the most romantic thing is simply feeling loved. Not dramatically, or in any way that would necessarily be interesting to other people. Just loved, all the time, unconditionally, for exactly who you are.

Images: Pixabay; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)