'Tis the season to be self-swaddled in a festive blanket on the couch, marathon-watching holiday movies and feeling increasingly concerned over your personal life, which always fails to reflect the peppermint-flavored fairytales on the screen in front of you. You might love holiday movies, you might hate them, but judging by the sheer volume of these films, no matter how we feel about them, we still can't get enough of them. From the safety of the couch these seasonal flicks appear innocuous, but according to experts, holiday rom-coms can be harmful more than they are entertaining.
The tropes are familiar: an unlikely pair are brought together with a little bit of Christmas magic, a pre-planned small town holiday gathering and the clever placement of a mistletoe. Just in time for a crucial holiday moment, the odds are defied and the small town baker or academic wins over the visiting royal or one that got away. Grand gestures are made along the way, and by the time the credits role, you're a believer: fairytales do exist. And while this belief might appear to be fleeting, clinical psychologist and adjunct clinical instructor at Stanford University, Caroline Fleck tells Bustle that it stays with you. No matter how much space you keep between the screen and your personal life, if you watch holiday rom-coms, your IRL love interests may not compare.
"We tend to overestimate our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Knowing that a story is made up doesn't mean we won't still be influenced by the expectations or stereotypes it projects," Fleck explains, aware that many of us believe that by understanding what we're watching is nothing more than a filmic trope somehow protects us from falling for it. According to Fleck, rom-coms set and reinforce expectations that are insidious and problematic, despite how entertaining they might be.
"The problem is that although we all acknowledge that rom-coms are fanciful, we often fail to appreciate the extent to which they are subtly informative." Fleck goes on to explain that despite viewing her couples counseling clients as "intelligent, kind, and insightful" who are "well able to distinguish fiction from reality", there remains unrealistic expectation that they hold for their romantic relationships. That, and misguided beliefs of what constitutes a healthy relationship. "Seriously, grounding fairy tales in reality is like my day job, and it's made harder every year at Christmas when Love Actually starts playing on loop," Fleck admits.
As someone who routinely watches Love Actually, I can attest to that very bubble of suspended belief that stretches around you after consuming two and a half hours of down-to-the-wire romantic declarations, (that happen past the gate at airports) and red-nosed snowy kiss sequences. Despite the fact that I understand that these stakes are unrealistic and these acts are fantastical, (and also not TSA approved), I find myself scrutinizing my own relationships for that same magic.
According to Fleck, even the most grounded realists still struggle to maintain a standard of a healthy relationship that's not been distorted by unrealistic tropes often found in holiday movies. "What's sad about this work is the observation that in unknowingly striving for the unattainable, so many of us are failing to attend to, recognize, and seek the types of romantic experiences and relationships that are healthy, genuine, and representative of real love," Fleck explains.
While your brain might not be rotting into a fermented puddle of candy cane soup when you watch a holiday rom-com, you may be accepting subliminal messages about what's normative in relationships and that is in turn screwing up your ability to have realistic expectations or a trusty critical eye when it comes to your own love story. So the next time you cozy up on the couch and lock yourself in for an all day marathon of what appears to be harmless entertainment, know that none of us are impervious to the harmful effects that holiday rom-coms have on our personal lives. So watch at your own risk, and consume only in moderation. A night of back-to-back holiday movies will decrease your ability to feel romantically fulfilled in your own life — and besides, you know how the movie is going to end anyway.
Caroline Fleck, clinical psychologist and adjunct clinical instructor at Stanford University