In Defense of Reading Romance and Romance IRL
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
While most people, at one point or another, may long for a little romance in their life, it can get a bad rap. The romance genre is generally looked down upon, especially by anyone who reads "litfic." If a dreary, depressing book has even the slightest whiff of sex in it, people go crazy and start recommending books that are like that. Do you know what they never recommend though? Actual romance novels. As a genre, we're over here focusing on building relationships, forging community, and creating spaces where women get as much respect and attention as men. But we're still scoffed at. I've found though, if a reader gets connected with the right book, you'll fall in love the way you will with any good story. Because that's what it's all about, right? A good story.
Romance stories tend to focus on the beginning. The meet-cute, the misunderstandings, the electricity at the first touch, the longing, the foundation to the happily ever after. Because of that, our stories can be labeled as wish fulfillment, fantasy, the equivalent of literary trash, or even the highly-inaccurate and super ick "mommy porn." Maybe that's true. Maybe, for a lot of women, being pursued, being seen for who you are and still wanted, having your needs put above everyone else's, being given permission to love and experience life and bang without restraint or judgement is a total fantasy. But it shouldn't be. Let me say that again: IT SHOULDN'T BE.
I recently read a thread from Reddit that talked about this idea so perfectly I shared it in my facebook group and on instagram. In it the author (user/catsandquilts) says "Women who read romance novels just want to read about men loving women the way women are expected to love everyone else -- with a nurturing and protective form of unswerving loyalty." I mean, how true is that?! The true fantasy is being in a relationship where your partner is not only willing but actively doing the emotional heavy lifting. It doesn't even matter when they do it badly! It's the trying, putting in the time and work to show that you're invested, that you value her, that you want more for her than she's allowed herself to believe she deserves. So when it comes to romance, the sex part is AWESOME, but it's not the fantasy. And when it comes to supporting, marketing, and even just talking about this genre, who isn't going to be invested? Men who feel uncomfortable or emasculated by the mere suggestion that they should be doing more. It can feel like anything in a romance novel is as much fantasy as dragons and the fae.
With the beginnings of love stories being so emphasized, it can be sad comparing your own middle. Like, where are my grand gestures? Where's my "I'm dying without you" sentiment? Years into your story, romance looks different. But I would argue that it's no less magical or meaningful. Because who you are in year 18 of a marriage is completely different from who you were at year 1. Real life romance takes a certain degree of fluidity. You can't be tied down to your idea of what is needed of you and what you need from your partner. If you are, things get stagnant, you both end up frustrated, and no one ends up feeling valued or desired.
Last week I had a painful but necessary reminder of this. I've been feeling emotionally needy lately. My husband walked in the door from work and I hugged him. He just stood there, not really hugging me back so I kept hugging, needing more. He commented, "this is a long hug. Why do you need such a long hug?" So I asked, "Why don't you?" I was mostly joking but his response was a punch to the gut (and no, he wasn't being mean, just honest). He told me that he used to be really huggy -- his hugs when we were friends in college were often the best part of my day -- but wasn't any more. He explained that it felt weird being huggy with other people after we got married, and then I stopped being affectionate so he stopped too. As he pointed out, he didn't know at the time there were chemical imbalances, depression, and childhood trauma causing that. He wasn't blaming me. He just pointed out that after years of no affection, it was going to take a bit to get used to it again. But you know what's amazing? He was willing to explain that all to me and is willing to try. He's right, there were years when hugging didn't happen and I didn't want anyone to touch me. And suddenly, with the right medications, I don't feel that way any more. He has to get used to a wife that wants to be held, wants to cuddle before going to sleep, and is suddenly feeling sad because there isn't enough casual affection in my life. He could get annoyed and throw it back in my face that I'm the reason we are where we are. He could tell me "tough shit" and leave us at the level of affection we've been at for a while. But Real Life Romance? He smiles, rolling his eyes at me, and opens his arms for obnoxiously long hugs and cuddles until he has to push me away because it's too hot. Because having a partner who is willing to do the emotional heavy lifting isn't a fantasy. And writing stories about such things isn't trash.