True love never dies—at least, not at the box office. The top-grossing romantic comedy films of all time have brought in more than $3.7 billion, and with recent films like Crazy Rich Asians enjoying box office success, it’s safe to say that romance isn’t going anywhere.
We’re not complaining. We love classics like Pretty Woman, Say Anything…, 10 Things I Hate About You—basically, if a film has a love story as a major plotline, we’re on board. Unfortunately, romantic dramas present an extremely romanticized version of love (hey, that’s where the term “romanticized” comes from). And sometimes, that’s a problem.
We spoke with a few experts to find out how Hollywood portrayals of romance change the way we see our partners (and ourselves)—and whether we need to ditch our enormous collection of Meg Ryan movies.
1. They teach us that the ends justify the means.
As we’ve mentioned before, if you really break down the way that characters act in classic movies, they’re often…problematic. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell’s character lies to every woman he meets in a desperate bid for his first hookup; in Say Anything…, John Cusack shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s house blaring a Peter Gabriel song in a scene that would be downright creepy if she wasn’t into him.
Of course, she is into him, so it’s wonderfully romantic, and in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell’s indiscretions are immediately forgiven as soon as he comes clean. That sends a clear signal to viewers: Do whatever you have to do to win a woman’s heart: if she declines, that just means try harder.
We’re not really jumping to conclusions here. A 2015 study revealed that watching romcoms can increase the likelihood of stalking-supportive beliefs. Researchers showed test groups several films, then asked them questions about stalking behaviors; when groups watched a film that portrayed stalking behaviors positively (There’s Something About Mary or Management), they were less likely to identify those behaviors as problematic.
“This essentially means that watching someone on the big screen being persistent in their pursuit for love can favor stalking as a pro-social behavior,” says Jacob Kountz, a marriage counseling professional and clinic manager at California State University, Bakersfield. “As media blasts photos and films as such, it is not [a reach] to say that chasing someone for love can be perceived as a [normal] approach.”
In other words, romantic films often send the message that the ends justify the means—at least, where love is a factor. That’s certainly not the case in the real world.
“It doesn’t matter how he got the girl, just as long as he’s won her heart,” Kountz says, describing the takeaway of many films.
Like when someone says they’re not interested, don’t take that as a “maybe I’ll give you chance if you pester me everyday” ITS CREEPY
— goddess ♏️✨ (@momo__ace) March 13, 2017
To be clear, we’re not saying that if you watch x-number of romantic movies, you’ll turn into a stalker. If someone already has issues socializing healthfully, however, the films might help them justify their worst impulses. The good news: Films have the opposite effect when they accurately show stalking behaviors as—well, stalking.
“Exposure to a film that depicted persistent pursuit as scary led participants to endorse fewer stalking-supportive beliefs,” the authors of the 2015 study wrote. Our takeaway: If you believe that you’re predisposed to stalking behaviors, watch fewer films like Say Anything… and more films like One Hour Photo.
2. They teach us that love doesn’t require much maintenance.
Most romantic films end when the guy gets the girl (or when the girl gets the guy, as the case might be). Maybe there’s a quick scene showing their wedding, or a flash-forward where the couple’s taking a few kids to school, but for the most part, movies don’t follow couples deep into their lives.
After all, that doesn’t make for great drama—who really wants to see an epilogue to Sleepless in Seattle where Meg Ryan yells at a middle-aged Tom Hanks for leaving the toilet seat up for the millionth time?
Unfortunately, that tends to affect the way that we view long-term relationships. Psychotherapist Laura F. Dabney, MD, tells Urbo that she regularly comes across individuals who feel discouraged by media portrayals of romance.
“The ideal romance played out in the media tends to stop at the honeymoon phase and before the hard work,” she notes. “Therefore, it’s difficult for people to link ‘romance/love’ and ‘work,’ especially when the work required involves stating needs clearly, setting boundaries, and compromising—not just buying the perfect gift, making her favorite meal, or helping her with the kids.”
Why can’t any romantic happy ending movie, have a sequel? Like I want to see their life together after 5 years😭
— ᔕУᎠИƎУ (@syd_meeoooww) October 5, 2018
Movies don’t show the work that goes into a relationship, so when we’re forced to grapple with that work, we feel like we’re doing something wrong.
“[The work] often feels negative for people, which then leads to guilt or shame, which in turn causes them to bury [those feelings],” Dabney says. “That leads to blow ups—I call it the ‘bury and blow’ syndrome.”
That’s pretty catchy, and it’s backed by research. A 2009 paper from psychologists at Heriot-Watt University (link opens a PDF) noted that media portrayals of romance influence a number of beliefs that can negatively affect the quality of relationships. Notably, couples often determine that disagreements are destructive and expect their partners to read their minds; to put that another way, they don’t expect their relationships to take work.
Relationship expert Carla Marie Manly, PhD, agrees with that conclusion.
“The upside of romcoms is that they make us laugh, allow us to see the sparkle of love, and provide us with [an image of] the ideal love with a happily-ever-after ending,” she says. “Although this is lovely in the movies, it sets us up in real life to expect a perfect love that will make us happy forever. Real life doesn’t work this way. No relationship, no matter how good, is without its share of challenges and hiccups.”
Those challenges can actually make a relationship more fulfilling, but unfortunately, many people avoid facing them.
“Because we have a romanticized version of love, we can tend to become upset and irritated by natural relationship issues—the very issues that can stimulate relationship growth and bonding,” Manly says.
3. If we already have fanciful ideas of romance, romcoms can make them worse.
The aforementioned 2009 study also found that people who frequently watch romantic comedies are more likely to believe in fate. Granted, we can’t tell you whether or not fate exists—the metaphysical jury’s still out on that one—but if you’re relying on destiny to give you a happy relationship, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
I knew there was a reason why I haven't seen My Sassy Girl until now. Freakin fate and destiny. My feelings are all over the damn place!
— Aia Arkoncel (@aiaaaa) March 28, 2012
“I think those people who were raised in households where there were healthy relationships can see the media romances for what they are: fantasies,” Dabney says. “Those who didn’t grow up in such households tend to think the media version is more realistic than it is. So it’s more accurate to say it reinforces viewpoints that are already skewed.”
“Romcoms have the potential to induce high expectations for the relationship you are currently in,” Kountz says. “For example, individuals who watch their favorite film multiple times a year may conclude that their sex life needs to match what they see on screen. This puts pressure on the other individuals in the relationship as he or she feels compared to a film they watch for comedic relief (a different reason than their partners).”
That’s not to say that an affinity for romantic comedies will ruin your relationship, but if you’re using them as a sole example of what healthy relationships look like, you’re in trouble.
“These unrealistic expectations have the potential to put a divide in the relationship,” Kountz explains. “[And ideas like] ‘love at first sight,’ perpetuates the stigma that relationships must be [a certain way] Those who rely on these ideals of romance may feel let down as they feel their love life is not up to par. Comparison is a killer and can rob your joy.”
4. They downplay the financial issues that real-life couples encounter.
In films and TV, characters live in big, grand apartments that would cost millions in real life. To be fair, this effect isn’t restricted to romantic films, but personal finance writer Romana King says that unrealistic financial expectations can kill a budding relationship.
“I am often shocked at the ways in which a new couple will assess one another based on accommodation,” she says. “While we all know how unrealistic the apartments were in Friends, the show still set unrealistic expectations, particularly for young, single professionals.”
“Smart professionals—who rent what they can afford—are often unable to land that ‘hot’ date because their rented condo or suite isn’t in a prime spot (and this now reflects poorly on their decision-making, even though it shows that they are fiscally responsible).”
That’s important because research indicates that sound money management and strong financial communication play a significant role in relationship satisfaction. If you’re not happy with the way that your partner’s spending their money, you’re less likely to be happy in the relationship, period.
And given that Hollywood never really portrays characters’ financial situations accurately (Monica’s apartment on Friends would cost at least $4,500 a month, per a New York Post piece published in 2016), we’re left with unrealistic expectations.
The good news is that we don’t have to throw out our Meg Ryan movies. Hollywood romances may not be realistic, but that’s perfectly okay, provided that you can separate reality from fantasy.
“Essentially, watching romcoms on their own is not necessarily a bad thing to do on your downtime,” Kountz notes, “but when individuals project onto their lives or significant others comparing what they’ve just witnessed on a TV show or movie, that’s when it can become detrimental.”