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COLUMN: Learning About Love, Actually

The Finer Things

Assoc. Arts & Review Editor

Published: Sunday, February 16, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:02

Love is perfect in the movies, but in life, there’s no script for relationships.

For Valentine’s Day on Friday, you might have spent the evening with a date at the theater, seeing Winter’s Tale, About Last Night, or Endless Love—all chick flicks suited for the occasion. On the other hand, you might have spent the night in, either alone or with friends, re-watching Katherine Heigl comedies and indulging in heart-shaped chocolates. Regardless of what you did this weekend, though, you’ve probably seen a movie like one of these at some time or another and thought, “Hey, why can’t my life be that romantic?”

Our conceptions of love, sex, and relationships are shaped by Hollywood—by the sweet, over-the-top displays of affection, the neat and tidy endings, and the sparkling happily-ever-afters constantly depicted on the silver screen. We can’t help but think about these things idealistically, and that’s in part because:

Noah wrote Allie 365 letters, every day for a year.

Jack selflessly gave up his life for Rose when the Titanic sank into icy waters.

Jake Ryan arrived, a high school hero, in his red convertible when Sam thought her family forgot her 16th birthday.

With characters and plots like those, it’s little wonder why we consider romance the way we do—our expectations are rooted in fiction rather than in reality.

As a society deeply invested in entertainment culture, it’s near impossible to ignore the media. It affects, almost inevitably, the way we live and the way we love.

And for that reason, researchers have taken a growing interest in the subject, studying the impact romantic movies have on actual relationships. While not many studies have been conducted as of yet, those that have been concluded that, whether we realize it or not, we’re influenced by what we watch.

In a study from several years ago, Kimberly R. Johnson and Bjarne M. Holmes (both M.D.) found that we knowingly use films as examples for our own lives. They suggest that, “individuals actively observe media portrayals of behaviors in romantic relationships for insight into how they themselves could behave in their own relationships.”

Other parallel research indicates that the effect can be subliminal rather than deliberate. So even if we’re not purposely watching rom coms to figure out what love is like—even if we’re not using them as how-to-guides—those movies still shape what we perceive as normal. Over time, the repeated themes and images don’t seem contrived. Instead, we subconsciously believe them to be true.

But the truth is, they’re not true. They’re condensed and exaggerated representations of love that don’t always play out in real life the way they do in 90 minutes on our TVs. Two friends won’t always be able to reconcile the tension between being just friends versus lovers, and being a bridesmaid at 27 different weddings won’t always ensure that you’ll be able to walk down the aisle yourself. There won’t always be a boy standing outside the window with a boombox, professing his affection, Autumn won’t always be a fortuitous replacement for Summer, and there won’t always be 50 first dates to go on—because that’s not how it works.

Romantic comedies are fun and heartwarming, but it’s important to take them for what they are. In the movies, it’s: boy meets girl, passionate bliss, complications, apologies, love’s true kiss, and the end. Real relationships, though, don’t flow so easily—there isn’t a foolproof script outlining the way.

In life, relationships are hard and take a lot of courage, just like Kerry Cronin, a professor within the philosophy department, explained in her lecture series last week. You have to be brave enough to make the moves you need to make, she said, and you have to trust your future, even if that means getting your heart broken. There’s no playbook to follow, and the silver lining isn’t always so obvious when things aren’t going well. No matter how it goes, though, relationships are growing experiences.

We’re learning a lot about love by watching movies—maybe more than we are by really loving. We need to stop looking for flawless, unattainable models, and realize that the beauty of real relationships is that they’re not perfect. They’re flawed—beautifully flawed. And sorting those problems out with someone you care about and making the relationship work—that’s what love is, actually.

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