She is thin and pretty. He is tall and strong. She is elegant and polite. He is attentive and patient. She is sweet and takes care of him. He makes her feel protected and loved. She always knows what to say to comfort him. He always makes her laugh. She supports his career and his goals. He buys her expensive and amazing presents. They both wear nice clothes and live in beautiful homes. They always know what the other thinks or wants. They trust and respect each other. They both understand and support each other no matter what. Their conflicts always lead to sweet reconciliations. Their respective undesirable behaviors are forgiven and forgotten. They would die for each other. They are absolutely in love with each other and will be forever because they were made for each other. Sound familiar? Yes, you are watching a romantic movie! But reality is not that pretty, is it?
Today, media has a huge impact on society. For this reason we tend to look at the media to make sense of ourselves and others around us regarding important aspects of our lives, such as romantic relationships. Thus, although most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, we are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realize. According to Imagining Romance: Young People’s Cultural Models of Romance and Love, a study conducted by Dr. Christine M. Bachen and Dr. Eva Illouz, popular media serves as a significant source of information regarding romantic relationships, particularly for adolescents and young adults who have a propensity to hold cultural models of romance. They also report that 90% of young people look at movies to find information about love, while only 33% turn to their parents. Therefore, they argue that, given the exaggerated nature of media portrayals, individuals who use media sources to shape their relationship beliefs and expectations can feel that their own relationships do not measure up to those observed in the media.
Experts affirm that the expectations that the media generates around love in comparison with the real complexities of romantic relationships create tension and pressure to romantic partners. BBC News reports that Hollywood idealized portrayals of love can deeply affect interpersonal communication within romantic relationships. BBC News explains how relationship counselors often face common misconceptions about interpersonal communication within romantic relationships with their clients. Common misconceptions include the idea that romantic partners who are made for each other should automatically communicate effectively, in other words, the thought that if your partner loves you, he or she should know what you want without saying (just like it happens in many movies). They found that this misconception leads to other common mistaken beliefs such as the idea that sex between true romantic partners should always be perfect.
CNN contributes to the idea that romantic movie portrayals often create pressure for romantic relationships. CNN offers the testimony of men who felt undermined by the male character of the romantic film “The Notebook,” Noah. Petty, the article’s writer, explains that the exaggerated and magnificent gestures of love and commitment he shows throughout the whole movie set standards too high for men’s behavior in romantic relationships. For instance, in order for Noah to win Allie’s heart, he gives her the house of her dreams that he assiduously has rebuilt himself. Thus, Petty argues that this movie causes too high of an expectation for women and damages men’s confidence and motivation in romantic relationships.
This link shows shortcuts of different scenes from the movie “The Notebook” that include: when Allie tells Noah about the house of her dreams, when Noah is building the house, and when Noah gives her the house. By Ashlee
In their study Contradictory Messages: A Content Analysis of Hollywood-Produced Romantic Comedy Feature Films, researchers Ph. D. Student Kimberly R. Johnson and Associate Professor Bjarne M. Holmes, argue that romantic films not only provide unreal depictions of romantic relationships, but also provide contradictory messages about conflict and tension within couples. They found that romantic films represent romantic relationships as having both characteristics of new and long-term relationships, like intense passion and strong loyalty. They also detected that romantic movies tend to reduce the consequences of undesirable behaviors such as cheating or lying. For all these reasons, the researchers state that media portrayals of romantic relationships do not reflect those typical of reality and can therefore be misleading for viewers.
This idea is supported by Romance Media and Relationship Destiny, another study conducted by Bjarne M. Holmes. After interviewing a sample of 249 undergraduate students, he argues that most tend to assume that the characteristics of relationships that usually take time to develop, such as a strong level of commitment, should be present in relationships from the very beginning. Hence, they will have the propensity to underestimate the quality of their own relationships. In addition, he found that the media’s idealized portrayals of romantic relationships persuade young people to believe in destiny, soul mates, and “mind reading.” The researcher also explains that since adolescents and young adults lack much experience in the field, they are more vulnerable to be negatively affected by media portrayals.
In Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, well-known Communication Studies researcher Dr. Julia T. Wood states that romantic love consists of three dimensions: intimacy, commitment, and passion. Intimacy involves feelings of closeness, bond, and affection; commitment is the decision to stay engaged in the relationship; and passion involves strong affirmative feelings and ardent desire for the other. Wood explains that it is especially important to acknowledge the difference between commitment and passion. She explains that passion is involuntary and can progressively fade over time. On the other hand, she explains that commitment is an act of will that develops progressively and remains steady in the course of time. For this reason, she argues that romantic relationships based on commitment are more likely to remain together despite changing feelings or other challenges, while romantic relationships based on passion are subject to external circumstances.
The problem with romantic movies is that they send contradictory messages about love, commitment, and passion. As Johnson and Holmes argue, romantic films portray romantic relationships as having both intense passion and high levels of commitment at the same time and from the very beginning. However, based on reality, relationships gain commitment gradually and experience passion through ups and downs. As Wood states, healthy romantic relationships understand and accept that the three dimensions of love will not always be present to their maxim extent but instead will interact, flow, and overlap. For this reason, she highlights the importance of developing intimacy in order to underlie commitment and passion. Therefore, by basing romantic relationships on passion and immediate commitment rather than on gradual commitment, flowing passion, and intimacy, romantic movies show unreal representations of romantic relationships. These dreamlike depictions can influence us to perceive our romantic relationships as lacking, especially when we exit the euphoric and passionate phase of the first years.
The fact that people compare their own relationships with those portrayed in romantic relationships is due to the common practice of social comparisons. According to Wood, social comparisons occur when we evaluate ourselves by measuring our characteristics, abilities, and qualities in relation to others. Therefore, although most of us think that we just watch movies for pleasure, the truth is that we voluntarily or unconsciously compare our own relationships, practices, and experiences with those portrayed in films. For this reason, we need to take into account that comparing idealized and unreal portrayals of love with the difficulties and challenges of real romantic relationships is not a fair evaluation. We should always look for reasonable comparisons that can help us create a realistic perspective of our relationship and encourage us to improve it. As CNN articles’ testimonies prove, picking unfair comparisons, such as the main character of “The Notebook’s” extraordinary attention and dedication to his romantic partner, can lead us to lose confidence and motivation in our romantic relationships.
The dangerous tendency of comparing ourselves with romantic movies’ unreal portrayals of love, can potentially detriment our relationships’ interpersonal communication. As the BBC News article shows, researchers and counselors have found interpersonal communication misconceptions related to romantic movies as recurrent themes. One recurrent theme that romantic movies convey is the idea that lovers who are made for each other are able to successfully communicate without words or effort. This view point can influence romantic partners to overlook the importance of working on developing effective interpersonal communication skills, which according to Wood is a crucial step in creating and maintaining healthy relationships. In his study “Romance Media and Relationship Destiny,” Holmes detects a recurrent unproductive communication practice enhanced by romantic movies; mind reading. Mind reading involves believing that one can understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. He explains that students think this is a positive practice between romantic partners that should be natural and expected between true lovers. Thus, by portraying soul mates as being able to read each others’ minds, the media contributes to the use of mind reading, a negative communication pattern that can lead to misunderstanding, resentment, and an overall disconfirming communication climate between romantic partners.
Finally, it is also important to acknowledge that according to some experts, romantic movies can also help us improve our romantic relationships and overall love life. For instance, Time magazine reports that according to Phillip Hodson, a member of the British Association of Sexual & Relationship Therapists and of the London Marriage Guidance Council, romantic movies’ idyllic portrayals of love can also provide hope and inspiration, especially for those who are single. He affirms that “we need to live by stories that help us deal with tough realities,” and that “We all need hope in our lives. And Hollywood trades on hope.”
In conclusion, there are several things we need to take into account the next time we watch a romantic movie. First, we need to realize that we will inevitably be influenced in someway by its messages and images. Second, we should try to avoid unfair social comparisons with the ideal romantic relationships the movie portrays. Third, we need to understand that real romantic relationships are way more complex than they appear to be portrayed in films. Therefore, we have to accept that we will face ups and downs in the relationship, difficult conflicts, and hard consequences to our unconstructive behaviors. For these reason we need to develop a wide range of interpersonal communication skills that help us effectively communicate with our romantic partner. Finally, we have to acknowledge that romantic movies are also a pleasurable way of entertaining us that can offer encouragement and new ideas that can make our love life better. So you know, Love is blind, but you are not! So take a critical point of view when watching romantic movies and you will benefit from their advantages while preventing them from negatively influencing your romantic relationships and overall love life.