Your Fictional Fantasy Boyfriend Might Be Making You Fifty Shades Of MiserableMichelle Konstantinovsky

My parents marked their 39th wedding anniversary on July 7. Thirty-nine years, you guys.

This blows my mind for a variety of reasons. For one, I feel about a million years old sometimes, so I don’t understand how my mom and dad could have possibly been together for so long before I was even alive. The more obvious reason for my astonishment is of course the fact that someone could not just tolerate a spouse for so many years, but successfully support, respect, and dare I say love that other person consistently for almost four decades.

Rebecca Fernandez was equally impressed with this incredible achievement and asked me what their secret is. I had no idea, so I asked my mom, and after considering the question thoughtfully, she said, “forgiveness.” Sweet, right? Not so quick with the “awwws,” everyone—it was a two-part answer. “Also, low expectations,” she added quickly.

Not a super romantic response, I suppose, but damn honest. And mom’s reasons for this reply result from two recent discoveries she made.

One: In a not-so-new-but-still-mind-bogglingly-interesting study, researchers found that Denmark is the happiest nation in the world. The reason Danes are particularly pleased with life? They don’t expect much. “Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find out that not everything is rotten in the state of Denmark,” said demographer James W. Vaupel.

Two: Fifty Shades of Grey

Yes, I just threw a curveball, but bear with me.

It’s first important to note that I got mom’s express permission to reveal this current Kindle selection. And some of you might know that I’ve devoted a chunk of my summer reading list to the horrendously written, improbably addictive trilogy.

So yes, this in fact means that I am unofficially enrolled in a bondage-themed book club with my mom, but that’s not the point, so let’s not focus on that.

The point is, when my mom and I aren’t busy shielding our e-readers from prying eyes on public transportation or vehemently denying that we’re actually enjoying the three-part smut-fest, we have in-depth discussions about the books’ profound cultural relevance. Just kidding, we mostly joke about the smut.

But my mom really did have an interesting observation about Fifty Shades and fantasy literature in general that totally ties into her “low expectations” theory on sustaining a happy marriage. She realized that as she read more and more about the epic, all-consuming, over-the-top love between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, she started to feel, well, crappy.

The imaginary ideal was fun at first, but soon she caught herself feeling deflated knowing that, as awesome as my dad is, he’ll probably never poetically profess the ways in which his very existence depends on her every breath.

And of course she quickly remembered that in real life that sort of thing is horribly creepy. Yet even letting herself imagine for a second that that kind of intense, overpowering love did indeed exist for someone out there that wasn’t her was sort of a temporary bummer.

But once she quickly bounced back from her brief Fifty Shades-induced sadness, my mom realized that though she has years of experience and wisdom on her side to know the difference between the complexities of actual long-lasting love and fictionalized fantasy fluff, plenty of other female readers (like me!) don’t.

What if all of these paperbacks posing as harmless, escapist entertainment are really planting the seeds for irrationally high expectations? What if women who are being spoon-fed saccharine sweet romantic illusions are setting themselves up to be sorely disappointed by the everyday realities of their actual relationships?

Obviously romance novels existed long before Christian Grey waltzed onto the scene, but the male suitors in, say, Jane Austen’s novels, were not often described as “perfect” or as “God’s gift to women,” as far as I can remember (nor where they as explicitly adventurous in the bedroom, but that’s another blog post). Christian may claim to be “fifty shades of f–ed up” but his defects are still far more appealing and irresistible than even the most flawless real-life human man’s best qualities on a good day. That just doesn’t seem fair to the readers expecting to find their own sensitive, wounded Adonises in need of saving or to the men in their lives who won’t ever have a hope of measuring up.

Fifty Shades is unfortunately not my first foray into the imaginary world of unattainable, fictional boyfriends. Edward Cullen pretty much ruined 2005 through 2008 for any guy striving to seem chivalrous, thanks to his otherworldly aptitude for romance. But Twilight‘s pale protagonist is otherworldly. He’s a vampire, for god’s sake. At least that should provide readers with some indication that Edward-level perfection isn’t necessarily something to expect from real-life Romeos. But plenty of women (and surely some men) see themselves in clumsy, awkward Bella Swan and if she can score an unabashedly adoring, kind, compassionate, Pattinson-pretty, piano-playing hunk, why can’t the rest of us?

In the end, there’s really nothing wrong with a little harmless fantasy reading. Occasionally escaping from real life is not only fun, but important. Nobody wants to (or should) spend every waking moment thinking of nothing but deadlines and to-do lists. This is why the Kardashians and Real Housewives serve such vital roles in our society. But while it’s necessary to take a mental vacation now and again, it’s equally essential to retain a basic understanding of how fact differs from fiction and keep at least one foot firmly planted in reality while the rest of you flies high in fantasy land.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take notes on Fifty Shades‘ profound, philosophical points for my next book club with mom. Totally kidding again, I’m just going to skip to the smutty parts and giggle quietly. Viva la summer reading!

Image via Fan Pop

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  1. Love the article so true !

  2. Wow, my parents celebrated 40 years on July 7 !! What a cool coincidence. :)

  3. Jim and Pam from The Office ruin everything.

  4. Me and my boyfriend had our 9th anniversary one week ago (I know it isn’t comparable to such a long marriage but I’ll just turn 25 in August, so..) and I think it is also important to acknowledge that relationships are also work. And I don’t mean just talking about the problems you have with your partner but also the ones you have with yourself, and I think that’s the part most people cannot deal with. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves why something suddenly seems unbearable although it wasn’t before and often enough we find that the problem is not only the partner but a dissatisfaction with what is going on in our own life. Too many people expect too much, from their partners, their relationships and themselves. Questioning your own expectations does not necessarily mean “settling”.

  5. i think the most disturbing thing about characters like edward cullen is not that he is giving girls unrealistic views of romance, but that its romanticizing controlling, emotionally abusive, co-dependent relationships. think about it. if edward wasnt a sexy vampire, everyone would be like, “okay, this guy is bad news bears.” if any of us dated a guy who acted like him, or if any of our friends or daughters dated someone like him, red flags would be popping up all over the place.

  6. Michelle- you rock my socks. This post is so fantastic and so necessary. It’s hard to return to reality after a series with an extraordinary leading man. Settling and searching for Edward or Christian are the extremes. Live in the middle. The guy doesn’t need to stop a car with his hand to be glorious and swoon-worthy.

  7. My mom reads nothing but romance novels. She’s been married to my dad for almost 31 years, and he’s not romantic in the least. Her books are her escape to a land with husbands who buy you roses for no darn good reason, just because he wanted to. I feel bad for her, while I read about the Darcys, Rochesters, and other chivalrous men of the past.

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  9. Great article!
    I wish I knew our secrets. But he has a point about that finding out that not everything is rotten in Denmark, haha.

  10. I certainly do not think that anyone should settle. Both of my parents were married before and I am currently married. My mother went into a “beautiful happily-ever-after, romance novel” the first time only to find out he was “crazy psycho abuser.” ( my mothers words exactly.)
    I am certainly not saying that every relationship that is passionate is abusive either. I have a very healthy passionate relationship with my husband.
    What I am saying is that at some point you have to accept that relationships take work. We have to be vulnerable, we have to be flexible and sometimes we have to accept that we cannot all marry Mr. Darcy..
    As for not having to forgive… heck yes you have to forgive. by looking over the things that bother you.. you are forgiving. by accepting and loving your significant other despite the fact that they have really big mistakes sometimes.. that is forgiving… I say I am sorry a lot and I forgive a lot… but that does not mean I am settling that means I am learning how to communicate effectively.
    sometimes we run into highly sexually passionate relationships (like the ones in certain novels) and we forget that those two come at a price. I think the key here is find a healthy relationship and nurture it. Do not go into an unhealthy relationship to settle, make it better, or fix it.

  11. What has been right for your mothers isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I’ve been married twice – settling for a good friend the first time. Some of us want more and the second time through, I got it. Five years of my marriage’s over-the-top love may not compare to forty years of low expectations, but my grandparents had been married over sixty years and were still crazy in love. I think settling for “good enough” is why there are not more marriages that are based on extraordinary love. With extraordinary love, there isn’t much call for forgiveness, because you tend to simply forget those minor infractions that are so irritating from someone who isn’t the best match for you. Of course, I had to wait until thirty-two to meet the right one.

    • I think you may have missed the point. It’s not that she is advocating for “settling”. She’s just saying that people should go into a relationship with realistic expectations. It’s not going to be bells, whistles and rainbows all the time. No one is perfect and they certainly shouldn’t expect their partners to be. They certainly shouldn’t be compared to a fictional fantasized character because people can’t possibly live up to that reality.

  12. Random, but my parents celebrated their 38th anniversary on the 7th! I think their marriage has definitely taught me to manage my expectation for love and view it more as finding the right person to be your partner throughout life rather than striving for some magical and crazy love story that won’t last.

  13. I agree with this post so much. I have watched my parents for the better part of the 3 decades they have been together (I was born two years in). my mother makes it a point not to read “love stories” because she does not want to set unreal expectations for my father.

  14. Great article! Very well written and so true! :)

  15. My friend and I were just discussing the “low expectations” theory last night. I think, while it’s importnat to not settle for someone who is clearly wrong for you, it is also really important not to compare your relationships to fantasy. Movies do the same thing, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that a) it’s fake and b) cinema, books, and media in general are only portraying the infatuation phase of a relationship. In this “love it for a second, now I’m over it” generation, commitment is the hardest thing for some people!

  16. My parents just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. In this day and age that is a major feat.