Your Fictional Fantasy Boyfriend Might Be Making You Fifty Shades Of Miserable

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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