When it comes to the topic of romance films, there are two main camps – those who love them, and those who cannot stand them. Similarly, in regards to the question of whether these films affect real life relationships, there are two main streams of thought, based on actual studies conducted throughout the years. The first stream asserts that romantic comedies set up unrealistic expectations for real couples and cause problems in relationships. The second stream suggests that this might not actually be true, and that in fact, watching romantic comedies can have the inverse effect. Here, we explore both streams of thought and question the extent to which these films ultimately have an impact.
On one hand, there is a common belief that watching too many romantic comedies sets up unrealistic expectations in the mind of the viewer and this in turn discourages the practice of open communication in real life relationships. The viewer may become so used to the perfection of on-screen romances that he or she comes to expect the same level of perfection in his or her own life. The lack of open communication stems from the idea that since problems have an inevitable way of working themselves out in films, the same should apply off-screen. For this reason, avid romcom watchers might find it unnecessary to communicate openly about what they want from their partners or their relationships because of this idea that their partners should just know without being told, and this idea that if one really loves another, he or she should be able to read that person’s mind to figure out what that person wants. Films with idealized stories of romance, such as Notting Hill, or any film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, are prime examples of this.
Furthermore, there is a problem in the fact that most of the narratives in romance films do not tend to move past the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Most of these stories revolve around capturing the fluff (for lack of a better term) that is associated with the early phases of a love story rather than delving into the more realistic, often problematic and negative aspects. While they capture the excitement associated with a new relationship, the fact that they never move past this honeymoon phase falsely asserts that this phase lasts forever, and this is not a healthy expectation to set, especially if the viewer walks away from the film expecting his or her own honeymoon phase to last forever.
Even a film such as (500) Days of Summer, which is often applauded for being refreshingly realistic for a romance, concludes with a highly unrealistic happy ending. Although Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is broken over the loss of Summer, the film ends with him meeting another girl, conveniently named Autumn – suggesting that he is about to start another phase in his life. But does life really work this way?
On the other hand, there is an opposing belief that watching romance films does not cause people to have unrealistic expectations in regards to their own relationships and partners. This stream of thought argues that there is little correlation between enjoying romantic comedies and believing in love at first sight, fate, or finding “the one.” In fact, some suggest that watching these films actually has the opposite effect, showing couples what they are doing wrong in their own relationships. They cause couples to introspect and think about their own behaviour. Films like Runaway Bride centre around couples who do not communicate with one another properly and feature problems which arise due to a lack of openness. These films can act as cautionary tales for real life couples.
Furthermore, this second stream of thought suggests that the type of people who rely on romantic comedies as a source of advice or information are the type of people who already idealize their own relationships and their own partners in the first place. Therefore, these viewers are already prone to the kind of thinking that is unhealthy in the context of real relationships. In contrast, people who do not take romcoms too seriously and indulge in them once in a while simply for the purpose of mindless enjoyment do not tend to idealize real life relationships.
Ultimately, everyone is different and neither of these two streams of thought can generalize an entire community of romance film enthusiasts. It is interesting to analyze what the opposing camps offer up in relation to the genre, but at the end of the day, the effect depends on the individual viewer. If one already believes in the notion of love at first sight, destiny, or soulmates, then watching romance films will probably add fuel to their fire. However, it is also possible to enjoy these films objectively without projecting unrealistic expectations onto one’s own life and relationships.