Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (but still oh so familiar), we lived in an idealistic world where we watched movies and tv shows about love at first sight, played make-believe weddings with our friends, swooned over games of M.A.S.H. in middle school, and survived tragic heartbreaks in high school when our first love didn’t end up being “the one.”
Now, as we relentlessly attempt to navigate the dating world, we are coming across far more ogres than Prince Charmings (not necessarily speaking to the ladies here, but you know what I mean), we’ve found that real life isn’t all soul mates and happily ever after like our childhood stories showed and promised us.
When you think of the classic rom-com or Disney Princess movie, what comes to mind? Cinderella? How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days? Snow White? 27 Dresses? Sleeping Beauty? The common movie premise is the fixation of finding love and keeping love (between a man and a woman, of course)– which is a human necessity, but it’s gone about in a skewed way and shown in a completely unrealistic presentation. The media we grow up consuming matters because it’s how we subconsciously view the world (especially when it comes to relationships, and we don’t have many good examples).
So, before we fall head over heels for another love story, let’s break down the myths, stigmas, and unrealistic expectations our society and fairytale movies demonstrated to us from a young age. Then, we’ll start working toward a healthier expectation surrounding relationships, romance, and love.
MYTH #1: Heterosexual Love is the Most “Normal” Kind of Love
By this point, it isn’t a surprise to us that most of our stigmas are shaped by a patriarchal society and a large dose of toxic masculinity (think Beauty and the Beast). This is a huge contributing factor as to why there’s so much homophobia, transphobia, biphobia… You name it.
So when our society, driven by traditional male gender and sexuality roles, starts to create visual media, we’re often left with a skewed representation of stereotypical gender roles that drive the plot of the story. Example: Strong, attractive man who is emotionally removed falls for a beautiful damsel in distress who was waiting for someone to sweep off her feet. It’s his small gesture of “bravery” that wins her heart, and so she feels like he deserves her love (normally at this point in the movie there has been very minimal conversing between the two lovers).
The idea that “masculine” is attached to “man” and “feminine” is attached to “woman,” doesn’t leave a lot of room for people who may not fit into these specific boxes to be represented. If we started seeing children’s movies with gay leads or transgender children, our brains would literally be shaped from a young age to view this as “normal,” and that’s what we need.
Even stories that move past or challenge traditional gender roles, like Frozen or Brave, hardly represent anything other than heterosexual love. The stories that do have some queer representation? Often contain subtle degrading jokes, gay characters being the “best friend,” a transgender character that honestly tells their partner their past and the partner overreacts, and more. All leading to internalized homophobia spawned by a media that doesn’t encourage people to feel safe in their sexuality or even the freedom to explore!
Heterosexual love is not the problem– it’s beautiful! But when it’s seen and presented as the best option or most normal or most accepted… what we perceive and accept as “real” love becomes a problem. The representation of LGBTQ+ in the media in a positive, realistic light is minimal (it’s getting better, but it’s minimal).
MYTH #2: Monogamy = More Commitment, Stability, & Sexual Control
Monogamy is viewed as the end all be all of romantic relationships when in reality it’s just one option we have on the table. Like the lack of queer representation in our media, relationship formats like polyamory or open marriages are difficult for most people (and society) to take seriously because they fall outside of the “normal” mold.
We don’t represent any other types of relationships, and when we do, it’s in a negative light that shames them or makes them look like outcasts. Yet, we are obsessed with shows like The Bachelor, where everyone is essentially consenting to polyamory while on the show. Still, when someone falls in love with two people simultaneously, we judge them for not being able to “figure it out” as if something is wrong with them.
People who are polyamorous or have ethical, open relationships are often viewed and portrayed as sexually frivolous or immature. We equate other people meeting their sexual needs and core desires to be “wrong “ just because it may look different than how we have chosen to live our own lives (or how society has told us we should live our lives).
The irony of all of this is… People get married not even knowing all of their options. This isn’t to say that people don’t love their partners, but not everyone is wired to be monogamous like our culture makes us believe we should be. So, when we don’t fit into that box, we cheat, settle, or don’t feel like we can live in our fullest expression. We then feel shame and retreat inward, hiding parts of ourselves for societal and community acceptance.
Think of any rom-com where someone cheats on their partner. Most of the time, it isn’t out of spite towards their partner, but out of unhappiness and trying to meet their own needs without having to break someone’s heart or tear apart their family. It seems ironic, right? This is why we need good communication tools and to normalize evolving our relationships.
How do we fix this? First, we teach consent, communication, and encourage self-exploration! Then, we trust that people are doing what is best for them, even if it looks different from what we have chosen for ourselves, and you know what? This is far more fun anyway!
MYTH #3: Being in a Relationship Means You Have Life Figured Out
The societal and familial pressure to be in a relationship emphasizes “not being alone” rather than allowing people the freedom to discover what they truly want.
When Frozen 2 first came out, people questioned if Elsa was finally going to get a lover in the second movie, even though the movie’s focus was on her internal journey and relationship with her sister, Anna. This is because we are taught to focus on and sometimes even force romantic relationships to increase our social “value” (think Anna and Hans from Frozen or Ariel in The Little Mermaid or Princess Diaries 2 when Mia needed to marry to become queen).
In this societal mindset, women are taught that they are more valuable when someone loves them and that they need to trade sex for validation and affection. But, then, when we don’t fit into this societal mold (whether it be because of our sexuality or relationship status), we can often lose people close to us who don’t believe in our lifestyle choices. Generally, this also encourages women to settle for less love and affection than they want (the bar isn’t high because it doesn’t have to be yet).
We even encourage people to get married when we aren’t happy in our own marriages or romantic relationships. So it’s almost like this vicious cycle of needing to be validated by society, receiving that validation, realizing we aren’t happy, but encouraging others to do the same so we know we made the “right decision.”
Men, in this scenario, are taught to be emotionless but romantic. They’re taught to be hard-working and that their worth is tied up in “building” something with their life.
Often, we’re bombarded by familial questions about our relationship status like, “but don’t you want to be married?” Unfortunately, this mentality causes us to feel like failures when relationships don’t work out because so much of our social self-worth is wrapped up in “being in a partnership.”
This mentality prioritizes “forever” and “marriage” instead of communication, intimacy, and actual vulnerability. Culturally, many of us have been pressured to find relationships, but no one is even teaching us how to be in relationship.
We glamorize engagements, marriages, even gender reveals—not that all these things aren’t important, but they are often celebrated as the epitome of societal success. As a result, it can be isolating and lonely for singles who don’t meet these societal “requirements” (and generally not accompanied by much sympathy or understanding). “Gender reveals” are a whole other topic… can we stop with them, please?
But, singles, don’t fret! As cliche as it sounds, the more we know ourselves, the better our future relationships will be. We are in an era where taking the time for self-exploration is becoming more encouraged! We are doing the hard work now of healing our trauma, experimenting, questioning, exploring, and learning who we are—and that’s pretty fucking cool!
MYTH #4: Love Should Always Be Passionate & Romantic…. Until It Isn’t
The irony about relationships in the media is that it’s normalized to have a passionate beginning, but once we settle in, being unhappy in relationships is “to be expected.”
Passion in most rom-coms is represented by love at first sight (or almost), ignoring every red flag you see while dating (because they are just soooo hot!), HUGE blowout fights (exaggerated example, but think Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and steamy makeup sex to make everything better again.
We are taught that jealousy is passionate and romantic (jealousy is a natural feeling, but it’s not okay to change our behavior and control another person). Think Twilight, when Edward prohibits where Bella can go and who she can see. Plus, he watches her sleep, and that’s supposed to be like… cute? (Rachel was quoted in InStyle in an article about Twilight, check it out.)
Then, instead of working through the feelings of jealousy, we project our jealousy onto the other person through anger and resentment (Think: Gaston being upset Belle cares about the Beast, so he locks up her father and tries to get the whole town to kill the Beast. Another example of this is when Carrie and Aiden date on Sex and the City and Aiden can’t forgive Carrie for sleeping with Big, so he and Big get in a fistfight… naturally). *Insert eye roll here*
Fairytales and rom-coms also show that it’s okay to have outlandish expectations of our partners and that if they don’t meet them, they aren’t worth our time… Instead of learning how to communicate our needs to someone and figure out how we can meet each other’s needs. This is easier at the beginning of a relationship because we are often blinded by adoration, newness, and excitement. But, eventually, these expectations can come across as rules that we want someone to follow to remain in a relationship with us; then we just end up controlling each other.. Which is a MEGA romance killer.
Then, when the relationship starts to get hard, we bond over how difficult our relationships are with other people, bullshit with each other about how our partners annoy us, and feel like divorce isn’t generally an option unless someone does something “bad.” We aren’t taught what happens after the fairytale whirlwind romance and what communication tools to use when things get complicated.
Really any fairytale could fall under this category: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Ella Enchanted… You name it! They all ride off into the sunset in their carriage, and that’s that. Happily ever after is that easy, right?
Mhhh… I’d beg to differ. Here’s why.
Romance, passion, chemistry, and attraction are wonderful tools when a relationship is first getting started, but we need far more depth to sustain a relationship. We have been taught that romance, passion, and attraction are love, when in fact, it’s mostly just infatuation. We are encouraged to make huge decisions in this stage of relationships, so we get engaged, get married, and have kids because these things generally get us a lot of praise. Then one day, we stop and ask ourselves, “wait, how did I get here? Did I choose this because I really wanted it or because I thought it’s what I should really want?” Both can be the right answer to that question!
Don’t get me wrong, passion is important, but passion doesn’t sustain itself. Instead, it needs to be nurtured and cared for by communicating with our partners.
MYTH #5: Your Partner Should Inherently Know How To Make You Happy
What’s one of the biggest lies we learn from the media, you ask? It’s this; Definitely THIS.
We eagerly watch The Bachelor (not hating, I love this show—and Rachel does too) and rom-coms where partners pull off elaborate dates that are the epitome of romance. They seemingly know precisely when the other person (or persons) need to have a serious conversation, and though they might meet us with tentativeness, everything ends up being “perfect” again.
We aren’t given aaaany tools for how this works, and along the way, we developed the most unrealistic expectations for dating… like ever. We think that if someone isn’t willing to cater to our every need, they don’t “deserve” us. Which also, let’s just chuck that word “deservedness” right out the window!
We should seek partners who want to work with us, communicate, compromise, be a team, and help us meet our needs when we are struggling to do so. BUT, there is a major difference between this and wanting someone to do every romantic thing for us that we’ve seen happen on a Bachelor date.
Love and understanding are far more alike than love and romance are. After sharing the first dance, romance can be shared with a stranger (think: The Princess Diaries 2 when Mia dances with Chris Pine’s character on the dance floor, and they are immediately infatuated).
We are all complex individuals with different understandings of this world, different needs, and preferences. So, isn’t it crazy that we go into a relationship expecting that another human being with their own understanding of this world, with their own needs and different preferences, will just automatically know ours?
Marshall and Lily from How I Met Your Mother or Monica and Chandler from Friends all had seemingly perfect relationships. But if you really watch, there are super unhealthy and toxic characteristics. In real life, it takes a lot of communication, patience, and love to understand someone. If you ask me, someone wanting to understand me is far more romantic than any surprise date will ever be.
So, after much communication with ample amounts of consent and feeling free to explore their sexualities and relationships however they pleased, they all lived happily ever after! (“… with an occasional argument, as Rachel’s mom, would say.)