chick-lit addiction explain
why you’re still single?
’m sick. My disease? A form of pathological romanticism that manifests itself in an insatiable craving for continuous and chronic adoration, the likes of which are found only in Victorian novels and Hollywood movies.
Predictably, I caught the romance bug when I was a kid from repeated exposure to love-centric movies and books, which I was drawn to like a hungry dog to an overturned trash can. I was a solitary, daydreaming girl. My books, TV shows and movies were silent companions that stirred my imagination without challenging my shaky self-assurance.
I’ve read Wuthering Heights so many times that it feels like a part of my consciousness. I watched and re-watched classics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca and gravitated toward teen-love dreams like Say Anything... and Sixteen Candles. I embraced those idealized representations of love, which I’d like to think played some role in making me a loyal, loving partner but more likely made me the needy why-aren’t-you-acting-like-a-teenage-JohnCusack nightmare I am today.
I spent my 20s permanently disappointed by nice guys who just wanted to have dinner rather than brood darkly or proclaim their undying devotion— and I romanticized my fair share of pouty creeps. Back then, I thought my outrageous expectations surrounding love made me deep. Now in my 30s and married, I’m starting to think that my attempts to fuse real life and romantic fantasy make me as silly as a teenage boy with a pornography habit hoping to find a ready-and-willing Jenna Jameson hiding under the bed. Dream on, kid.
Still, I torture my husband with my constant craving for absurdly romantic gestures that could only play out in film and fiction. I want him to say “I love you”...constantly and with meaning. (Tears would be a nice touch.) I want him to miss me...when I’m in the next room. I want him to sleep with one of my T-shirts cradled in his arms... when he’s taking a nap. If I’m honest, I want him to act like a stalker minus the insanity part.
Go ahead and blame movies and TV for unrealistic expectations about love and romance—at least partly, says Peter Pearson, a marriage therapist, co-founder of The Couples Institute in California and co-author of the marriage manual Tell Me No Lies.
Pop culture bombards us with impossible-to-replicate messages, says Pearson, citing a list of romcoms that always begin with drama and end in happily ever after. “Wanting romance like that is not in a vacuum,” he says.
Why “harmless” chick lit might be ruining
your real-life relationship.
But culture is only one part of the equation. Women may get zinged from biology too, he says, mentioning evolutionary theories that suggest that women become aroused more slowly and therefore require more wooing—likely because it was biologically advantageous for us to be selective about mating.
Evolutionary psychologists debate the merits of this idea—some argue the opposite, that promiscuity multiplied chances of success and was therefore a strong urge too— but there is some evidence to suggest that women prioritize intimacy with their partners over almost every other facet of life. One study by happiness researchers that appeared in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that when asked to design their “perfect day,” American women put sex, cuddling and general intimacy at the top of the list (just after a good night’s sleep). Working and commuting were at the bottom of the list. Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t ask the same question of men, so there’s no way to compare the sexes. But the study results reveal just how little the reality of our lives—with work consuming most of our day and time with loved ones getting stuffed in whenever possible—aligns with our desires. Given this discrepancy, it’s no wonder we seek quick and dirty fulfillment through fantasy.
And, boy, do we ever. In 2012, romance novels rang up $1.4 billion in sales in the United States. A whopping 91 percent of those book buyers were women, more than half of whom were married or lived with someone, which suggests that every relationship requires a little fantasy on the side. (Though I’ve never read a Harlequin, I’ve watched Sixteen Candles too many times recently to set myself up as some kind of cultural elitist.)
So while the sexes may not possess identical reading lists or PVR schedules, we all share a desire for a real-world connection—we just express that interest differently, says Ashley Howe, a Toronto-based couples and family therapist. Romance is really just a synonym for intimacy and connection, says Howe, and it isn’t sex-specific or a simple consumer phenomenon. It’s a universal desire—“an instinct.” “To crave connection is human, period,” she says.
It’s how we ask for intimacy that gets us (read “me”) into trouble with our significant others. I solicit affection and tender words, which appears to be a common request among women in Howe’s couples therapy. By contrast, my husband wants to be “appreciated” and have his good deeds noted. I often hear “Why don’t you ever talk about the good things I do?” from my husband, who seems baffled by my inability to see how he expresses his love by helping around the house, coming home right after work and other more practical gestures. After speaking to Howe, I realize that my husband’s request is as emotionally urgent to him as my oft-repeated desire for more romance is to me. The fact that I haven’t been listening suggests I’ve spent too much time fantasizing about love and not enough being truly loving. In practice, it seems, my version of romance looks pretty selfish. To paraphrase a Woody Allen joke, it looks a whole lot like sex with someone I really love: myself.
I’m embarrassed to admit that this may be the appeal of fantasy for me: complete and utter selfishness. Mr. Darcy (as played by a poodle-haired Colin Firth in the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) didn’t challenge me to grow up or stop thinking about myself so much, and he wouldn’t dare tell me that, for example, my eyebrows were asymmetrical. That complaisance made him downright irresistible. My husband, however, doesn’t read from a script; he speaks his mind on every subject, including my eyebrows. That’s what makes him so appealing and frustrating to a pathological daydreamer used to having her narcissistic desire for complete adoration satisfied by fiction.
Research by relationship expert John Gottman suggests that lasting relationships are based on loving acts—like my husband carefully unloading the dishwasher—not the kind of epic deeds I’ve been craving. In fact, Gottman even determined a golden ratio: five positive acts for each negative one. “When you look at the happiest people, and when they tell you why their relationship is so good, they aren’t talking about grand gestures,” says Howe. “They’re talking about really tiny details every day. Love is very subtle. It’s a large accumulation of habitual things: bringing somebody coffee, clearing snow off their car for them.... That stuff counts.”
This real-world finding stands in direct contrast to movies and books that hang their effect on high drama or iconic moments. John Cusack and his boom box may have propelled millions of teenage girls’ fantasies (they did mine), but if longevity is the endgame, it’s time to turn away from Hollywood (which isn’t exactly known for its successful long-term relationships).
It’s clear that I should start separating fact from fiction and selfishness from self-knowledge because my very real husband does a hundred tiny things every day. He vacuums the stairs, he sorts the recycling and he cleans the kitty litter—all things I hate to do. At night, he gets me a glass of water (with ice!), and he always presses pause on the TV if I need to take a bathroom break. He endures my requests for more affection and occasionally even gives in to them.
That’s love. I can finally see it. But I must admit, I never thought I’d be looking for evidence of abiding, real romance in a clean litter box. n
It’s how we ask for intimacy that gets us (read “me”) into trouble with our significant others.