Romantic fantasies sound great in theory, but in practice, they can be pretty harmful, especially if you’re a woman. It’s complicated, but when you look at the research, plenty of data supports the danger of being a die-hard romantic.
If you’ve read me frequently before, you know I’m no fan of the romantic fantasy. I’ve written about how these beliefs endanger your relationships, and how they are totally unrealistic when it comes to the actual day-to-day of living and building a life with another person.
However, there is even more to these beliefs than just making your relationships harder to manage. Apparently, there are links between the belief in fairy tale romances (“knight saves princess”), intimate partner violence, and divorce.
I want to clarify something first: all of this is correlational. In other words, there is no CAUSAL link between these three things, only statistical relationships. Believing in romantic fantasies doesn’t cause intimate violence or divorce! However, things that are linked to these fantasies, like belief in women’s dependence on men and their traditional lack of financial means, unhappiness when “happily ever after” doesn’t actually happen, and other possibly unknown things, might all be factors that link all these elements together.
So, without further ado, let’s crush those romantic dreams once and for all.
The romantic fantasy
It’s in the fairy tales you heard as a child. It’s in romantic comedies. It’s in romance novels and in pop songs. It’s the romantic fantasy, the happily ever after, the love at first sight. It’s the belief that romantic love is the solution to every problem. It’s the idea that if you’re not in love, you’re incomplete.
It’s the narrative of destiny, of love happening to you rather than you making love happen.
Romantic beliefs are widespread. Fairy tales, and their modern version the romantic comedy, are our first narrative contact with love. The Prince sees Cinderella at the ball, dances with her and is instantly in love with her. The Prince sees Sleeping Beauty literally sleeping and kisses her and, obviously, is already in love. Or something.
So here’s a breakdown of the typical things that romantic people tend to believe:
- Love (especially passionate, sexually arousing love) should be the basis for marriage
- Love at first sight is possible
- A person only has one true love
- True love lasts forever
- True love can overcome all obstacles (Sprecher & Metts, 1999)
That romantic fantasy is so pervasive, we barely see it for what it is anymore: a fantasy. It’s so embedded in our stories and our conceptions of love that it’s difficult to get out of them.
Romantic beliefs have a destiny feel about them: that love is mostly out of our control, that all it requires is the right person, then all our love troubles will be over. It’s almost passive in its outlook on relationships. That kind of romantic love requires no work, no compromising, no changing over time. It’s frozen in time, trying to hold on to a few fleeting moments when love is new and exciting, not routine and mostly boring.
According to Franiuk, Cohen and Pomerantz (2002), people generally belong to two groups when it comes to relationships: the soulmate group and the work-it-out group. People with romantic beliefs tend to belong to the soul-mate group. These groups are called “ITR”, or “implicit theories of relationships”.
Romantic beliefs and divorce
All right, now we know what romantic beliefs are, and you probably have a general idea of whether you belong to that group, or to the work-it-out group.
There’s plenty of evidence that when two soulmate people get together, holding these idealized beliefs actually helps. Soulmate theorists are actually happier than work-it-out theorists in one condition: when they believe they are with the right person (Franiuk et al., 2002).
Once they realize or decide that they are not with the right person, however, soulmate theorists are more miserable than work-it-out theorists. Since they are not with the right person, why bother? All they’re waiting for is a better offer somewhere else, and they’re outta here.
In short, if you are a soulmate theorist, you’ll be pretty happy as long as you believe that you are with your actual soulmate. If that belief is shattered, however, you are more likely to leave than if you are a work-it-out theorist. People with soulmate beliefs have an “all-or-nothing” concept of relationships: either you’re with the right person and the relationship works, or you’re with the wrong person and the relationship doesn’t work. If conflict happens (and it ALWAYS does), soulmate theorists are more likely to take it as evidence that they are, after all, not with the right person.
People with soulmate beliefs, indeed, tend to avoid conflict, or to give in to what their partner wants. Although ignoring or accommodating some conflict is okay in certain situations, in others, something truly needs to be worked out, and soulmate theorists tend to be less likely to come to a good resolution.
Although there isn’t any direct evidence that romantic beliefs increase your risk of divorce, they certainly contribute to certain conditions that can increase its possibility, like when disillusionment and conflicts hit the couple after the honeymoon phase of their relationship.
So, if you’re a romantic at heart and believe in soulmates, you’re all good as long as you think you’re with your soulmate. If you suddenly realize that the person isn’t your soulmate, or if big conflicts arise in your relationship, you’re less likely try to work it out, and more likely to end the relationship.
Romantic beliefs and domestic violence
All right. When you’re a romantic, you tend to be pretty happy as long as you think you’re with your soulmate. No biggie here; relationships break up all the time for all kinds of reasons, and “not your soulmate” is one among others.
But the truly frightening effect of romantic beliefs, especially in women, is that it makes them more susceptible to domestic violence.
First, let’s take a quick look at Rudman and Hepper (2003) who coined the “glass slipper effect” when studying the interaction between romantic beliefs and women’s interest in personal power. In other words, these two scholars tested women to see how strongly they believed in romantic fantasies, and then surveyed their interest in things like education, social status, income, and leadership.
Rudman and Hepper found that the more women had implicit romantic beliefs, the less likely they were interested in having personal power. They showed less interest in high educational attainment, high-status jobs, high income, or leadership roles. The researchers have several theories for why this happens: maybe these women were socialized early to believe that they shouldn’t seek high levels of education or income. Maybe some of these women, stuck in a low socio-economic status, believe in romantic fantasies as a way to access power via marrying a more powerful man. Women might also develop these beliefs as a way to justify the sexist system we live in, where women are routinely cut off from high status jobs, high income and leadership positions. Interestingly, none of this applied to men.
In short, if you are a woman with strong romantic beliefs, you are less likely to want to get advanced degrees, a high-powered job, or to look for leadership opportunities. This also makes you more vulnerable to dependence on your romantic partner for financial support.
That, in itself, doesn’t necessarily make women more likely to be victims of domestic violence. So, let’s look at another study, this time by Franiuk, Shain, Biertiz and Murray (2012). The basic hypothesis is that if you are a soulmate theorist and if you believe you are with the right person, you are more likely to twist your partner’s violence against you because you believe that they are “the one” and need to have a positive view of them. In other words, because you think your partner is your soulmate, you’re going to rationalize, explain away, and even accept their violence against you to maintain that belief.
This research showed that when partners are not well suited to each other (no matter what the partners actually believe) and when the relationship is committed for the long term (marriage, children), people with soulmate beliefs were more likely to be victims of domestic violence.
There’s an interesting effect the researchers found, though: if the violence starts early in the relationship, people with soulmate beliefs were actually likely to leave the relationship, maybe because they haven’t quite firmly established that the person is “the one”. However, if the violence starts later in the relationship, once the person has decided that the partner is “the one”, this protection disappeared, and people were more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.
What does this all mean?
Although having romantic beliefs can be good for relationships, it also has more extreme effects. When things are good for soulmate theorists, things are REALLY good: they are happy and satisfied. However, once things start going badly, they go REALLY bad, because they don’t tend to work through problems. For women, believing in romantic fantasies makes you less likely to be independent financially. Financial dependence is a well-known issue for victims of domestic violence. People with romantic fantasies who have decided that they are with their soulmate are also less likely to leave the relationship if that soulmate becomes violent later in the relationship.
Does it mean that you’re a silly, weak victim if you’re a romantic? No, it doesn’t. I know plenty of strong, independent women who also have romantic fantasies. As I mention in the beginning, these things are all correlational; there’s no evidence of cause and effect. But if you combine all that research together, you get a clear picture: having romantic beliefs can be a problem, especially as a woman.
I tried to make this picture as clear as possible, but please let me know if something doesn’t make sense or if you have questions. I’ll be happy to clarify, do more research, or help you look for answers yourself.
Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E.M. (2002). Implicit theories of relationships: Implications for relationship satisfaction and longevity. Personal relationships, 9, 345-367. DOI: 10.1111/1475-6811.09401
Franiuk, R., Shain, E.A., Bieritz, L., & Murray, C. (2012). Relationship theories and relationship violence: Is it beneficial to believe in soulmates? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(6), 820-838. DOI: 10.1177/0265407512444374
Rudman, L.A., & Heppen, J.B. (2003). Implicit romantic fantasies and women’s interest in personal power: A glass slipper effect? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(11), 1357-1370. DOI: 10.1177/0146167203256906
Sprecher, S., & Metts, S. (1999). Romantic beliefs: Their influence on relationships and patterns of change over time. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 16(6), 834-851. DOI: 10.1177/0265407599166009