How many times have you found yourself imagining an argument with a loved one, and you can easily script their part as well as your own? Now and then I have dreams about arguing with my father, and when I wake up, even though I imagined the whole thing, I think to myself, He would have said that, too! It was just like him.
Of course, I think sometimes we’d be surprised if we actually had those conversations, and yet—I suspect that sometimes, we wouldn’t be.
In any relationship, patterns of behavior and interaction build up over time. In some ways, that’s what intimacy is—and yet what a long and constant struggle it is to break a pattern you don’t like, once it’s been reinforced over and over for years!
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is that since romance novels are almost always about meeting someone new, they serve not just as a fantasy of finding love but as a fantasy of definitively breaking emotional patterns and starting completely afresh, able finally to be your best self. A self who doesn’t escalate every argument, or who asks for what she wants, or who allows herself to be vulnerable.
The thing is, the patterns we construct as children have a purpose. They’re designed to protect us, to shield us from the pain of not feeling loved or approved of or safe. If our parents are critical, we become defensive or perfectionistic to protect ourselves from the hurt of their disappointment. If our parents are neglectful, we try to become self-sufficient. If our parents aren’t good listeners, we stop talking, and if they don’t care what we want, we stop asking. If our parents get angry, we avoid confrontation, or provoke it to feel in control.
Those responses helped us get through and grow up. But once we have grown up, we don’t know how to discard them—even if now, they’re just getting in our way. We continue to act them out with our families (and often, everyone else in our lives) no matter how much we tell ourselves that this time we’re going to keep hold of our temper, this time we’re just going to say what we mean, this time we’re not going to care. The patterns are so deeply engrained, moving outside them can be as awkward and impossible as not rolling into the dip in your mattress where you’ve been sleeping every night for years.
It’s not a good feeling, being trapped in these patterns. I never feel so powerless as when I’m at home and something comes out of my mouth and oh my god I sound like I’m 14.
To a lesser extent, we build up patterns and have ruts in every aspect of our lives. Maybe you’re in a job you don’t love anymore, maybe you’ve had the same fight with your friend twice this month, maybe you’ve turned down so many party invitations that no one asks you anymore or maybe you’ve dated so many women that no one thinks of you as a possible boyfriend. Sometimes we just grow out of the person we were before, like a rootbound houseplant.
A new love in a romance novel is like a fresh pot and fresh soil…it gives the protagonist the space and the nourishment they need to keep growing, and sometimes it even helps them see what they want to grow into.
In a romance, no matter how engrained the patterns, no matter how deep a rut the hero or heroine may be in in their lives, new love is a blank slate. It’s someone who will see you as you want to be seen instead of as an awkward teenager or a party girl or a nerdy librarian, and maybe expect things from you that you want to learn to give. Not to mention someone who’ll finally hear and acknowledge that childhood pain that shaped you into who you’ve been. Have you ever noticed how many romances involve a scene where the hero or heroine shares a childhood story that they’ve never told anyone before?
The heroine of True Pretenses, my new historical romance, grew up taking care of her shy little brother after their mother died in childbirth. She’s been her father’s political hostess since she was seventeen. She’s thirty now, but she struggled to be taken seriously and make decisions as equals with adults for so long, carefully hiding her uncertainties and inexperiences, that she keeps doing it even when it’s counterproductive. There’s a scene where her brother feels insecure and she wants desperately to reassure him.
“My first dinner party was a disaster,” she blurted out, and flushed hot.
Jamie [her brother] stared at her. “It was?”
She remembered writing to him at Eton about that evening. She had tried to make it sound like a great success. Her face had flamed all through the letter. She couldn’t tell this story.
She looked at Mr. Cahill [the hero]. Eager warmth lit his eyes, as if he were already filled with fond amusement at her endearing younger self. The heat in her body suddenly meant something very different from embarrassment.
“I put on rouge,” she said. “I wanted to look older. Father laughed and told me I looked
like a strumpet and to go and wash it off.” The corner of Mr. Cahill’s mouth turned up, but even years later, she couldn’t find it funny.
That’s only the beginning of the embarrassment, of course! Poor kid. And because the hero is there and she knows that he’s going to think the story is cute and funny, that it’s not going to be a big deal to him, she can manage to tell it even though it still feels dangerous to her.
Can you really heal yourself and hit reset on your life just by dating someone new? Of course not. But I still think it’s great to read about someone making that kind of change. It’s like a really fun way to visualize success!
Tell me about one of your favorite romances and whether my theory applies!
AUTHOR BIO: Rose Lerner discovered Georgette Heyer when she was thirteen, and wrote her first historical romance a few years later. Her writing has improved since then, but her fascination with all things Regency hasn’t changed. When not reading, writing, or researching, she enjoys cooking and marathoning old TV shows. She lives in Seattle with her best friend.