Dangerous delusions about love—and the romantic comedies that feed them.
My friend Michelle and her on-again-off-again were off. Again. She complained that he just wasn't going to the right lengths to win her back.
"I need a big gesture," she said. "I need roses. I need tears. I need Lloyd Dobler on the front lawn with a boom box raised over his head."
Another friend, Laura, had not met anyone even halfway decent in months, and was starting to wonder if her best friend, Tiny Tony—a sweetheart who is unfortunately short, bald, and bulbous—might be the guy for her after all.
"I've never been attracted to him or anything," she said. "But maybe it's a When Harry Met Sally situation. Maybe we're meant to be and I just haven't noticed."
After almost 15 years as a faithful fan of romantic comedies, I've come to a painful conclusion: The movies we watch to supplement our love lives are actually sabotaging them.
They make us wonder why our ex hasn't appeared in our yard playing "In Your Eyes" at midnight even though, if he did so, we'd file for a restraining order, not a marriage license.
They lead us to believe that an older, more sophisticated man who criticizes the way we look/talk/dress will fall madly in love with our made-over selves. If it was good enough for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, it's good enough for us.
A lot of lip service has been paid to the idea that violence in films causes men to be violent in real life. Why isn't anyone calling for warning labels for movies that cause otherwise reasonable women to act like emotional psychopaths?
Hollywood's take on love leaves us dissatisfied with the relationships we have, and hungry for the sort of romance that simply never occurs in nature.
I'd like to tell you that this realization has caused me to throw out all my old videotapes. Into the trash with you, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. You've set me up for failure, Rock Hudson. It's documentaries and presidential biopics from here on in. But a girl's gotta dream.
Still, it's helpful to at least try to separate fact from fiction.
In that spirit, I've identified some of the most common romantic-movie traps. If you feel yourself slipping back into fantasyland, get thee to a Blockbuster and rent Annie Hall—the only romantic movie I can think of that's both satisfying and honest.
The Sleepless in Seattle Trap: Like Bill Pullman in the movie, your current boyfriend or fiancé may have committed some unforgivable crimes, such as having lots of allergies but no nickname. Then you hear a voice on the radio, or see a face across a crowded room. Suddenly, you know this stranger is the love of your life.
OK, you already have a partner who's perfectly stable and lovely, but I'm afraid you will have to end that relationship. After all, in the 30 seconds you've spent with the new man, you've learned everything there is to know about him. And. It. Is. Good. You use Google, gossip, mutual acquaintances, and expensive private investigators to track him down and ask him out to dinner.
See also: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, A Walk in the Clouds.
The Real Ending: Over dinner, you realize he has bad breath, a wife, and absolutely nothing whatsoever in common with you.
The As Good As It Gets Trap: You've found a guy who has that certain something--as well as a bad attitude, a fear of commitment, or just a nonspecific nasty streak.
Other than that, though, what a catch. Minor personality flaws won't stand in the way of your fate. You decide that your love can change him, because that's what true love does.
See also: Jerry Maguire, Reality Bites.
The Real Ending: You go to great lengths to show him that you're worth loving before ultimately deciding that he's never going to change--and that he's the last thing you'd want to complete you, anyway.
The An Affair to Remember Trap: You meet the perfect man and make elaborate, romantic plans for the future right away. He takes your number (no need for you to take his) and promises to call the next day.
When the phone doesn't ring, you don't worry--he's your soul mate after all, there's just been some misunderstanding. Two days later, you start to grow concerned that something has happened to him. Is he under a bus somewhere? Has he been taken hostage?
You go from concerned to all-out panicked. Despite the gentle protestations of your friends that perhaps he's just not that into you, you remain convinced that he was hit by a cab and rendered a cripple, and is too proud to leave his apartment.
See also: The Notebook.
The Real Ending: Three months later you see him dancing in a club with some chick in a tube top.
The When Harry Met Sally Trap: You've never been attracted to your male best friend, but recently things in the romance department have been less than enthralling. So you start to wonder; maybe, just maybe, The One has been staring you in the face all along.
Who cares if he still lives in his mom's basement? This is destiny, damn it.
The Real Ending: Prepare for an awkward, tequila-induced make-out session that definitely requires an "I don't know what I was thinking" email the next day.
The Titanic Trap: You just made partner and need to focus on work, but you can't get this new guy off your mind. His name is Bo, he never went to college, and he works at the burrito place where you sometimes grab lunch between clients.
Your friends ask what exactly you hope to gain from this relationship, but luckily you're not a snob like them, and you know that a person's job isn't what defines him.
See also: Sabrina, Pretty Woman, Sweet Home Alabama.
The Real Ending: At a company dinner, your boss asks Bo what he does and he replies, "I work the grill, but I'm hoping to be put on the register soon." Face it: If Leo had made it to dry land, that relationship would never have survived.
The Stepmom Trap: None of your romantic fantasies ended with Prince Charming leaving you for his secretary. Nor did they include falling for an otherwise great man with two sizable and unavoidable flaws (i.e., his children).
Don't panic. Contrary to what you might think, this divorce stuff is a piece of cake. Your stepkids hate you? All it's going to take to turn that around are some good old-fashioned sex tips from you (to make the brats more popular, duh) and the untimely death of their mother.
Your ex couldn't seem to tie his own shoelaces when you were together? Rest assured that once you've signed the divorce papers, he will clean up his act and become the kind of guy you meant to marry.
See also: The Philadelphia Story, High Society, The Parent Trap, Mrs. Doubtfire.
The Real Ending: You continue to hate the bastard for years to come, despite the fact that your shrink says rage won't help you heal. And whatever side of the joint custody battle you might fall on--be it mom or stepmom--the kids aren't going to make the situation any easier.
If you're a stepmom, get ready for the cry of "You can't tell me what to do! You're not my mother!" to take up permanent residence in your psyche.
If you're the real mom, the line will be "When we're at Dad's house, Bambi never makes us do our homework/eat our vegetables/stop playing with knives."
The Pretty in Pink Trap: Your next-door neighbor just happens to be a Calvin Klein underwear model. Lucky you. You've brought him countless jars of jam that need loosening, and even gotten locked out of your place in your cutest dress.
Yet he hasn't asked you out. In the words of Journey, "Don't stop believin'."
See also: Notting Hill, Love Actually.
The Real Ending: There's a fine line between healthy optimism and insanity. There's also a reason the quarterback in high school always dated the head cheerleader—their kind is biologically predetermined to go forth and make other popular kids for everyone else to envy. It might be smarter to set your sights on the guy in 2B with the sweet smile and the receding hairline.
From J. Courtney Sullivan's Dating Up: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Man You Deserve.