Great sex-pectations

What do we expect from romantic relationships, and what influence do movies have?

By Denise Wong
Photo By Mark Burnham

I have a confession to make: The Notebook is not one of my favourite movies. In fact, I probably wouldn’t watch it again of my own free will. I should say, though — before the Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling fans stone me to death — there is one particular scene I could watch over and over again. They’re not making out or ogling at each other: they’re at each other’s throats yelling at each other right when Ryan Gosling gives the speech. “That’s what we do, we fight! You tell me when I’m being an arrogant son of a bitch, and I tell you when you’re being a pain in the ass — which you are, 99 per cent of the time. . . . It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be really hard, and we’re going to have to work at this everyday but I want to do that because I want you.”

Everyone has their own ideas about love and their own expectations for a relationship, but where exactly do these notions come from? After whom do we model them? It is probably from the media to some extent — after all, romantic plots are involved in the vast majority of movies and TV shows. However, many of us would pride ourselves on being conscientious individuals who don’t just accept anything we see on TV without adequate thought and debate. However, studies suggest that we may be influenced more than we tend to think.

A 2009 article by Kimberly Johnson and Bjarne Holmes published in Communication Quarterly reported a study they conducted at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh where Holmes led the team in an analysis of how the media affects our perceptions of romantic relationships — specifically in the form of our beloved rom-coms. The first part of the study consisted of an analysis on the top 40 box office films released from 1995 to 2005 in order to establish common themes being promoted by movies of this genre. They discovered that many of the themes were (expectedly) unrealistic, but not just because of the ridiculous antics that lovesick individuals resort to. For example, they found that romantic comedies had a tendency to promote the idea that the perfect partner should know us inside and out, to the point where we hardly need to verbalize our thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps it doesn’t register in our minds that what we want is for that special someone to have the ability to conveniently read our minds, or that we subconsciously expect the perfect partner to be telepathic. Maybe we want someone with the uncanny ability to say all the right things in all the right moments, and someone that can tell with 100 per cent accuracy when we mean the opposite of what we say. For example, sometimes we say, “I want to be alone right now” when what we really mean is, “I wouldn’t mind if you rang my door bell holding a bouquet of flowers and a tub of ice cream right now” — it just hurts our pride to say so. We throw a riddle out in the ocean for bait and wonder why no one takes it. The problem is that, when the other party doesn’t decipher our coded messages, we’re quick to assume that they didn’t pay attention, listen, or care enough. It’s understandable that being too explicit and straightforward about what you want and when you want it is pushy; we want to be nice, and we want to be indirect. But condemning the other party for being unaware isn’t very nice or fair either. Maybe it’s a lack of experience, or maybe it’s the way that romantic comedies play out, but we often forget that it takes an exhaustive amount of time to learn about someone before any accurate interpretation can take place. The beginning stages of a relationship involve lots of straightforward communication (akin to training wheels) until it can become the kind of relationship where you’re able to finish each other’s sentences.

In order to find out what SFU students thought about relationships, and whether or not mind reading was a desired quality, The Peak went out and did some surveying. We found that while most students acknowledged the need for communication and cooperation in order to make a relationship work, some students replied that congruent personalities would be ideal. Similar personalities and interests were important for them because they believe it allows for more effective communication, possibly because they would never run out of things to talk about. Environmental science major Braedon Cashion believes that he and his partner should have similar goals and values because otherwise differences would cause tension in the relationship. “For instance, some people might just have ferocious spending habits while one person might see more value in thriftiness,” he explained. The answers from these students suggest that one way of finding that perfect soul mate might just be finding someone who’s exactly like you. That way conflict is eliminated while strong similarities create the illusion of telepathy. It might not be reading minds per se, but if you like the same things and want the same things, you’d probably be thinking similar thoughts most of the time anyway.

What else comes into play? Many single people will be told that the person they’re meant to be with is out there and it’ll happen eventually, and that they should just let it be. In the second part of Holmes’ study, 100 student volunteers from Heriot Watt were asked to watch the romantic comedy Serendipity while a separate volunteer group of the same size was asked to watch a serious drama. In Serendipity, John Cusack’s character decides to let ‘fate’ decide whether or not Kate Beckinsale’s character is truly the woman of his dreams. In a later questionnaire, it was discovered that students watching the romantic comedy were more inclined to buy into ideas of fate and destiny when it came to love. The third part of the study revealed that fans of romantic comedies in general held a stronger belief in the idea of predestined love.

“You just gotta live, and then things will come to you . . . when opportunities present themselves,” said third-year business student, Brandon Ling. Several other students also responded that they believed they would eventually find the right person when the time came — suggesting that a belief in this idea of a predestined love could have stemmed from the media. The wise words ‘if it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be’ have their value, but fate or predestined love should not negate the extensive amount of time and effort required in making relationships work. Just because you’re ‘meant to be’ does not mean that love or communication is always easy. Every couple will go through their fair share of disagreements and conflicts, and resorting to ‘I guess it’s just not meant to be’ would only be taking the easy way out of a potentially solvable problem.

The BBC reported a statement from Kimberly Johnson, who also worked on the study with Holmes: “Films do capture the excitement of new relationships but they also wrongly suggest that trust and committed love exist from the moment people meet, whereas these are qualities that normally take years to develop.” We all know love takes time and energy, but sometimes we aren’t prepared for the mountains we actually have to hike. Several elements come into play in a happy relationship and they may differ between people, but whatever the driving force may be, love is not the walk in the park we see in movies. It’s not just about crossing one big bridge and living happily ever after, but rather dealing with the tedious and petty everyday obstacles. When The Peak asked fourth-year health sciences student, Ajay Jaswal, whether he thought he would find his ideal relationship that meets all of his expectations, he responded with a smug smile, “Hopefully it works out with the one I have right now. That’d be nice.” But his relationship didn’t start off on the best foot. “It was a drag at the start, to be honest,” he said. “We met in high school, it was trouble from there. Me being non-religious, [and] she’s evangelical.” Jaswal and his girlfriend couldn’t have been more different, both in their religious beliefs as well as their goals in a relationship. Fortunately, neither party gave up and they overcame their differences with constant efforts. “I guess chipping at it, chipping at it. It was hard . . . just moving day by day. And it worked out from there.”

While the media is undoubtedly a powerful influence, it certainly won’t lose out to one’s personal experience. When we asked first-year economics major, Mehdi Rahnama, where his ideas about relationships came from, he responded, “Probably a broken heart.” There’s nothing quite like the bitter sting of a broken heart to shake up our notions of love, but the lessons learned from bad experiences often serve the most worthy purposes. “Every relationship gets better . . . because you learn what it is that you don’t want in partners by learning what you do want. And then you make sure your next partner doesn’t have the same qualities . . . so it basically gets better every time, ‘cause you’re also learning about yourself,” said fourth-year archaeology major Margaret Lukban.

Romantic comedies and personal experiences are not the only things that have the power to shape our perceptions of love, but the important thing is really evaluating the origins of those ideas. The media endorses near-telepathic and predestined notions of love and perpetuates a misconception that love is supposed to be easy. But when does anything of value ever get handed to us on a silver platter? Maybe there is such a thing as fate, and the perfect someone made just for you is somewhere out there — but when that opportunity arises, that’s often when the real work begins. Catchy sayings from movies and books that promote the idea that love is supposed to simply ‘feel right’ may be true, but moments of conflict and disagreement will likely evoke feelings of doubt — and suddenly it might not feel so right anymore. As with the scene in The Notebook, there will be moments filled with frustration, anger, and bitter remarks and challenges will present themselves every day. The question is: will we love the other person enough to fight through them?