Any longtime romance reader has heard this question: do romance novels ruin relationships? Many have heard it from people they are dating or a non-reader who thinks they are an expert on something they have no actual experience with. Of course, the short answer is no, but let’s dig deeper into where this idea came from and the myriad of benefits romance novels provide.
Where did this lie come from?
The patriarchy, for one. Romance is a genre largely written by women for women. Anything a woman finds pleasure in and values must be inherently silly or fluff or pink. The patriarchy also wants to discourage anything that encourages feminism, which romance is. Heroines in romance have careers, friend groups, families, and big goals they are working toward. Along the way, they also find romantic love with a partner who not only won’t stand in their way and demand they give all those things up to become a wife and a mother, but who is rooting for her. Romance novels challenge societal norms about what is acceptable behavior in romantic relationships. When women see this modeled for them in fiction, they start to demand it in their own lives, and people who benefit from the current societal structure don’t like it.
Second, Susan Quilliam. In 2011, Susan Quilliam published an article about romance novels being harmful to women’s health because “To be blunt, [sexual health professionals] like condoms – for protection and for contraception – and [romance writers] don’t.” Quilliam cited a “recent survey” of romance novels where “only 11.5% of romantic novels studied mentioned condom use.” The survey she was mentioning studied 78 novels published between 1981 and 1996. So her definition of recent is 15 to 30 years before the now ten-year-old article was written. Susan Quilliam’s main beef with romance novels is that they don’t encourage safe sex practices. She doesn’t even mention an arguable bigger issue: consent. A 2019 study of 20 romance novels has evidence of roughly 50% practicing safe sex and 90% having verbal consent. It’s unclear how many of these novels were historicals, where arguably safe sex practices aren’t demonstrated or discussed because before the HIV epidemic sex wasn’t known to be unsafe.
As a result, people who were looking for any reason to attack romance now had an open door. Think piece after think piece was published, citing Quilliam. People are still citing this 2011 piece within the last year.
Okay, but do romance novels ruin relationships?
Again, no. Throughout the Susan Quilliam article, she touts benefits of romance on relationships: “studies have shown a correlation between high levels of romance usage and happy monogamous relationships” and that women use it “to kick-start sex lives that they treasure,” not to leave relationships.
Couples who read together bring partners closer and report higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships. Reading fiction specifically creates more empathic partners and empathy is the secret to successful relationships. Psychologists suggest that couples who practice sexual fantasies, perhaps that they got from a romance novel, create novelty and sexual arousal without changing one’s partner. People who tend to idealize their partners are often attacked as a cause of relationship ruination, but is in fact linked to decreased risk of separation, higher satisfaction, and less conflict in relationships.
Many romance novels model cis het men openly communicating with their partners and listening to their partner’s needs. In a culture of toxic masculinity which teaches men that anger is the only acceptable negative emotion, seeing masculinity as vulnerable and emotionally open is a good model for readers who see themselves in a similar role. They make readers more emotionally literate, which in turn benefits all the relationships in that reader’s life. They are opening doors to conversations partners might otherwise avoid.
Jason Rogers has famously started an all men book club exclusively reading romance novels called The Bromantics. “Romance novels gave me a more precise appreciation of intimacy,” Rogers said. “It helped me unpack what intimacy actually is. Obviously there’s a lot of sex in romance novels, but the books helped crystallize that sex is an antecedent to real intimacy. Sex is an expression of intimacy, but real emotional intimacy is so much more important.” Novels like The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams and Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson highlight hyper-masculine, sexy men who aren’t afraid to talk about their feelings.
So could romance novels actually increase health?
Absolutely. Science has shown that the brain’s neurons balance excitement and inhibition to remain healthy. The highly emotional experience of reading a romance novel can simulate social interactions where these neurons would be triggered, essentially exercising the brain. Regular brain activity can reduce mental decline by 32%.
Many contemporary romance novels have positive examples of characters in therapy and as mental health advocates. In Beach Read by Emily Henry, the hero admits to being in therapy after his divorce. Jasmine Guillory’s While We Were Dating has a man in therapy working on personal growth so he can become a better partner. Zaf, the hero in Talia Hibbert’s Take a Hint Dani Brown, starts a nonprofit rugby league to teach boys about healthy ways to express and deal with emotion. Samson from The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai walks away from professional football after a concussion and the potential long term mental health issues that might result, despite getting roasted for it.
Studies show that reading decreases stress and anxiety, aids depression, and can help people fall asleep at night. Reading can reduce your blood pressure and heart rate, lowering risks of heart disease. One study shows a correlation between orgasms and longer life, claiming that mortality risk was 50% lower in people who experienced frequent orgasms. Find those one handed reads, folks, you’re helping yourself live longer. If the problem lies with orgasms being elusive, reading arousing material, such as erotica or steamier romance novels, can increase desire in the reader.
So, dear reader, I have the receipts. Romance novels are not the reason women are leaving their partners. They are not ruining relationships. There’s no evidence to support these claims, just the opposite, in fact. If your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/partner decides to leave a relationship with you and they are a romance reader, you need to go to therapy, do some personal reflection, and maybe read a romance novel yourself to understand why they left.