While reading Three-Way Split, by Elia Winters, I was struck (not for the first time) by the way characters have a prior relationship experience that was unsatisfying or traumatic and swear off love forever because relationships are too much…something. Emotional entanglement usually. This is an extremely common reason for characters not to want to be in a relationship in romance (like, so common I sarcastically ranted about it last year), and especially in contemporary romance where societal expectations are less likely to be a source of conflict.
I often find this conflict for “why can’t they be together right now” annoying. But, to be fair, I have been in a monogamous relationship since I was seventeen, so I’ve never really experienced any meaningful, hurtful kind of rejection in a relationship. With Three-Way Split I was rolling with it, however, because the characters have to get over something in order to grow and ultimately be together, right?
Then, while the protagonists are in a polyamory workshop, one of the speakers says:
“If you are okay to let go of some of the expectations of monogamy, you can be free to feel emotions, or not, and accept whatever develops.”
And I was like:
This is the problem that ALL the characters have. Not just in this book. All the characters who have sworn off romance. They expect SO MUCH of a romantic monogamous relationship that they’re unable to function emotionally in that space. So they shut it down.
But also, this is a problem that readers have, because the reason that this emotional romantic tension exists and is so prevalent in romance is because readers want the characters to have the happily ever after (HEA), find the one, and ride off into the sunset with every expectation that the romance will last forever. Readers are angry or disappointed when stories end in a happily for now (HFN), and it’s not very easy to find romance that has a HEA with a non-monogamous relationship agreement. Because that kind of agreement would imply that the protagonists might not actually be the one for each other.
I referred to this TED talk by relationship therapist Esther Perel in my review of Resisting the Billionaire by Allie Winters, and while the topic of her talk is infidelity, this point that she makes speaks to me every time I listen to it because it’s more about how our expectations of romantic love are enormous than about infidelity per se:
“We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love.”
So no wonder, when expectations for personal value so directly tied to expectations of romance, these characters who have had bad romantic experiences in the past shy away from love. They’ve been betrayed by the grand expectation. And no wonder readers give fewers stars to perfectly fine romance books with perfectly optimistic romantic endings when they don’t meet our expectations for grand romance and “true love” and a HEA. Which is to say: monogamous romance in which both partners’ emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs are all met by one perfect partner forever. Even menage romance typically ties up a HEA with a closed triad, so the throuple is faithful within the threesome, though it’s not by definition monogamous.
I admit that I like certain things in my smut. I like a HEA more than a HFN, and I like an epilogue with marriage and kids at the end more than an epilogue that takes place six weeks later. (Because why? I don’t get those epilogues at all.) Et cetera. That reflects my own life more than, say, a non-monogamous relationship between people who are not married and never want to have kids. But I also really, really, really want to see characters (people) being allowed to be who they are and to find happiness in ways that work for them. And if that means letting go of this intense expectation of how monogamy is so important and how love is supposed to work, I am totally here for that.
To do otherwise and declare that romance books that explore non-monogamous or otherwise non-traditional relationships are somehow sub-par romance is incredibly exclusive. Romancelandia deserves better.