One night, Erin and I were chatting about smut (as we do…daily…) because she’d found another hero she was smitten with. “Why do I like to read about characters I would never want to date in real life??” For the record, Erin is married to the best cinnamon roll out there and loves reading about really arrogant, domineering alpha/duke men. I went from loving those “bad boys changed by the love of a good woman” tropes to preferring books with a good, stable cinnamon roll. It reminded me of how my feminist, yoga-loving mom went through a Toby Keith phase. It seems like sometimes we all want to enjoy a different dynamic. But why?
AS IT HAPPENS, I’ve actually thought about this a lot, and I have some theories on it. One therapist I saw once told me that in every close relationship you have, you’re asking yourself three questions: Do you see me? Do you choose me? and Can I count on you? When I was talking to Erin, it occurred to me that romance novels are actually a safe space to test your own boundaries and comfort zones. We react to — and confirm — our comfort zones, or our attachment style. So in essence, romance novels can provide endless scenarios that can help to teach us more about ourselves and how we want to love and be loved.
When we’re very small and are learning how to depend on people, the people we learn from are our parents. If you’ve ever given therapy a go (and let’s be real, if you had a childhood you probably need some therapy), you might have seen some of the basics about attachment theory. I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t go into a lot of detail, but in essence if our attachment to our parents was healthy, we tend to be pretty secure in our future relationships. However, if our attachment to our parents was a little unreliable or volatile, we tend to slide into anxious attachment or dismissive attachment (or a few others, but again–not a psychologist so I’m going to keep it basic).
Anxious attachment tends to look a lot more high maintenance–from the outside, these people may seem clingy or demanding. They will kind of look for verification that their fears are founded and since our partners are never perfect, these fears will almost always be proven true at some point. So, character-wise, think about all those heroes and heroines who jump in fast and hard and then believe the worst when there’s some kind of “test”.
I see dismissive attachment most with our arrogant duke type–this attachment style tends to be a bit cold. People with this attachment style might feel like they have to take care of themselves above all else (because no one else will, really). They are drawn towards independence and slough off relationships with others pretty easily. Think about those lofty dukes and billionaires who seem to be able to turn off their feelings instantly if they feel like someone is getting too close–or, heroines who have fiercely guarded their individual selves and are afraid of losing their autonomy, only to find someone worth the discomfort of pairing up.
So, where does that leave us as readers? Well, here’s my thought on it — in real life, as we age, we choose partners based on what feels comfortable and aligned with our needs. Ideally, you and your partner have both done your work and are ready for a securely attached relationship. Sometimes we don’t, and much like a magnet’s north and south poles, an anxious and a dismissive end up together. And of course, there are other more complicated attachment types that attract to something different altogether. But we change, and our lives change, and we as humans are endlessly curious and like to experiment and learn. So enter romance novels with their limitless selection of people bumping along together and finding love! If you’re leaning towards anxious attachment, watching a dismissive do whatever it takes to prove his love for his heroine might be the best feeling ever. If you’re a dismissive, watching a character stand by her hero no matter how cruelly he pushes her away might fill you with a swell of satisfaction.
With fantasy, we’re able to take our feelings for a test run in scenarios that we wouldn’t normally want to live out in reality. We can read about people very different from us making choices we would never make, and see what it feels like. Those feelings are very real–think of how a good book will leave you with waves of longing, or a rosy glow you carry with you for the rest of the day. Plus, people all like to push boundaries–their own, and other people’s. How far we like to push is a completely different story.
With romance novels, we can push our boundaries a little farther because it’s in the safety of a page. Romance novels are different from other genres because they deal almost exclusively with very vulnerable matters of the heart. You might never want to stand up to your rude great aunt and give her a scathing take-down in real life (your mother would be horrified!!), but reading about it? Oh, the satisfaction. You might find people that sneak off for a public rendezvous discomfiting in real life, but in a book? Absolutely thrilling. So I guess what I’m saying is that romance novels can give us an opportunity to push our own boundaries privately and safely with minimal (if any) consequences. And we like it.
And it can really tell us a lot about who we are and where we are in life–not everyone is comfortable delving into those feelings of restlessness or worry directly. But if you’re finding yourself wanting to read the same kind of book nonstop, you might be looking at a space in your heart you’re wanting to fill or a boundary that is no longer serving you. You might be looking at a sexy example of your own attachment style–that always ends happily, with no risks. It could also be that you found a new author who just nails some trope you didn’t know you’d love–it doesn’t have to be an ink blot and it doesn’t have to mean anything at all!