What’s the difference between a romance and real life? The tears. There are tears in real life, over many things. They often are about life’s common tragedies—the loss of a relative, the death of a pet, a divorce, a maiming injury, a dread disease, etc. Sometimes the tears are over petty issues that nonetheless mean a lot to us momentarily. These are the painful tears that life makes us shed, not the pleasure-pain tears of having one’s heart involved with another. In real life, tears are not so pretty. But in a romance, the tears are shed over a romantic relationship that appears not to be working out, but of course will turn into a happy ending. In a romance, the heroine’s tears will always be dried. And so will the reader’s.
Carly Simon’s “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” an iconic song of the early 1970s, aptly describes the period in a young girl or woman’s life in which she dreams of romance and sighs over the romantic angst of other people. Generally this is when she herself is not yet in love, but wants to be, or is between loves but ready to love again. (Most women in the hating stage aren’t interested in reading romance.) What happens when a romantic young woman yearns for romance and immerses herself in romance novels? She suffers along with the heroine. If things don’t go right, she cries for her. And then she sighs happily when the heroine and her hero reunite and are finally poised to enjoy a happy future.
But why do this? Why not read books on world economics? Well, possibly because books on economics are wish-fulfillment fiction, too, but the real reason is that at some stages in our lives we have a lot of emotion and nowhere to put it. Oh sure, we can spread love and joy around by being good to our family and remembering others and reaching out to strangers. We can visit elderly folks or do volunteer work. But the need for a close emotional connection is not always fully assuaged by these socially appropriate behaviors. So women who are in between (of all ages and conditions) seek that emotion in romance novels.
Additionally, what some women are doing by reading romance is modeling. They see how making different choices produces different effects. The heroine who struggles to grow and change and find herself is different from book to book, and so is the hero who fights for her. Romance readers take on various roles, sometimes roles they hope one day to play in a real romance, and sometimes not. They experience the heroine’s ups and downs and try on different types of relationships, all of which end happily, for fit. Is the Type A domineering workaholic appealing? Or is the sensitive, artistic man who quotes poetry and compares the heroine to the moon more her style? Do meek heroines annoy her? Can she relate to feisty, self-reliant heroines? Is it possible to become one? Or is the perfect man someone else, someone she already is married to? And is she already a mature woman, but she enjoys pretending to make a choice all over again? Plenty of romance readers are long married, happily. But they like getting involved in the drama and tears all over again in a book.
A romance novel is a far safer place to put strong emotions than a singles bar or Internet chat room (not that anybody goes to them anymore), or an extramarital affair. There are times in every woman’s life when she yearns for something different from what she has. Maybe something different from the endless round of diapers and dinners. Or the meetings and projects. Or even the premieres and the paparazzi. Whether life is wonderful or mundane, women find in romances a comfortable, private place to let their emotions out safely. When life is tough, confusing, empty, or whatever, a romance is a good escape from the pain. When life is perfect, a romance is a good reinforcement of the pleasure. Yes, there is pain in romances, but it is limited, controlled, and guaranteed to end in happiness.
So don’t cry for all of us women supposedly wasting our time reading romances. We know what we’re doing. Sometimes we’re dreaming for the future. Sometimes we’re escaping the present. Sometimes we’re indulging in mind-blowing sex with a man who not only will call the next day but declares his love and immediately proposes. If we shed some tears as our heroines struggle to find and hold onto true love, we’re okay with it. We know the tears are only temporary. Unlike in real life, romantic tears always end happily.