Romance novels can be a bad influence on women and lead them to make poor health and relationship decisions, says a British psychologist.
The novels give women unrealistic views about what to expect out of a relationship because they, well, romanticize love, said Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist based in Cambridge.
"They offer an idealized version of romance, which can make some women feel bad about themselves because their relationships aren't perfect," Quilliam said.
And in some cases, they might lead women to make poor health decisions, including not to use a condom during sex — a scenario often portrayed in the novels.
However, Quilliam stressed, she is not saying women are gullible and don't understand the difference between fiction and reality. Nor is she saying there is no place for romance novels in our culture.
But the novels add to an underlying view in society that in women, emotions and passions trump reason and solid decision-making, Quilliam said. Women should not try to follow their emotions at all costs, but instead balance them with reason.
"The thing that’s going to make relationships last is a mix of romance and common sense," Quilliam said.
Quilliam wrote about her views in the July issue of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.
Earlier versions of romantic fiction, which date back to the mid-18th century, often portrayed women as passive virgins who discovered their sexual desire only after being seduced by a man, Quilliam said.
And even a few decades ago, romances described in the novels contained no hint of real-world problems, such as single parenting or domestic violence, Quilliam said. Today's novels do a much better job at depicting reality, with characters that have jobs and face challenges, Quilliam said.
But "still, a deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealization runs through the genre," Quilliam wrote.
How is this affecting women? Quilliam told MyHealthNewsDaily she often gets letters from women who are in a stable relationship, but feel emotionally attracted to another man. The women think these emotions mean they should abandon their current relationship, because the passion has faded, and go in search of new love rather than trying to work things out.
In addition, a recent survey of romantic novels found that only one in 10 mention condom use, Quilliam said. In fact, in many novels, the heroine outright rejects a condom because she does not want a "barrier" between herself and her hero, Quilliam said. The survey also found a correlation between reading romance novels and negative attitudes towards condoms, she said.
Use common sense
There's always a place for escapism and idealism, Quilliam said. But there's also a place for sensibility. Women should be aware relationships are not always perfect and don't always have a happy ending, and should not blame themselves if their relationships fall short of the ideal.
In fact, everyone, not just female romance readers, can benefit from this advice, Quilliam said.
"Nobody — man or women, romance reader or non-romance reader — should be making their decisions based on," an idealized version of romance, Quilliam said.
Pass it on: Romance novels paint an ideal picture of romance that may give women the wrong idea about true relationships.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.