A couple years ago I read a popular romance novel, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. It’s good. I’d recommend it. I rarely say that about romance. I don’t even normally like ‘highbrow’ ones like Love in the Time of Cholera (hated it, actually), much less popular ones that get made into mainstream films. This one was original and gut-wrenchingly emotional, and there was one chapter in particular that was so well written, I think it should get awards. They should make an award just to give it to this chapter: Best Chapter in a Romance Novel Ever or something. (If you’ve read the book and want to discuss which one I’m talking about, contact me. I would love to discuss it.)
That aside though, it still bothered me (romances ALWAYS do). Here’s why…
The romantic hero in the book falls in love with the heroine (duh…that’s what happens in romance) for ‘who she is.’ And ‘who she is’ is different and quirky and wonderful. But his aim once he forms a connection with her is to change her.
I understand challenging your partner or friends to do things you believe they really *want* to do, but it scares them. I have people in my life who do this for me, and I appreciate it. But you have to tread lightly with pushing someone out of their comfort zone. The heroine in the novel is an introvert, and she isn’t really interested in doing grand things (who would think someone like me would relate to HER, right? I’m a social butterfly who has to be constantly reigned in from high adventure…). I grasped the underlying assumption in the book that she DOES want to do grand things, she’s just afraid and discounting herself. He makes her more confident… Maybe. I admit, there are certain circumstances and situations where I’ve felt this way, and J, or a friend or two, have given me the necessary boost to get past fear and have more faith in myself. This happened with writing for me.
Honestly, though, I usually don’t want to do grand things. Some people really are happy with a quiet, unassuming life. The hero in this book tells the heroine, essentially, that she should do extroverted, ambitious things, because she has the ability to do them. I mean, I get it. The whole ‘don’t limit yourself’ philosophy. But not everyone is interested in sky diving or competing in triathlons or world traveling, and THAT IS OKAY. Just because one person thinks something is great (or everyone else in the universe thinks something is great), doesn’t mean I have to think that particular something is great.
And yeah, ‘Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it?’ Also garbage.
Sure…never had Mexican food before? You can’t say you don’t like it. Never read a romance novel before? They might be your favorite style of book. You might like all kinds of things you’ve never tried if you give them a shot. But if you’re agoraphobic, pretty sure you won’t like running the Boston Marathon, even if running is your thing. You don’t have to try it first.
In my best attempt to express frustration without giving plot away, this hero also uses emotional manipulation to affect some change in the heroine. ‘I can’t do this, and you CAN, so you SHOULD.’ In fact, he even uses the word ‘duty.’ He tells her she has a duty to go live what he considers to be an adventurous life because he cannot. Well…I wholeheartedly disagree. I understand the concept of duty to your fellow man. I believe in it and I try to live it. I try to do what I can to help those in need. To speak up for those whose voice isn’t being heard. But I don’t have a duty to live my life according to anyone else’s dreams but mine. If my dreams don’t include shark hunting or having 10 children or singing on stage, and yours DO, but through some circumstantial limitation, you can’t, and I CAN, that doesn’t obligate me to do those things on your behalf. Is it sad for you that your circumstantial limitations are impeding your dreams? Yes. Do I feel empathy for you? Yes. Do I have a duty to live in accordance with your wishes and dreams so they can be vicariously fulfilled through me? Absolutely not. Asking a person who isn’t making intentional decisions to hurt themselves or others to change themselves on your behalf is wrong. Even if you think that change is for the better. Asking a person to live by your layout for life instead of theirs is wrong. Let people be free to be who they are, even if who they are doesn’t line up with your ideal of who they could be. What matters is THEIR ideal of who they could be.
It’s perfectly fine to encourage someone to broaden their horizons, or be more adventurous or courageous, to not let (whatever) limit them. Many people need that, including me. But using guilt and shame to change a person’s behavior (that isn’t hurting anyone), to obligate them to live their life ‘your way,’ particularly when you supposedly ‘love them’ for ‘who they are,’ is not romantic. It’s not friendly. It’s not any form of love.