Monday, December 7, 2015

What I Learned From Romance Novels

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of romance novels. Harlequin was my publisher of choice.

It scared the crap out of my mom. She was so afraid the romance novels would give me an unrealistic expectation about romance - particularly that I would look for knight on a white horse to save me. 

Anyone who has ever read a romance novel should well understand her concern. Romance novels do include a lot of sexist behavior and themes.

But what I got out of the books was a clear understanding about communication and human behavior. I recognized that almost all problems are the result of failures to communicate. None of the characters really talk about the important stuff and everyone is always hiding their feelings or making assumptions - most of it out of fear of getting hurt.

I met my husband at work and we started courting - many Muslims, as do members of other conservative faith traditions, “court” rather than date.

Courtship takes the position that the two people have no physical contact at all (no touching, no hand-holding, no kissing) until marriage. Many in a courtship relationship will only spend time together when family members, preferably parents, are present. In addition, courting couples state up front that their intentions are to see if the other person is a suitable potential marriage partner. Courtship advocates claim that courtship allows for the two people to truly get to know each other in a more platonic setting without the pressures of physical intimacy or emotions clouding their view.

You know, like scenes from Little House on the Prairie - boy and girl sit on the porch or in the living room of the girl's family home.

From the beginning, I made communication priority number one.  Every night I would compile about a hundred questions to ask my husband. Literally.  Every night. We courted for four months. I am sure I made his brain quite tired, but he was a real champ about it.

I asked everything imaginable, from inconsequential (What is your favorite color?) to major life decisions (What would you do if our teenage daughter came home pregnant?). 

His answers were not what I was after. I deeply understood we never really know what we would do in extreme situations or situations where we have no real experience. We often think we know our opinion or what we would do in a particular situation - until our ideas are challenged or intense emotions become involved.

I had two agendas. 

First, I wanted to have the discussion so I could see how he thought. Second, I wanted to set up our relationship from the beginning as discussion focused.

His thought process was very important to me. I needed to know if he had a thought process. I needed to know that he could explain his opinions. I needed to know if he could handle his ideas being questioned. I needed to know whether he could handle a difference of opinion by a woman, a potential wife. I needed to know if he was reasonable.

I often talk to young girls and women looking for a husband. I always tell them about my “100 question” days. I try to explain to them how important it is for them really get to know someone they might marry; how important it is that they “start as they mean to go on.”

What I constantly see is women, and men, laser focused on making a good first impression. Agreeing to everything. Avoiding anything uncomfortable.

I also constantly see women represent Miss Nice and Perfect as quiet, supportive, agreeable to a fault – never an opposing opinion or negative word so as to not “upset” the future husband.

I have even heard that men do not like smart or opinionated women. That talking “a lot” makes men think you are not a “nice girl.”

My how times have not changed.

This is not only wrong and dangerous, but also, frankly, dishonest.

Imagine “getting to know someone” not being themselves - instead being an extreme version of Miss  or Mr. Nice and Perfect. Then “poof!” after the “I do’s” the husband or wife finds out there has been a “bait and switch.” Or worse, the wife tries to continue to be Miss Nice and Perfect, only to eventually crack – to the complete shock of the husband (or vice versa).

It is not really surprising a man might expect a dumb, docile, and quiet wife if that is the version you show him. Nor is it surprising for a woman to find out she is married to a dictator if all she ever did before marriage was parrot his opinion and wishes.

Surely it is better to quickly filter out types with those desires - or identify them if that is what you want.

It is so much better to be yourself.

Yes, it might scare him away. But isn’t it better to find out he is not up to the challenge of you before marriage rather than after?

If he stays around, he may not only be up to the challenge but also be more likely to accept you for you - the whole you. I can tell you from experience, nothing beats being accepted for yourself, warts and all.

It is better to set up the expectation for communication before marriage and continue to increase the communication after marriage rather than trying to force his acceptance of the real you "after the papers are signed."

Life has confirmed what I learned from the romance novels. 

Communication is key. Lack of communication is the source of almost all problems. It leads to assumptions, often disastrously erroneous ones. It leads to distrust, misunderstandings, and resentment.

I am not suggesting women should share every thought in their head - men usually are completely confused by the depth and variety of our thoughts anyway.  Like it or not, it is no secret women and men think differently.

But sharing thoughts, concerns, and opinions are integral to understanding. Understanding is the only way to create, and maintain, trust. Trust is a major ingredient in relationships, especially for men.

So communicating, sharing and discussing, is not just important after a relationship is in place, but is one of the best ways to filter out the best candidate before a relationship is formed.

Think about it. Then talk about it.

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