Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blast from the Past - Redefining Romance circa June 2011

When I started writing romance novels it was because I wanted to try and establish some realistic and attainable ideas about love.  I enjoy the over the top romances as well as any other fan of the genre.  However I have grown up with certain expectations of people that are generally unfounded.  Romance novels ingrained that lovely fairytale aspect of idealized love that we all secretly crave.  That level of knowing another human being and that sense of safety, trust, assurance, and dedication. Often romance writers inadvertently imply that this can be attained through sex.  This is a pervasive theme of confusing sex with intimacy.  Which leads to confusing good sex with true love.  Most romances have a basis of physical attraction that leads to a permanent relationship.  The real world tells you that physical attraction doesn't even always lead to sex, less alone a deep and abiding love.  There are the extraordinary cases where circumstances have forced higher levels of intimacy in a short amount of time. Which I believe is what most romance novels are actually trying to shoot for with hit or miss results.

1 of my all-time favs
Please forgive me because I'm about to be sexual orientation biased to try and explain my perspective. When I first started reading romance novels as a teenager I remember the popular trend was that the woman, who was unaware of her beauty, was shown how lovely she is by the hero.  The hero usually has certain kinds of women interested in him.  Usually mean, unintelligent, vapid, women who are the peak of physical beauty for that time frame making the heroine feel like a sow's ear in comparison (this is actually a reference from one of the novels I read during that time). Despite that, the heroine usually trumps the other woman in every other way, and the man can't help but eventually notice leaving the she-beast of extraordinary physical beauty for the woman of impeccable manners and character.  The unfortunate reality is that this is a female fantasy, and thus why it is a basis of the formulation of these stories.  In the real world the most beautiful woman you know isn't usually a terrible person. If she is, the guy usually doesn't take the time to even notice any such thing. He ends up with the same kind of woman over and over again. Men very rarely leave women they are committed to in any regard. This speaks to a certain fantasy perspective for certain women. Male and female fantasies are not the same, and in many situations, have very little in common.  Despite the blurring of gender roles, as our society delves deeper and deeper into inequality this rift only widens.

There can be no equality between the standardized male and female egos because we aren't told the same stories, and society has tried to engrain different expectations based on gender. The female is to be focused on love, family, and home life.  The male power, status, and social mobility. These goals don't necessarily correspond and they aren't necessarily accurate for every person you meet. But for those that believe in this system of equity how can intimacy establish itself? While love and family is mutable because it is supposed to be a declaration of a woman’s happiness and acceptance by a male, status and social mobility are set with only certain types of relationships achieving idea male goals in such an unequal society.  This is not to say that members of both don't focus on aspects of all listed.  It is to declare that in these situations true love is not the goal, so intimacy becomes something that is in essence 'getting in the way' of these goals.

When you research Erik Erikson's much debated stages of psychosocial development he devotes a brief but telling amount of narrative to stage 6 which is young adulthood.  This stage is called Intimacy vs. Isolation.  This stage is about discovering how to actually be involved in close personal relationships with other people.  This is not just about romantic relationships, this is about highly evolved ties with people who are not family in the traditional sense, but somehow in the course of knowing each other become so.  It is needful to note that part of this theory specifies that being sexually intimate with a person does not result in intimacy.  True intimacy is the desire and ability to share who you are with another person, and seek knowledge of the other person beyond what is visible.  The opposite of this is isolation which is a constant process of purging others from your life in fear of their identity compromising your own. The term opposite intimacy is distantiation, and it is the act of putting other people at an emotional or intellectual distance from the person that you are. It is relationship classism.  The results from this are self-absorption, inequality in relationships, and sometimes various forms of abuse i.e. physical, sexual, and most commonly emotional. The person suffering from this is cut off, and tends to have a negative view of people and relationships. They hold themselves above others to compensate.

It is fascinating that when you look up the term intimacy, the images are usually sexual with two people naked in each other's presence.  The definition is almost noncommittal in its self identification in explaining that it is the state of being intimate.  It goes on to explain that it is a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving relationship with another person or group.  The very lukewarm nature of the definition somehow makes it seem like a casual occurrence that happens frequently as opposed to in special situations.  The most interesting thing is how it is defined when in conjunction with a thing or subject.  There it is a close association with detailed knowledge and deep understanding of something. And I wonder why can't that be the definition of intimacy when applied to another person? Is it too hard to generate a detailed knowledge and deep understanding of another human being?  It seems to be the only thing that actually generates long lasting loving relationships.  One definition implies a begrudging tolerance due to being fond of something.  Almost like choosing chocolate over strawberry ice cream.  You don't mind strawberry, but you LOVE chocolate.  The other implies the investment of time, energy, and resources to maintain.  The difference in observing someone responding to you in a certain way, and actually KNOWING why they respond to you that way. Which one sounds more like a successful relationship to you?

Mars and Venus action
In this new age of perceived and computer designated compatibility an ugly trend is developing. People are choosing mates that fit the formula of who they would like to be perceived as instead of who is most likely inclined to understand them. Mostly because compatibility isn't about understanding or compromise anymore.  From what I can tell it has the complexity of ordering dinner.  I want a mate that is this religion, this race, this height, this weight, makes this much money, has this eye color, this hair color oh and likes babies. They are rating musical tastes as opposed to life philosophies. They are letting insecurity dictate what their mate's habits can and cannot be. The act of having sex and tolerating that person the rest of the time is replacing the actual meaning and content of intimacy. They are letting who the other person is be an extension of how they define themselves instead of accepting another fully functioning identity into their lives, and developing a deep knowledge and understanding of who they are. Now according to Erikson's stages of development it is because they have yet to establish an identity.  I don't necessarily agree.  I believe the fault lies in the socialization by peer groups, family units, and media.  Just think about the constant influences of advertising that insists on declaring desirable standards in males and females.  This categorizing and predeterminations are actually measures for choosing isolation over intimacy. People can't see the forest for the trees.

So every time a man says that he doesn't like women as smart as he is, it is a method of isolation.  Whenever a woman declares that a man is too effeminate for her, it is a method of isolation. It seems that all of our dating habits and trends accomplish the exact opposite of intimacy.  They instead try to redefine intimacy as something that can be quantified by personal preferences as opposed to being an entity of only itself.

My goal when I started writing romance was to try and regress this process and make falling in love less about sex and more about intimacy again.  I try to make my characters establish high emotional content before the first kiss even happens because without that, the first kiss means nothing. They are practically in love with one another before the first time they make love because they have been shown this capacity for care and intimacy the other can provide to them.  Without that it's just sex and there's nothing romantic to me about just having sex.  It’s the emotion behind it that moves it and gives it potency.  In a sex sells society where highly emotional and dedicated relationships seem to be looked down on, I think storytellers should be more dedicated to these ideas and not less.  It’s time for the lovers to take back romance.

Gentle Rogue cover courtesy of:

Mars and Venus action courtesy of:

Intimacy courtesy of:

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