Where did (do) we get ideas about romantic relationships?

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Where did (do) we get ideas about romantic relationships?

Parents or caregivers, of course. Yet, we often don’t consider the source of our relational conceptions to be movies. In many cases, this is the primary source.

When I was young, I had my first real conception of what romantic love should be viewing the movie Jewel of the Nile. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner adventure through Columbia, attempting to find the fabled “jewel”. Douglas (Jack) plays the arrogant man, overconfident and fool-hardy, and Turner (Joan) a career-driven writer, overly-romanticizing every instance. Joan is lured by the Columbian dictator, and Jack sets out to rescue her with the help of his friends. During the course of their adventure, they rekindle their stale relationship, are married, and live happily ever after.

Simply: Guy is arrogant but desirous. Girl is a romantic who needs won over for him to earn her love.

The rest…well, the rest they don’t make movies about that. No one knows how Jack and Joan ended up. Chances are, things got stale as they did at the beginning of “Jewel” and perhaps they didn’t live happily ever after?

Romantic adventures like Jewel of the Nile and a plethora of others, have our culture in love with falling in love. From having these romantic standards put upon me, I performed a concert in middle school professing my love to my beloved, written countless songs about love, put women on an unattainable pedestal, spent ridiculous amounts of money and taken other far more embarrassing actions for … love?

Hindsight being what it is, I wanted to WIN Joan’s love, and live happily ever after in bliss. Not so much the reality, for most of us.

Why no discussion of personal boundaries, proper communication expectations, and relationship needs? Well, that sounds like a fairly terrible movie, indeed.

We all want Love! Like in the Movies!

The Biology of Romantic Love

Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Serotonin all play a role in neurology that makes us ‘fall in love’. Dopamine is released, making us ‘high’ when we find someone we really, really like. Oxytocin released bonds us as friends and lovers. Serotonin is released in relation to our concept of ‘status’ associated with the love interest1. It feels really, really good.

Essentially, love is driven by our biology to increase the likelihood of mating. The role these neurotransmitters play is undeniable, continuing to drive the human race forward. We may all agree, there is no comparable ‘high’ to that of falling in love.

Setup to fail?

Romantic love, the rush of the monoamines fades after time. The love displayed in our romance movies only lasts for two to three years2. Often, during this initial period, flaws, behaviors, and/or characteristics that would otherwise cause concern may be overlooked, overshadowed by the experience’s intensely positive feelings. Thus, some relationships cannot withstand the period after the passion ends. In this way, it is almost as if the prospect of happily ever after is set up to fail.

A 2013 study9, suggests that subjection to romantic comedies is positively related to idealizing romantic partners. Idealization, defined in the study as “perfect, flawless, and wonderful in a romantic sense,” implies the oversight of ‘red flags.’


Successful relationships have three broad characteristics enabling their success: accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement3.

Accessibility is what it suggests: the opportunity for partners to be engaged. At times this may be physically accessible. This may often be referred to as being ‘heard’ or ‘seen’ by your partner. This suggests deeper accessibility and a desire for empathy. Accessibility requires listening and validating the feelings of the other.

Responsiveness is responding to attempts to connect. If these attempts and actions are not responded to, eventually, they will cease. This often begins the decline of a relationship.

And third, emotional engagement becomes important in a relationship as current research suggests that relationships are an emotional bond more than anything. It is important partners understand the other’s emotional experience. Not having this engagement unravels the relationship.

Gottman’s famous characteristics signaling a relationship’s doom (The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse) are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling4. The number one reason for divorce suggested by current research is a deficit of love or intimacy. The couple “fell out of love…”5 Gottman believes that these four behaviors will inevitably cause a relationship to fail.

The History of Romance

The word romance is derived from the Latin word ‘Romanicus’ or Roman-style7. Small wonder considering the Roman’s authored the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Shortly after marriage, Eurydice is killed. Orpheus, overcome with despair, journeys through hell to bring her back8. The myth analogizes the behaviors driven by our psychology around romantic love.

Even in Shakespeare’s time, the term “romance” was not used as a genre heading. The term was popularized in the early 17th century in France10. The oldest romance film was created in 1892, an animated piece called Pauvre Pierrot (Poor Pierrot)11. The Romantic Period in literature occurred from 1790-1850, characterized by the idealization of women and a focus on the common man’s experience12. In the 1920s and ’30s, the rise of the romantic movie moved the culture towards its current state13.

Studies suggest that mammals developed several palpable systems in the brain that help to create the experience of romantic love. This desire for romantic love is created through these three systems’ drive for sexual gratification, attraction, and attachment, respectively 6. These systems can give a feeling of calm when near our mate and cause separation-anxiety when apart.

Attachment theory posits that the quality of one’s attachment is based on how their primary caregiver (usually, mother) provided a safe environment for them to explore. During infancy, erratic care tends to correlate with increased experience of passionate love in adulthood. More consistent care appears to be associated with the unlikelihood of passionate love6.

The Importance of Good Romantic Relationships

Research shows that marriage positively impacts longevity. Marriage benefits also extend to more successful outcomes with cancer and less prevalence of depression and other mental health issues. A similar trend seems to occur for those in cohabitating relationships. However, marital stress is linked to the hardening of arterial walls leading to heart disease14. As time goes on, the positive impact marriage had on previous generations does not seem to extend into the future15. The current divorce rate hovers around 40-50%.

Studies show that women in relationships with a lot of conflict have higher blood sugar levels, an increased risk of obesity, and higher blood pressure16. When couples have varying styles of coping with anger, they are more likely to die young17. A hostile relationship can slow the body’s healing process18. Additionally, the ongoing stress of being in the situation may cause an increase in autoimmune dysfunction and overall inflammation in the body19.

Relationship stress over long periods of time is not a good proposition for good health.

Movies and Our Conception of Love

The more college kids watch movies with romantic themes, the more likely they expect in their romantic relationships what is displayed onscreen20.

Even movies not categorized as Romance may have romantic underpinnings. The movie Braveheart had a profound impact on my perception of romance. I believed that it was proper to court someone, ask her parents, and all the additional social protocol. And if she died, I’d spend my life avenging her death. The extremity, a homage to the intoxicating feelings involved in the experience of falling in love.

It filled me with purpose. I desired to love that all-encompassing.

The RomCom Fools Rush In was a personal favorite of mine. It also was a strictly romantic comedy, a genre I did not normally seek out. Alex (Matthew Perry) and Isabel (Salma Hayek) hook up on Alex’s business trip. Three months later, she’s pregnant. In an attempt to do the “right thing,” he proposes marriage. The cultural, personal, philosophical, and geographical differences and preferences make for a mess of a way to start a relationship. (Wow! What a terrible message to send.)

A great movie, but certainly, the ideas of “staying together for the kids” or “staying together no matter what” are displayed. It could be the internalization of this philosophy that allowed me to stay in relationships too long. I believed that you just “stayed together, no matter what.” This, sadly, isn’t always true.

Movies celebrate the magic associated with “falling in love.” Truly a magical experience, movies allow us to relive and relate to the characters onscreen. They give us perspective in our own lives. Yet, the reality is that the neurotransmitter induced euphoria does not last forever. With this in mind, it may be important to note what you want out of a relationship before the brain drugs kick in. Consider the following:

  1. What would the perfect relationship look like for you?
  2. What are your relationship needs? (Love language? Sexual frequency?)
  3. What kind of acceptable communication styles do you prefer? (Do you yell? Do you write letters? Do you cool off, then have long discussions?)
  4. What were the negative feelings associated with issues in/or that ended past relationships?
  5. What are your goals in entering a relationship?
  6. What are the personal boundaries you hold that a personal relationship should not cross?
  7. What is something your partner could do that would cause you to end the relationship?

Taking some time to answer these questions may save you some heartache (pun intended) down the line. Of course, all relationships have challenges worthy of being overcome for the relationship’s benefit. In the words of Billy Ocean… “When the going gets tough, the tough get going…”

Where do you get your conceptions about love?


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BA in Psychology and MBA from Kent State. ENTJ Myers/Briggs and my love language is acts of service. However, I don’t think any of those things should provoke you to read my blog. Hmmm. I want to talk about things we all think about but, can’t freely talk about.

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