Are you ready for romance, but unable to find anyone who understands how relationships actually work? Here’s a suggestion: Head for a bookstore, and hang out in the science fiction/fantasy section.
New research suggests fans of those genres have more mature beliefs about romantic relationships than readers who gravitate toward suspense, romance, or even highbrow literature.
“Individuals who scored higher for exposure to science fiction/fantasy were less likely to endorse four unrealistic relationship beliefs,” writes a research team led by psychologist Stephanie C. Stern of the University of Oklahoma. “Romance is not the only written fiction genre to be associated with real-world beliefs about romantic relationships.”
The study, in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, featured 404 adults (a bit more than half of them female) who were recruited online. Their exposure to seven literary genres—classics, contemporary literary fiction, romance, fantasy, science fiction, suspense/thriller, and horror—was measured in a test in which they were asked to identify the names of authors who specialized in each.
They then filled out a survey in which they responded to a series of unrealistic, unhelpful beliefs about relationships: “Disagreement is destructive; mindreading is expected; romantic partners cannot change; the sexes are different; and the expectation of sexual perfection.”
Specifically, they indicated on a six-point scale the degree to which they agreed with statements such as “People who have a close relationship can sense each other’s needs as if they could read each other’s minds,” and “When couples disagree, it seems like the relationship is falling apart.”
Crunching the numbers produced several surprising results.
First, people familiar with romance fiction were more likely on average to believe in only one of the aforementioned myths: that of the sexes being fundamentally different in their wants and needs. All that prose about ripping bodices apparently did not instill too many wrongheaded ideas.
The classics had similarly limited impact: Those familiar with their authors were less likely to endorse only one belief—the idea that disagreement is destructive. But people who could identify the science fiction and fantasy authors were less likely, on average, to believe four of the five myths—all except the one about sexual perfectionism.
What’s more, “At least two of the specific beliefs (eschewed by sci-fi fans)—the belief that disagreement is destructive, and the belief that partners cannot change—are associated with maladaptive relationship attitudes, behaviors, and/or outcomes in the real world,” the researchers note.
Specifically, previous research has linked “the belief that disagreement is destructive” with “more permissible attitudes toward intimate partner violence, control, and abuse.”
Stern and her colleagues concede that these results don’t prove that reading Harry Potter makes one more realistic about relationships. It’s conceivable that people with more grounded views of romance are also drawn to the science-fiction/fantasy genre.
But there is evidence suggesting we pick up life lessons from works of fiction. A 2017 study found sci-fi fans hold less-rigid views about morality, an open-minded stance that may stem from the stories they enjoy.
“In fantasy, mind-reading sometimes is possible,” the researchers point out. Could that impart an “understanding that in the real world, it is not?”
They also note that the hero’s journey, first identified by Joseph Campbell and embodied by characters from Odysseus to Harry Potter, centers on a character who comes into his or her own power over the course of a quest. By seeing the world through their eyes, fans may come to understand “the human capacity for change”—and perhaps even apply it to their romantic partners.
In any event, the cliché of fans of these genres being lonely geeks is clearly mistaken. No doubt they have difficulties with relationships like everyone else. But it apparently helps to have J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin as your unofficial couples counselor.