I met my first romantic partner of 2018 on my 30th birthday in February. A month later, lying in bed the morning after an awkward first night together that we definitely weren’t ready for, we talked about movies we liked.
“So you like romantic comedies?” he asked me. “I think so,” I said, before countering with an uninvited critique on the danger of the genre and how the movies can give women, in particular, unrealistic expectations of how our love and our lives should look. “But sometimes it looks that way, for some people,” he said.
When I was younger, I believed that it looked that way for everyone. I loved romantic comedies, the cheesier the better. I loved the witty banter, the magical first meetings, and the dramatic kisses in the rain. I watched every rom-com I could get my hands on, laughing and sobbing through all of them. I loved the classic Roman Holiday just as much as I loved the more modern and decidedly tackier Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! In the romantic comedy universe, love was sure and secure. And just when the situation appeared hopeless, the music would swell and the story would take a turn for the better. The endings weren’t always perfect, but they were always happy.
I moved in with my college boyfriend at 23 and witnessed the shattering of my made-up fairy tale when he walked out two years later. All of the sudden, in a cruel twist of fate, life wasn’t going the way it was supposed to go. This didn’t happen in the movies.
Or maybe it did, I would think sometimes that summer, whenever I found myself crying in my cubicle or waking up at night in a cold sweat. Maybe this was just the part of the movie where I was supposed to go off and discover myself, date all the wrong people, learn all the lessons, and then witness the perfect man manifested for me at the end of the rainbow.
Embracing this storyline, I spent the next three years having tons of fun and dating all types of men, some great, some not, and most somewhere in between. And then, I had a rough summer. Remember that part of Bridesmaids when Annie loses her friends, her job, and her apartment in a span of a few days? I had reached that level of misery. I was diagnosed with an awful case of mononucleosis that slowed me down immensely. I was dumped for the second time by a man I thought was the perfect match for me, and I broke up with another who was ideal on paper but with whom I felt no chemistry.
I spent the next 18 months feeling sick, defeated, and too insecure to look any remotely attractive man in the eye. As I watched friend after friend celebrate happy engagements, I felt joy for them but dwelled on how unfair it was that no one loved me like that. I started a community to help women work through romantic heartbreak, and while I saw so much strength and resilience, I also heard many stories of love gone horribly wrong. I started reading articles about women who never dated and never married. I read every study I could about the happiness levels of single women and their married counterparts (according to many studies, the unattached are actually happier and healthier). I learned about the patriarchy. I had little contact with available men during this period, and all those romantic comedies started to seem a little suspect. I bristled at the unrealistic expectations they set for love and how they suggested that a woman’s life was incomplete without romance. I thought all this, even as I fell asleep mulling over how unfair it was that everyone else had found someone, and I was alone.
Late one night in mid-January, I was innocently browsing Facebook when I discovered that my ex-boyfriend had gotten married that very afternoon. We hadn’t spoken in years, and I had no idea that he was engaged. The memories of our break-up came rushing back, and I fell apart, not so much because I missed him specifically but more so because I realized that I was no closer to finding a love and life partner than I was on the day he left me. That same week, my grandfather passed away, and I spent the next few days mired in deep pain and emotion.
Very soon after, I learned that a different past love of mine had fallen very seriously in love with someone else. After hearing all about his new girlfriend over a beer, I found myself pondering the same question as Sally in one of my favorite films When Harry Met Sally… “All this time, I’ve been saying that he didn’t want to get married,” Sally sobs. “But, the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me…What’s the matter with me?” I could relate; I had eased my hurt over the end of our tryst by telling myself that he just wasn’t a “relationship person.” But he really just wasn’t a “relationship person” with me.
In the movies, there is always a clear reason for why something hasn’t worked out for the story’s heroes, and it always makes perfect sense in the film’s final 15 minutes. In the real world, sometimes there isn’t a reason. I could chalk it up to bad timing or bad luck or, like Sally, spiral into self-criticism. But it wouldn’t really matter.
My February romance began with promise but didn’t pan out; I had removed myself from the dating market for 18 months and it showed, painfully, in my interactions. I was terribly nervous. The guy was great, but I couldn’t quiet the inner voices reminding me of every possible, horrible thing that could go wrong in a relationship, and although I did want one, I was wildly afraid. And still, for all my disparaging of romantic comedies, wasn’t this the part of the movie where the romance was supposed to work out, at least for a while? Was this just a really drawn out movie climax? When would it be my turn to witness someone running through the airport to catch me, or showing up unannounced outside my window with flowers, or miraculously finding my cat during a rainstorm? I don’t even have a cat.
I recently rediscovered the 1987 movie Moonstruck, which includes a scene with a passionate Nicolas Cage proclaiming to Cher’s character, “Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess.” It’s not quite the traditional proclamation I am used to hearing from romantic comedies, and that’s why I like it. As I try to once again brave the wilds of dating in New York, I’m beginning to think that love might be that sometimes, too. It’s a mess, and it’s all wrong, but it’s something nice to hold onto while it lasts.
I have been walking around, insufferable, publicly swearing off fairy tales and quoting statistics about marriage dissatisfaction and divorce rates to anyone who would listen. But I have come to realize that if I want to be in a relationship again, I have to be a little naïve about everything that could go wrong. Maybe love will be easy, but it’ll probably be very messy and involve a lot of trial and error. I am terrified. I know that I deserve a movie-worthy true love, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get it.
But I hope I do. I am reminded of a scene from Nora Ephron’s film You’ve Got Mail, an old favorite. Kathleen and her boyfriend, Frank, amicably decide to break up. Frank asks, “What about you? Is there someone else?” She replies, “No. No, but there is the dream of someone else.” I can recognize now that You’ve Got Mail is not a perfect movie. Any criticism of Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox as a character is warranted. He can be a jerk and pushes a woman-owned small business to close; he somehow still gets the girl. But I keep coming back to Kathleen’s optimism, her dream of someone else despite the odds.
I all but stopped watching romantic comedies years ago, but I am starting to watch them again. Yes, I am watching them with a more critical eye this time, paying close attention to and questioning the sexism I often see. But I am watching them again because they are helping me heal and, more importantly, they are helping me hope, even though I know that life doesn’t play out like it does in the movies. It could be that my own love story is still stuck in that part right before the music swells, or maybe it’s just a process I need to ride out, for better and worse. And despite the fact that it might not lead to an easy happily ever after, I am trying to be more open to the dream of someone else — to the dream of someone running across a crowded restaurant, or a baseball diamond, or even a wheat field to proclaim his love to me.