OnDating: Why Cheesy Movies Are Ruining Your Dating Life

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

Things not going so good on the dating front?

Blame Hugh Grant. And Meg Ryan. And all the rom-com conspirators who've been insidiously poisoning your love life with one sickly sweet happy ending after another.

Their toxin of choice? Preposterously high expectations.

A team of researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland found that consumers of romantic comedies are more likely than others to expect Hollywood's Happily-Ever-After ideals to exist in their own relationships.

In one study, the researchers showed 100 students the John Cusack movie "Serendipity" while another 100 watched a less-syrupy flick. The "Serendipity" viewers were much more likely to say they believed in fate and predestined love than the others.

"That really creates high expectations for some people, and I think it sets a lot of people up for disappointment," says Bjarne Holmes, a social psychologist who worked on the study. "There's a lot of research out there that shows that if you hold this idea that there is such a thing as predestined love . . . then you actually have a tendency to be less happy in your own relationships.

"When things start getting to a point where you actually start having to work at your own relationships, then you start thinking, 'Well, we're either meant to be together or we're not meant to be together, so what's the point?' "

His team found that fans of the genre are more inclined to think that a partner should be able to meet their emotional and physical needs instinctively, without them ever articulating those needs.

The team also studied the content of the 40 most-watched recent rom-coms and found common themes. From the start, big-screen couples have trust and attachment bonds that take us mere humans years to develop. They quickly gloss over such transgressions as lying and cheating. They are deeply, quickly enthralled with each other, while married couples in the same films are usually portrayed as bickering and loveless.

"That's a very interesting contrast to reality," Holmes says. "My argument would be that it is these couples that have been together 20, 30, 40 years and that are also still happy -- those are the couples that we probably need to be emulating in popular culture."

The "Ever After" part is kind of a mystery, no?

Holmes has just one post-study bottom line for rom-com lovers: "You don't find a soul mate . . . You get like that over time because you work at it."

Valentine's Day is coming up. Tell us what your fave V-Day date is at dating@washpost.com, and we may publish it!

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