Are Romantic Movies Bad For You?

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Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes in Maid in Manhattan

In the celluloid world of romantic comedies, shy but decent men get the girl, arguments set up sweet reconciliations, and couples separated by tragedy are always reunited through improbable coincidence. But now researchers are beginning to ask whether the make-believe world projected in "rom-coms" might actually be preventing true love in real life.

Last week, researchers at Heriot Watt University's Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory in Edinburgh, which studies best practices in relationship counseling, completed a study of 40 Hollywood romantic comedies released between 1995-2005. They found that problems typically reported by couples in relationship counseling at their counseling center reflect misconceptions about love and romance depicted in Hollywood films. (See TIME's Top 10 movies of the year.)

"Relationship counselors often face common misconceptions in their clients — that if your partner truly loves you they'd know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined. We did a rigorous content analysis of romantic comedies and found that the same issues were being portrayed in these films," the university's Dr Bjarne Holmes says.

The fact that Hollywood sells us an enhanced version of romance should come as no surprise, of course. But does that portrayal reflect a pre-existing expectation that film buffs hold or does it instill it? As part of their research, Dr Holmes' team had around 130 student volunteers watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while another group of the same size watched a David Lynch drama. Viewers of the romantic comedy were found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny. It was a small study confined to one region, but, Dr Holmes argues, "it does give us some indication of [the effects of romantic comedies]."

Mary-Lou Galician, Head of Media Analysis and Criticism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University, whose research in the 1990s found similar results to Holmes' study, says uncovering conscious and subconscious romantic motivation is a difficult process, and the role of movies is uncertain. She points to the vexing debate over the effects of violent movies, which some researchers argue encourage aggression, while "others argue just as persuasively that [simulated violence] provides a safe release for human aggression." (See pictures of couples in love.)

Still, Galician — who blames mass media portrayals of romance for the failure of her own early relationships — advises people to be cautious about watching too many romantic comedies, and remain aware that such movies might cause problems in their own relationships. "If there were suggestions something was dangerous for you, even if the results were in small numbers, it might not be a bad idea to be cautious," she says.

Not all relationship experts agree. Phillip Hodson, a fellow at the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, says that while romantic comedies can cause problems for couples once they exit the euphoric first few years of a relationship, they also provide a much needed source of hope and inspiration for the unattached. "We need to live by stories that help us deal with tough realities. Idealism has a role to play — it can convince us that no matter how misshapen, decrepit, or dull we are, there is someone out there for us. And you know what? There is! Walk through any shopping mall and you see the most extraordinary pairings," he says. "We all need hope in our lives. And Hollywood trades on hope."

See pictures of some of the twentieth century's great romances.

Read a TIME cover story on the science of romance.