I’m shifting my point of view on the Hallmark Channel’s annual countdown to Christmas. Yes, it has started. Like many married men, I’ve cringed at the idea of watching back-to-back romantic comedies every weekend until Christmas. The movie plot lines are predictable and perpetuate romantic ideals that seldom play out in real relationships.
I based my past dislike of romantic comedies on the assumption that these stories set women up with romantic expectations that can’t be met by the men who love them. Now, I’ve discovered that sitting through a romantic comedy together can lead couples to a stronger relationship. So get ready to cuddle up on the couch with your spouse very soon — and make time to enjoy a funny love story together.
It turns out that the romantic ideals expressed in romantic comedies don’t create unrealistic expectations. A study conducted a few years ago by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found no correlation between watching romantic comedies and believing in ideals such as soul mates or love conquers all. The results were similar for both men and women.
In a separate study, the same researchers examined the 52 top-grossing romantic comedy films released between 1998 and 2008. Looking at the content of such movies as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Runaway Bride,” they discovered the romantic ideals you’d expect to find. The romantic ideal of soul mates was most common.
And most of these movies had the romantic ideal takeaway message that love conquers all. But you might be surprised to learn that the most commonly expressed sentiments in these movies were realistic. The realistic ideals such as “relationships take hard work” appeared twice as much as romantic ideals.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery on this topic revealed that watching romantic movies can improve a marriage relationship. Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York analyzed newlywed couples and their response to romantic movies. They compared couples who received therapist-led training on relationship skills to couples who received no treatment, and to couples who watched one romantic movie a week for five weeks.
Those who watched the movies had an 11 percent divorce rate after three years. This low divorce rate was similar to those couples who received therapist-led training. The couples who received no treatment or movies had a 25 percent divorce rate.
These discussions, taking place only once a week for five weeks, strengthened a couple’s relationship for at least three years afterward.
The couples who watched a movie each week discussed after each movie the on-screen couple’s interactions. A list of questions prompted their discussions on topics such as how the movie couple handled conflict, supported each other, managed stress, and handled apologies. On each topic, each couple also discussed how the movie couple’s relationship was similar to or different from their own relationship. These discussions, taking place only once a week for five weeks, had the effect of strengthening a couple’s relationship for at least three years afterward.
As you watch romantic comedies with your spouse during this holiday season or any time of year, consider it an opportunity to reflect on your own relationship, its strengths, each other’s dreams, and your opportunities to increase satisfaction with your marriage relationship. It might be just as helpful as getting counseling — but more fun.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”