No, I’m not talking about the Oscar Wilde play, but a New York Times column written by Pulitzer Prize winner Maureen Dowd on 7.7.08. Ms. Dowd’s column features Father Pat Connor, a New Jersey priest who is 79 and celibate, but who has spent many years counseling couples.
For four decades Father Pat has given his talk on “Whom not to marry.” (He’s not only wise, but grammatical!) He speaks mostly to high school girls since they’re more interested in the subject than boys of that age. He hopes that if he can get them thinking before infatuation kicks in, they will be better equipped to avoid bad matches.
What caught my attention and caused me to save the column when I read it last July is the way that Father Connor’s advice tracks with—and sometimes contradicts—the way we romance writers portray romantic heroes. (Most of these points also apply to women, of course.)
For example, Father Connor says “never marry a man who has no friends.” A person who doesn’t develop and maintain friendships is probably going to be bad at the intimacy required for marriage. Think of the loner romantic heroes—the dark, mysterious stranger who comes to town with nothing and no one. Is he really going to make a decent husband?
Probably not, though the magic of fiction can transform anti-social loners to doting lovers. The hero of LaVyrle Spencer’s wonderful Morning Glory comes to mind. Though now that I think of it, he was not so much anti-social as he was terribly alone and wanting to belong. That kind of hero is easier to work with, and actually not uncommon in romance, though Spencer went further than most in creating a hero desperately hungry for human connection.
While there is a strong tradition of loner heroes, there is an equally strong tradition of heroes who are part of a group of friends. I’m very fond of this myself because male friendship is kind of sexy. It shows that a man can form bonds. That he can be caring and loyal.
In my Fallen Angels series, the friendships date from school days where the boys banded together to create a surrogate family. In my new Lost Lords series—ummm, it’s pretty much the same, though the school is no longer the very real Eton, but the fictional Westerfield Academy for boys of ‘good birth and bad behavior.’
In current romances, I think the ‘group of friends’ model has the upper hand, whether it’s Troubleshooters, Rogues, Devil Riders, or the Black Dagger Brotherhood. This not only makes the heroes more psychologically convincing, but also makes it easier for the authors to write series books, which is a definite plus in marketing terms. <g>
Father Connor also says, “steer clear of someone who never makes demands counter to yours.” There are times where the idea of having an amiable doormat is appealing, no question! But a relationship that involves give and take will be more rewarding, I think. And more equal. Sometimes we need a partner who encourages us—or prods us!—to stretch beyond our comfort zone.
Father Connor quotes a therapist friend who said, “More marriages are killed by silence than violence.” Take THAT, Strong Silent Hero! There is dramatic power to the stoic, mysterious stranger, but a man who is willing to talk is a lot easier to live with. (Maybe he’s not as common as we’d like, but he’s worth waiting for. <g>)
And what about his relationship with his family? Is he going to invite his mom along on the honeymoon? Or does he sneer at her and treat her with disrespect? A man who disses other women may end up dissing you. A man who likes women—actually likes them, not just wanting to bed them—is more promising material.
A very well read friend of mine once explained to me a particular type of traditional romance hero who thinks all women are sluts, so he instantly categorizes the heroine as such, probably because she turns him on. The double standard in all its depressing glory. By the end of the book, this kind of ‘hero’ will decide that the heroine is true and innocent and worthy of him, but is that liking women? I don’t think so.
My friend who educated me about this stereotype added that I’d hate this kind of hero, and she was right. Though once common, especially in historicals, this sort of hero is now mercifully rare. Mr. Double Standard has the advantage of providing romantic conflict through his misplaced sneers, but ugly is still ugly.
What about his values and goals? Are they similar to yours? Opposites may attract, but they often can’t live together. Having compatible spiritual values is a biggie, though it’s not usually much addressed in romance apart from inspirationals. It’s certainly important in the real world, though.
Next, Father Connor says, “Does he use money responsibly? Is he stingy?” I suspect that money, the lack thereof, and how it’s used, have always been huge issues in marriages. Luckily, in historical romance we can often finesse this with our wildly wealthy lords <G>, but in the real world, money is a major source of relationship conflict. And not usually of the fun kind.
Father Pat is also in agreement with my mother. The one piece of relationship advice she ever gave me was to never marry a man thinking you can change him. Father Pat goes further by pointing that “People are the same after marriage as before, only more so.”
In romance, we usually show the characters changing during the courtship phase so that when the commitment comes, readers can believe in it. But I’ll bet we can all think of books where we closed them at the end and said, “It will never last!”
A very big issue in the real world is whether the potential partner is a good person. Is he/she kind, courteous, honest, loyal? This is a big issue in romance, too, where we have learned that even the toughest looking protagonist can be redeemed by showing some good behavior, often on the sly.
I’ve heard this called the “save the cat moment,” in which the SEAL or tough cop who can dispense death with both hands saves some small vulnerable creature. Cat, dog, child, ferret—whatever. As long as it shows that he has a kinder side.
I did a lot of this with Reggie Davenport, my classic alcoholic bad boy. The book where he first showed up, he was mostly a drunken jerk, but in his own story, you see him rescuing people and animals right and left, even if he is cranky when anyone notices. This sort of thing is just plain fun in romance. <G>
Father Pat asks if the potential mate has a sense of humor, and this is where the real world and romance are in complete agreement. Being able to laugh together, to share private jokes and appreciate life’s absurdities, goes a very long way to polishing the rough edges of everyday living.
In romance, discovering a shared sense of humor is one of the clearest signs that romance is in the air. It’s a wonderful way of showing that two people can connect even if they seem very different. Georgette Heyer was a grand mistress of this. After all, isn’t it wonderful and pretty darned sexy when someone loves our sense of humor? (Reggie had a sense of humor. <g>)
Father Pat said that at the end of his lecture, girls will often wail, “You’re eliminated everyone!” Not really. When it comes to finding the ideal husband, I remember the old joke about the man who spent years looking for the perfect woman, but when he did—she was looking for the perfect man. <G> In the real world, it always helps if both parties are tolerant and adaptable. And able to laugh together.
What essential traits do you feel a mate must have? In your romance reading, what aspects of a relationship would you like to see more? Or what do you see in fictional romances that just doesn’t work for you? If you want to tell us about your own Ideal Husband, that’s good, too!