Tag Archives: toxic romance

Five Overused Romantic Sub-Plots (And How To Fix Them)

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Being a self-professed romance fan, I know more about the intricacies of romantic sub-plots than most men would ever dare admit. I’ve consumed an absurd amount of romantic media over the years and I’ve noticed more than a few common themes, some more endearing than others.

However, by consuming so much romantic content, I’ve also seen certain themes get overused and badly mishandled. I could list countless instances promising romantic sub-plots collapsing because it fell into a narrative trap. Sometimes, it’s because of poor writing. Sometimes, it’s because the story has too many constraints. I’ve even cited a few famous cases that exhibit both.

Whatever the case, it’s not hard to screw up a romantic sub-plot. I’ve done that more than a few times with the stories I’ve written. Lately, though, there are certain types of sub-plots that have lost their luster. They’ve either been done too many times or haven’t innovated in way too long.

Overused or not, I believe there are elements of these sub-plots that are worth saving. They just need some refinement and polish. What follows is a list of five overdone romantic sub-plots, why they’ve become so bland, and how to fix them. I’ve covered some of these elements before. This is just the romance lover in me offering some tips for future romance stories.


Romantic Sub-Plot #1: Best Friends Turned Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

I think you can thank sitcoms like “Friends” and movies like “Clueless” for this sub-plot to fall out of favor. Personally, I blame Ross and Rachel for giving this theme a bad name. They took the whole friends-falling-in-love plot way too far. Towards the end, it was more annoying than compelling.

These days, this sub-plot isn’t as common as it used to be. I think a lot of romance fans were burned out on it in the 1990s and early 2000s. There’s only so many times a character can say in so many words “I didn’t realize that what I was looking for was right here in front of me” and sound genuine.

How To Fix It

Simply put, this sub-plot needs to shake up the setting. Too many times, a story about friends becoming lovers is built around one friend having had feelings for the other over many years. That can be sweet when done right, but it’s way too easy to be done wrong. These days, it almost comes off as a long con or stalking.

To fix it, the emphasis needs to shift towards two characters undergoing major upheavals. Perhaps they go through a tragedy or trauma that changes the way they feel about other people. It can’t just be restricted to their friend/lover, either. This upheaval should affect their entire world and from there, they come together in a new way.

It has the potential to show two characters go through major growth as individuals, which eventually turns into growth as a couple. That kind of growth can work wonders for any romance and could offer something more meaningful than old friends hiding their feelings.


Romantic Sub-Plot #2: Love Triangles

Why It’s Overdone

I’ve already made my hatred of love triangles very clear. I’ve gone so far as to cite one from the X-men as the worst of all time. Beyond the comics, though, it’s not hard to see cases of this sub-plot done horribly wrong. Even contemporary romance like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” have made this troubled trope more insufferable.

Simply put, love triangles reduce everyone involved to prizes or plot devices. It’s next to impossible to make every character in a love triangle feel like a real character. It turns romantic development into a competition and in the long run, nobody wins and certain characters lose badly.

How To Fix It

I’m tempted to say that love triangles should be abandoned and killed with a 12-gauge shotgun, but I’m not a fan of throwing away romantic themes, no matter how much I despise them. For this particular theme, I think it needs more than just a fix. It needs a complete overhaul.

By that, it can’t just involve two people competing for someone else’s affection. That gets old fast. If there is going to be a love triangle, then it should actually take the time to show why someone is torn in the first place. It needs to be clear that someone genuinely loves more than one person and there’s a reason for that love.

This is also a sub-plot that may benefit from shifting taboos. Non-monogamy is becoming more mainstream and there aren’t many real romance stories about that idea that aren’t bad pornos. A love triangle has to stop being an either/or plot and become a why/how plot. There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure everyone involved gets some sort of emotional resolution that doesn’t involve someone getting screwed over.


Romantic Sub-Plot #3: Destined Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

If you’ve gone through any high school English class or are just familiar with certain literary traditions, you’ve probably seen this in all kinds of media. “Romeo and Juliet” is probably the most famous, but it still shows up frequently throughout romantic media. It’s prevalent in movies like “Titanic” and comics like “Superman.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for star-crossed lovers who are destined to fall in love, but it’s a very bland sub-plot. There’s no real sense of conflict. You know two characters are going to end up together and where’s the intrigue there?

How To Fix It

For this sub-plot, I think a simple shift in context would help. Most romance featuring destined lovers emphasis how they come together, despite the obstacles in front of them. I think it might be more compelling to explore why these characters are star-crossed to begin with. Is it just destiny or are there other forces at work?

There are a lot of factors that go into romance, even those of the non-destined variety. Why not explore the concept of destiny, as it relates to love? Why not dig a little deeper into the intricacies of how it unites people so completely? That wouldn’t just offer a meta-perspective of love, as a plot device. It would give us all an opportunity to reconsider what it means to be in love.


Romantic Sub-Plot #4: Love At First Sight

Why It’s Overdone

This sub-plot is very similar to the destined lovers trope. It’s often a pre-cursor to two people finding out they’re destined to be together. For many of the same reasons, it’s pretty bland and basic. One character sees another, some sappy music starts playing, and the love story is effectively laid out.

We see it happen very overtly in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic.” We see it manifest in some form in most romantic comedies. A character just sees someone they find attractive and that becomes the catalyst for their love. It’s sweet, but not very deep and it has just become too predictable at this point. When two people fall in love at first sight, what other story is there to tell?

How To Fix It

This one can’t be fixed with the same methods as the destined lovers sub-plot. This is one of those plots that doesn’t have to be radically altered, but definitely needs fresh nuance. Finding that nuance means injecting more than just love into the mix when two characters first meet.

The first encounter between two characters is always pivotal. It helps set the tone for their relationship, romantic and otherwise. To make this sub-plot work in new ways, characters need to intrigue each other in new ways. It can’t be enough that they’re attractive. There has to be something else about them.

Maybe the character has a skill that someone has never seen before. Maybe the character causes someone to re-think a past assumption. Maybe it sends them on a new journey that their love interest can join. There are many opportunities here. There doesn’t have to just be one.


Romantic Sub-Plot #5: Sex Complicating Love

Why It’s Overdone

This one is probably the most overtly sexual romantic sub-plot that also happens to be the most predictable. Ironically, it’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” that summed it up best. Things go from “Don’t worry, it won’t get weird” to “It got weird, didn’t it?” That’s every sex-complicating-love story in a nutshell.

This one also has the burden of being weighed down by long-standing sexual taboos. While it may seem like those taboos have faded in the 21st century, it’s still the slutty women and stud men who die first in slasher movies. Sex, even in a romance story, still comes off as something dirty that somehow undermines a romance.

Even though sexual attitudes have evolved a great deal, the idea that sex complicates/ruins a relationship hasn’t moved very far. It’s why sex tends to be an afterthought in modern romances. Sometimes, it’s ignored or assumed and that’s just a waste of quality sexual chemistry.

How To Fix It

As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve been working on that for years. While I can’t claim to have a definitive answer, I have surmised a few ideas turn sex from a complication to a catalyst. It doesn’t have to be overly titillating or pornographic, although that can work. It just has to supplement the romance rather than subvert it.

Sex in romance is often treated like an endgame. It’s marks the culmination rather than the progression of a relationship. I believe that’s a missed opportunity. In any romance, sex should function as a progression, of sorts. It takes the relationship to a new stage, one where new opportunities for emotional and personal growth emerge.

When two characters have sex, it can be more than just a chance to depict genitals and female breasts. It can be an exercise of intimacy where two characters strengthen their bond, rather than sully it. That gives greater meaning to the sexiness and nothing makes romance hotter than genuinely meaningful sex.

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Filed under Marriage and Relationships, media issues, polyamory, romance, sex in media, sexuality

The Pathetic Life Of Alan Harper: A Prelude/Warning To Men?

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Sometimes, popular culture is uncanny at predicting the future. “Star Trek” famously predicted cell phones. “2001: A Space Odyssey” predicted tablet computers. Then, there’s “The Simpsons,” which has predicted so many things that it’s creepy. Some predictions, however, fly under the radar. Some aren’t even predictions as much as they are worst case scenarios.

One such scenario played out in “Two and a Half Men,” a show more famous for its off-screen drama than its on-screen antics. Granted, those antics were fairly crude. Most episodes revolved around dirty jokes, sexual innuendo, and glorified hedonism. In today’s social climate, this show would trigger mass protests with every episode.

That didn’t stop it from being funny. I consider myself a fan of the show. However, this is one of those shows that could never be made today, even with an emotionally-stable Charlie Sheen. Its brand of comedy just wouldn’t work in an era where sexy Halloween costumes are considered controversial.

However, the message “Two and a Half Men” conveyed goes beyond its brand of humor and the actors who made it controversial. It’s a message that probably wasn’t intended when the show first aired, but one that manifested with time. That message centers around the only male character to make it through every season alive and unaltered, Alan Harper.

As a character, Alan is the catalyst for the whole show. It begins with him getting kicked out of his house by his wife, forcing him to live with his brother, Charlie. It serves as the foundation for the antics that follow. However, in light of recent trends in feminism, Alan Harper has become more of a concept than a character.

Simply put, Alan Harper is the perfect embodiment of a defeated, emasculated man. He’s a step below the stereotypical beta male. He’s the masculine equivalent of rock bottom. Even the entire cast of “The Big Bang Theory” or Al Bundy from “Married With Children” would feel sorry for him.

You don’t need to watch every episode of every season to see how this plays out. The show rarely goes more than a few minutes without highlighting how pathetic Alan is. The denigration goes beyond his ex-wife kicking him out of his house, divorcing him, and hitting him with egregious alimony payments.

Alan Harper, at his core, is a man dependent on everyone around him for affirmation, but is incapable or unwilling to earn it. His womanizing brother, Charlie Harper, often describes him as a parasitic leech who feeds on the pity of others to survive. In terms if how he conducts himself throughout the show, that’s pretty accurate.

Everything Alan does, from trying to make a living to pursuing romance, is done from a position of dependence. He depends on his brother for a place to live. He depends on his ex-wife to see his son, Jake. He depends on all the women he encounters for love, sex, and affection. He never has any leverage, always working from a position of weakness.

This earns him sympathy, but he’s no lovable loser. In addition to being dependent and weak, he’s also neurotic, selfish, and lazy. He rarely puts much effort into improving his lot in life. He never stands up for himself, rarely accepts responsibility for his mistakes, and endures failure without ever learning from it.

This is especially true in the later seasons of the show after Charlie Sheen was fired. Instead of having to leech off his brother, Alan managed to leech off a total stranger in Walden Schmidt. He makes every possible excuse to keep living in his brother’s house, never pay for anything, and avoid any semblance of personal growth.

Even if you pity Alan Harper, there’s little reason to respect him. Whenever he has a chance to make choices that can change that, he either makes the wrong decision or avoids it entirely. He’s not just a perpetual victim of a vindictive ex-wife, a hedonistic brother, and an idiot son. He actually clings to his victimhood, as though it were part of his identity.

It was fodder for comedy when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Now, it’s a serious issue that affects men and women alike. That’s because leveraging victimhood has become less a comedy trope and more an ideological tactic.

The current discourse, especially when it comes to gender, is often built around who victimizes who. A big part of the anti-harassment movement is driven by the idea that women have been victims for years, suffering in silence under the thumb of misogynistic men. There are more than a few situations like that in “Two and a Half Men.”

Men are just as guilty of using that tactic too, albeit not to the extent of Alan Harper. Men have cited the lack of attention people give Terry Crews or Corey Feldman whenever they talk about issues like sexual abuse. They’ll point out the ways in which women get preferential treatment in our society, some of which actually plays out in “Two and a Half Men.”

There’s no question that harassment and inequality are problems, but just being a victim can’t be the end of the conversation. Alan Harper is, in essence, the personification of what happens when we don’t attempt to further that conversation. It impacts everybody, but it’s especially relevant for men.

Alan reflects a worst-case-scenario. In the overall gender dynamic, he draws every bad card and makes every wrong move. He marries a woman who hates him and exerts immense control over his life. He has a callous, egocentric mother who gives him no affection, guidance, or support. The entire world takes advantage of him and he does nothing to stop it.

To make matters worse, there’s very little Alan can do to stop it. Even if he stands up for himself, he has no support because he’s so dependent on other people. If he gets kicked out of the house, he has nowhere to go. If he makes any money, someone else ends up getting it, often his ex-wife or an ex-girlfriend. He’s not just pathetic in how he handles it. He’s utterly trapped.

This is the kind of nightmare scenario that men genuinely worry about. Many women may laugh it off, but men aren’t blind to the bigger picture. If Alan Harper were gay or transsexual, then he would have organizations that support him. There are many groups that work hard to help disadvantaged members in the LGBT community.

There are also plenty of organizations that help women as well. If Alan were a woman who had been kicked out of his house by a vindictive husband, then there’s no way that the comedy in “Two and a Half Men” would’ve worked. It’s not funny to see a poor woman get thrown out on the streets and denied custody of her child. When it happens to a man like Alan, though, it’s hilarious.

That’s where the humor in “Two and a Half Men” becomes distressingly serious. A character like Alan Harper lends himself to ridicule, but his situation is no laughing matter. He’s the pinnacle of a defeated man. Society does nothing to help him and everything to mock him. If he weren’t a man, it would be a tragedy. Instead, it’s a comedy.

For men, that’s a scary thought. On top of that, his situation can manifest in the real world, minus the laugh track. It is possible for a man to lose his home, his kid, and his money thanks to a vindictive wife. It is possible for a man to be so utterly helpless that he has to depend on everyone’s pity to survive.

The fact that it’s possible, but still funny in the context of a sitcom, gives men more pause today than it did when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Men’s lives are being ruined by a society that does not give them the benefit of the doubt. Any debate that tries to take the side of men tends to get labeled as misogynistic.

We can either take those concerns seriously or create a society where men may end up like Alan Harper, laughably pathetic and utterly destitute. “Two and a Half Men” was still a funny show. However, the core of its comedy has serious implications and that are worth taking seriously, now more than ever.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, political correctness, psychology, romance, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

The Emerging Problem Of Superman And Lois Lane

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I think I’ve made it fairly clear that I’m a big fan of superhero romances. I’m a big fan of romance in general, but romance between superheroes has a special place in my heart. I was a comic book fan before I was a romance fan. As the years have gone by, it has been among my favorite combinations. I put it up there with pizza and a cold beer.

It certainly helps that superhero comics have inspired some of the most iconic romances of the past century. Say what you will about Rose and Jack in “Titanic.” I still find the love story between Batman and Catwoman is much more complex and compelling in terms of depth, not to mention many times sexier.

Superhero comics have informed a lot with respect to my fondness for romance. I also think they offer unique insights into the complexity of romance. Love is complicated enough. Adding superpowers and super-villains into the mix only compounds the drama. Sometimes it can end in tragedy. Sometimes it can make for some truly epic romance that strikes all the right emotional chords.

In some instances, though, mixing romance and superheroes can cause problems. Like relationships in the real world, there are many ways to screw it up. Comics have done plenty to mishandle romance. Just ask any Spider-Man fan about a story called One More Day and watch them recoil with disgust. I’ve even noted a few examples.

However, there are some instances where romance in superhero comics cause unique problems that are subtle in substance, but vast in implications. It doesn’t always involve relationships that are inherently toxic to multiple characters. Sometimes, those problems can emerge in even the most iconic relationship.

In the pantheon of superhero romances, the top spot is usually reserved for Superman and Lois Lane. In terms of romance in superhero comics, they are the gold-encrusted diamond standard by which all others are measured. Their love is isn’t just iconic. It’s a foundational component for both characters.

Superman loves Lois Lane. Lois Lane loves Superman. That romance is established in the pages of Action Comics #1. It’s a critical part of how both characters evolve over the years. You can’t tell Superman’s story without Lois Lane and you can’t tell Lois Lane’s story without Superman.

In the same way Superman always does the right thing and Deadpool always makes the dirtiest joke, this dynamic is fundamental. It establishes the kind of romance that is pure, unconditional, and uncorrupt. There’s no need for a previous love interest to die or a love triangle to provoke drama. Superman and Lois Lane just love each other and that’s all there is to it.

However, even with a romance this iconic, there is a problem and it’s actually a very recent problem. It affects both Superman and Lois Lane, but I believe it affects Lois to a much greater extent. It stems from an issue that I’ve been noticing more and more lately with certain romances. When it shows up in the most iconic romance in the history of comics, though, I take notice.

The nature of the problem has less to do with love and more to do with how a relationship defines certain characters. In both fiction and real life, it’s common and even romantic for two people to become so close that their lives become heavily entwined. There comes a point, though, where it stops being romantic and starts being destructive.

For most of their history, Superman and Lois Lane’s romance was built around simple, but effective dynamics. Lois Lane loved Superman, but not Clark Kent, who she didn’t know was Superman. Superman kept his identity from her to protect her many years, which created plenty of tension and made for some great moments.

Eventually, Superman reveals his identity to Lois and they eventually get married. I remember that moment. It was an amazing milestone for both romance and comics lore. The problem only came when that dynamic was complicated by a new theme that has since permeated the narrative.

It didn’t start at any particular date, but I think “Superman Returns” marked the unofficial turning point. That movie, on top of turning Superman into a deadbeat dad, made a small, but critical tweak to the Superman/Lois romance. In essence, it turned their love from a strength to a liability that is detrimental to the ideals of Superman and romance, as a whole.

At the beginning of that movie, Superman’s actions are the same as they’ve always been. He does the right thing because it’s the right thing. That’s who he is and why he’s so iconic. Towards the end, though, what he does becomes less about doing the right thing and more about resolving his relationship with Lois Lane.

Suddenly, doing the right thing and saving Lois aren’t just supplementary plots. They’re indistinguishable. One is the other and that’s a problem for reasons that go beyond romance and heroism. It wouldn’t have been that big an issue if it had only played out in one sub-par Superman movie, but in recent years, the problem has escalated.

It manifested in its most overt form in “Injustice: Gods Among Us,” a video game with a comic book series tie-in that essentially provides a worst-case-scenario for Superman. In this story, Superman is tricked into killing both Lois and his unborn child by the Joker. It’s not just an atrocity and a tragedy. It fundementally breaks Superman.

I’m not just referring to his spirit either. The death of Lois Lane also marked the death of Superman, as an ideal. In both the game and the tie-in comics, he’s no longer a hero. He’s a tyrant who becomes everything he once fought against. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a villain, but he’s definitely not the beacon of goodness that so defines his character.

While it makes for a powerful story, the particulars of that transformation are profound and not in a good way. It implies that Superman’s heroism is directly tied to Lois Lane and not supplemented by it. If she dies, then Superman ceases to be that iconic hero who stands for truth and justice.

That sends the message that Superman’s love for Lois Lane isn’t a strength. It’s a crutch. She’s not just his connection to humanity. She’s his lifeline. Beyond putting a burden on a character whose appeal is her ambitious pursuit of truth, it reduces Lois Lane to a singular role and one that’s impossible to maintain.

Unlike Superman, Lois is human. She’s going to age. She’s going to eventually die. Under this dynamic, Superman will eventually lose sight of his ideals. He’ll eventually stop being the hero that fights for truth, justice, and the American Way. Without Lois, he’s destined to give up and for a character who once moved the sun, that’s pretty weak.

This issue came up again in the plot for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” While I enjoyed the movie and don’t think it deserved half the criticism it got, there was one major issue that I felt undercut the story. Once again, it came back to Superman’s relationship with Lois.

Throughout the movie, Superman constantly questions his role and responsibilites as a hero, especially after seeing Batman’s approach to pursuing justice. That’s perfectly appropriate with respect to humanizing his character, but at the end of the day, he bases much of his decision to save the day around saving Lois.

That’s not to say that there isn’t merit to saving a lover, but this is Superman we’re talking about here. This is a hero whose entire appeal is built around him having god-like power, but still doing the right thing. When the right thing is only ever in the context of saving his girlfriend, then that undercuts both the ideals and the romance itself.

It’s largely for that reason, among others, that I find the romance between Superman and Wonder Woman more compelling. Back in 2012, there was a brief period in DC Comics where the timeline was tweaked, which happens fairly often, and Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane was nullified. That gave these two iconic heroes a chance to be together.

I could probably write several more articles about why I think the Superman/Wonder Woman romance is special in its own right. In many respects, I think it’s healthier than the Superman/Lois Lane relationship. It may never be as iconic, but it fundementally avoids this problem.

Wonder Woman can take care of herself. She can save herself and be a hero on her own terms. Lois Lane, however, is becoming more and more defined by how she defines Superman. For the most iconic superhero couple of all time, that’s pretty shallow.

The recent comics have done little to address this issue. With yet another tweak to the timeline, Superman is back with Lois. They even have a child now. However, the nature of their relationship is still on uncertain ground. I still feel it lacks the complementary dynamics that made it work so well for so many years.

There’s a chance it could change. Given the fickle nature of comic book continuity, it’s very likely that the Superman/Lois Lane dynamic will continue to evolve. However, I think it’s going in the wrong direction if Superman’s reasons for doing the right thing are that dependent on Lois.

Whether or not this problem deepens or subsides remains to be seen. Superman and Lois Lane are still the most iconic romance in the history of comics. That will continue to hold true, even if the problem deepens. Superman and Lois Lane are great characters in their own right. That aspect cannot and should not get lost under the weight of their iconic romance.

As much a romantic as I am, I don’t deny that it is possible for a love story to go too far. Loving someone and being dependant on them are not the same thing, especially when superpowers get involved. If a relationship becomes too dependent, then it can be more damaging than a mountain of kryptonite.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Marriage and Relationships, romance, superhero movies

The (Fragile) State Of Modern Chivalry

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These days, you can’t go more than a few days without hearing someone complaining that chivalry is dead, dying, or some elaborate patriarchal conspiracy to keep women in their place. A few are even arguing it’s part of some matriarchal conspiracy to control men. The very concept of chivalry is in a precarious state is what I’m saying.

Now, I’m somewhat hesitant to write about this because in my experience, both in real life and online, it brings out a lot of mixed sentiments. I’ve met men who resent it. I’ve met women who are outright offended by it. No matter how I approach it, there’s no way to avoid rubbing certain people the wrong way.

Hesitation aside, I do feel compelled to talk about it because the idea of modern chivalry, the kind that involves common courtesy and not the medieval kind that made high school English class so frustrating, is kind of personal to me. That’s because I had awesome, loving parents who went out of their way to teach me and my siblings the manners, attitude, and mentality that go into modern chivalry.

They may not have built their entire parenting strategy around it, but I like to think that them emphasizing it was part of a larger life lesson. It’s one that effects me to this day. I still make it a point to hold doors, pull out chairs, and address people as sir/ma’am. If I don’t, then I feel like I’m not showing the respect I want.

It may not sound like much, but I find myself wondering and worrying about the state of this gender-driven quirk. Some of that worry stems from how relevant those vital lessons my parents taught me are today and whether they’re losing relevance with each passing year. That might just be a byproduct of me getting older, but it does concern me, if only because I feel there’s a lot of gender-driven conflict these days.

To understand why, I need to give a little background as to just how my parents instilled an appreciation of modern chivalry in me and, as a bonus, demonstrate why they’re so awesome. While both my parents were big on teaching me and my siblings manners, my father was more focused in emphasizing courteous behavior.

As a kid, I remember more than one occasion where we would go out somewhere and my father told me to hold the door for women and/or total strangers coming up behind you. It wasn’t just for women either. He made it clear that if you have a chance to hold the door for someone, you do it and you be a gentleman about it.

I only remembered why it was so important on the occasions I forgot. There was this one time when I was around 10-years-old that my parents took me and my siblings to the mall. I, being an overly excited kid, ran out ahead to get inside. In doing so, I forgot to hold the door for a woman and her daughter. My dad did not approve of that.

I vividly recall him catching up with me, grabbing me by the arm, and telling me that if I’m going to run out ahead like that, I damn well better hold the door like a goddamn gentleman. Remember, I was only 10 at the time and my father was holding me to higher standards than that. At the time, I was kind of annoyed, but as I got older, I came to appreciate that lesson.

There were probably other similar incidents. My dad, who I know occasionally reads this site, can probably remember plenty of others like that. I hope they’re still relatively few because as I got older, things like holding doors, pulling out chairs, and saying sir/ma’am became second nature to me. It got to a point where I really didn’t think about it.

Then, in a more recent incident, I had an encounter that kind of worried me. I was walking around my neighborhood. I then make my way into a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch. Since an older woman was behind me, I held the door for them. She smiled and thanked me. I replied with a simple, “You’re welcome, ma’am.”

It was that last part, though, that got a stronger reaction. She was genuinely surprised when I said “ma’am.” It was a pleasant surprised, though. She even went out of her way to thank me for being so courtesy, claiming she doesn’t hear that sort of rhetoric much anymore.

Now, this was not some old woman longing for the good old days, mind you. This woman didn’t look that much older than me. It really caught me off-guard, mostly because I was just doing what my parents had taught me to do all my life. It also kind of worried me, too.

That’s not the first time something like that happened. I’ve said “sir/ma’am” to strangers before and gotten strange looks, both from older and younger crowds. I’ve noticed the older women, though, are the ones that react most often to it. They tend to react most positively as well. Women who are around my age or younger just smile and shrug it off, as though it’s no big deal.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of it. I understand my experiences are purely anecdotal and it’s unreasonable to make broad generalizations about society, as a whole. However, the more reactions of this sort that I encounter, the more I worry that the value of modern chivalry is declining.

That worry, though, is not akin to some old man longing for the good old days. I understand that the good old days are never as good as we remember. I feel a more pressing concern is how this attitude reflects the growing tension between genders that seems to fuel so many conflicts, these days.

I’ve talked about a few of those conflicts, including the absurd ones. A part of me can’t help but wonder whether the lack of a reaction I get from younger women on my chivalrous acts reflects a distressing trend in attitudes towards men, in general.

I worry that recent scandals, trends in feminism, and even a few trends in men’s rights activism are conditioning people to just assume the worst in men, even when they demonstrate good conduct. Assuming the worst in any situation is usually the first step towards falling into a nasty cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies.

In that context, there’s no behavior, chivalrous or otherwise, that can convince anyone that they’re just trying to be polite. I hold a door for a woman with those assumptions and she won’t see it as good manners. She’ll just see it as some elaborate effort to get into her pants or somehow draw her into a system of patriarchal oppression.

The assumptions are just as bad for the men. I hold a door for a man, or just get seen holding the door for a woman, and the assumption is I’m trapped in some radical feminist agenda that seeks to turn all men into weak, submissive, beta-males. Again, it overlooks the mere possibility that it’s just the kind, courteous, polite thing to do.

I sincerely hope this is just empty concern on my part and the observations I’ve made are just a byproduct of growing cynicism. I also hope that the current state of gender politics doesn’t reduce the concept of modern chivalry to an agenda. Just acting like a decent human being to other people, regardless of their gender, should never be an agenda.

It’ll be interesting to see how the current social landscape evolves over the next several years. How it sees and interprets modern chivalry will reveal a lot about the direction we’re heading with respect to how men and women relate to one another. If every little action suddenly becomes part of an agenda, then I imagine it’ll get a lot harder to just show common courtesy to someone.

I hope it doesn’t get that bad. I sincerely hope that the lessons my parents taught me about showing good manners and common courtesy are just as relevant in the future as they are now. If I ever get around to having kids, I intend to teach them those same lessons.

Some things just don’t need to be part of a gender-driven conflict. They can just be an overly-formal way of showing respect to one another. Call it what you want, be it modern chivalry or just not being an asshole to someone. There’s still a place for it in any society and I believe there always will be.

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Filed under gender issues, Jack Fisher's Insights, Marriage and Relationships, romance

Al Bundy Syndrome: The Face Of Learned Helplessness

Some concepts are so vague that it’s hard to put a human face on it. I suspect that’s part of why many people suck at math. You can’t personalize it, humanize it, or imagine it on a pair of breasts. Even things that directly affect people, like learned helplessness, are hard to grasp.

That’s why if you find a way to put a human face on a serious issue, you jump at the chance. It doesn’t just make it easier. It makes them memorable in an unexpected way. I consider the concept of learned helplessness a serious issue that affects our personal lives, our professional lives, and our sex lives. It goes beyond the world of an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s way bigger than we’re comfortable admitting.

That’s why, in the interest of putting a human face on a serious issue, I’d like to present the greatest personification of learned helplessness in the history of media. Some of us grew up with him. Some of us were appalled by him. He’s a myth, a legend, and an icon in his own tragic right.

His name is Al Bundy, the hapless husband and father of the Bundy family from the Fox classic, “Married With Children.” To those who have watched every episode and love the show as much as I do, you already understand why Al is the perfect embodiment of learned helplessness.

For those who aren’t familiar with “Married With Children” or why it was such a groundbreaking show, I feel sorry for you. For most people under the age of 20, they have no idea how much this show shook our collective understanding of modern television.

Say what you will about the trash currently on TV now, but before “Married With Children,” it was much worse. By worse, I mean they were boring. Most sitcoms were bland, generic, feel-good stories that tried to paint the world in an overly-rosy picture. Every one of them basically tried to capture the spirit of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver.”

Married With Children” saw that and decided to do the exact opposite, so much so that when it was in development, the title of the show was called “Not The Cosbys.” It was a show where all the conflicts weren’t solved at the end. It was a show where the world wasn’t idealized, perfect, or fair. In other words, it was more in line with the real world.

In that world, Al Bundy gets dealt a worse hand than most. At one point, he was a high school football star with a promising future. Then, he got hit with a streak of bad luck that effectively crushed his spirits.

He got injured and lost his football scholarship. He got involved with Peggy Bundy, a woman I’ve cited before as a character that men should rightly dread. He eventually has two kids that don’t respect him and works a dead-end, low-paying job as a shoe salesman.

While other sitcoms glorify the innate dignity of working class men like Ralph Cramden, Archie Bunker, and even Homer Simpson, there’s nothing glorious about Al Bundy’s life. There’s nothing noble about his poverty. He doesn’t even try to come off as sympathetic. His life doesn’t raise the bar or embody an ideal. If anything, it reminds ordinary people just how bad things can get.

Whereas other TV sitcoms try to uplift an audience by showing how loving, functional families solve their problems in a simple, 30-minute show, “Married With Children” sent a different message. It presented the audience with a level of dysfunction so extreme, so exaggerated that even if you’re home life was a mess, you could take comfort in the fact that you were not the Bundy family.

What makes that message so powerful is also what makes Al Bundy such a perfect example of learned helplessness. Fittingly enough, the actor who played him, Ed O’Neill, actually drew inspiration from someone in his own family.

In a sense, Al Bundy was built around the idea that he was just resigned to his fate. He realized how much his life sucked, that his family didn’t respect him, and that his best days were behind him. Dealing with all that in addition to working a dead-end job effectively destroyed his spirit, so much so that he stopped trying to better his situation.

That perfectly reflects some of the early experiments done about learned helplessness, namely those involving a poor dog that just stopped trying to avoid painful shocks. Al Bundy is basically that dog after it has been shocked so many times that it just doesn’t bother anymore. It accepts that it will suffer and doesn’t try to avoid it.

In a sense, it becomes a mentality akin to a psychological illness. In the spirit of caveman logic and excuse banking, I’ll give it a name. From here on out, let’s call it “Al Bundy Syndrome.” That’s a much more memorable name than the overly-technical term, learned helplessness. With Al Bundy Syndrome, the condition has a name and a face that Ed O’Neill made iconic.

Given that we already have weird diseases like restless leg syndrome and walking corpse syndrome, which I swear is a thing, I don’t see why we can’t create a syndrome out a fictional character. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I claim to be an expert in anything that doesn’t involve telling sexy stories, but it’s for that reason that I feel it’s so important to put an actual face on an issue that’s hard to understand. Psychology is tricky, complicated, and messy. Al Bundy is simple, crude, and crass. One is innately funnier than the other.

In that sense, it’s easier to see the signs and symptoms of learned helplessness, so long as you frame it in Al Bundy syndrome. Watch any old episode of “Married With Children” and the symptoms reveal themselves. They include feelings like:

  • Being hopelessly numb to the misery around you, like Al Bundy
  • Making little to no effort to improve your situation, like Al Bundy
  • Assuming the worst in every situation, like Al Bundy
  • Having an extremely cynical outlook, like Al Bundy
  • Not caring about whether the world likes or respects you, like Al Bundy
  • Having no shame or filter about what you say, like Al Bundy

The list goes on, but there are too many to list and watching old episodes of “Married With Children” is probably far more informative than any list, not to mention funnier. It’s a show that probably couldn’t get made today, due to how politically incorrect it was, even for its time. That makes its impact all the more vital.

I doubt that Ed O’Neill or the producers of “Married With Children” intended Al Bundy to be the poster boy for learned helplessness, but sometimes the connections are there and all we have to do is make them. So, moving forward, if you want to know what learned helplessness is and how to avoid it, just remember this face. It may save your life, your marriage, and your soul.

For that, I thank you Ed O’Neill.

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How Learned Helplessness Dooms Your Sex Life (Among Other Things)

When I was growing up, I considered myself lucky to be surrounded by so many loving people. I like to think my fondness of romance, as well as my desire to become an erotica/romance writer, is a direct result of seeing so much love among friends, family, and all those close to me.

It wasn’t all smiles, chocolate, and gratuitous tongue-kissing. Every now and then, I encountered certain couples that stood in stark contrast to the love I saw so much of throughout my life. They weren’t abusive or hateful. In a sense, they were their own tragedy, albeit not of the Shakespearean variety.

Picture a couple that’s about as passionate as a sick cat. There’s no fire in their romance. If there was, it burned out years ago and neither one of them cares enough to spark it again. They don’t necessarily hate each other. At best, they tolerate one another on a day-to-day basis, resigned to the fact that this is their life.

What I just described is not the kind of relationship that ends up on Jerry Springer or leads to protracted divorce hearings. They’re rarely that dramatic. If anything, they’re the antithesis to drama. That’s why those involved are so miserable. In a relationship like that, a clogged toilet counts as an adventure.

These kinds of relationships are not as easy to notice, but they do happen. You might even know a few, but I’d bet a stack of old Playboys that there are more than you think. Instead of love, passion, and heart, these relationships are fueled misery, laziness, and failure. At some point, those involved just stop trying to escape it.

In a world where people get worked up over dipping sauces and dress colors, it seems outrageous that anyone could be that callous and numb. It’s even more outrageous to think that a relationship could be built around it. However, there are powerful, unsexy forces at work and they’re not to be taken lightly.

This brings me to the concept of learned helplessness. If you’ve every taken a psychology course, you know what it is and you probably have an idea as to how it acts as kryptonite to love, romance, and passion. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a fairly easy concept. According to Wikipedia, the phenomenon is defined as follows:

[A] behavior typical of a human or an animal and occurs where the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn or accept “escape” or “avoidance” in new situations where such behavior would likely be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli, has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying.

In terms of common behavioral traits, it’s somewhat bland. That doesn’t make it any less powerful, though. There is real, distressing science behind it, starting with experiments conducted in the 1960s. If you’re a dog lover, though, these experiments should be particularly disturbing.

If you’re also a fan of meaningful love, then you should be even more disturbed because it’s not hard to see how something like learned helplessness can creep into a relationship. For those trying to tell powerful, sexy stories, it’s important to know the signs.

The challenge, however, is that learned helplessness is one of those things that doesn’t happen all at once. Whether it’s those cruel experiments on dogs that I mentioned or continuous torture by the CIA, one painful experience is rarely enough. While love can manifest in a single moment, as is the case with “love at first sight,” learned helplessness takes a longer, more tedious road.

Sometimes it starts with boredom, a powerful feeling that I’ve discussed before. Sometimes it starts with frustration. Maybe a couple tries a few times to spice things up, but it doesn’t work. Maybe they try to shake up their routine, but that doesn’t work either. The key ingredient here is failure and frustrations, two experiences that tend to accumulate rapidly.

The couple involved may never get angry, resentful, or bitter to one another. Learned helplessness rarely inspires abuse or outright hatred. However, that’s part of what makes it so debilitating. When a relationship becomes abusive, one part of the relationship has a much stronger incentive to either escape or fight back. It’s hard to be lazy or apathetic when you feel like your well-being is at risk.

With learned helplessness, laziness and apathy are weaponized. That’s because without that incentive, neither side has the energy or desire to shake up the situation. Ending a relationship always requires some amount of upheaval, work, or effort. Someone under the influence of learned helplessness sees that as more trouble than it’s worth.

Beyond just rendering a relationship stale, the effects on your sex life can be just as debilitating. Once a couple gets to a point in their relationship where they’re just resigned to the fact that this is their normal, sex becomes less a treat and more a chore. Even if the orgasms still feel good, they’re barely distinguishable from masturbation.

That, by far, is the clearest sign that learned helplessness has consumed a relationship. As soon as sex becomes a chore, then it’s safe to say that two people have crossed the point of no return. They are beyond the point of rekindling whatever flame they once had. They just accept their misery and dispassion.

In defense of those poor souls, they don’t always have the luxury of ending that relationship and starting fresh. Sometimes, it’s because of their age. Sometimes, they’re in an environment where they don’t have anywhere else to go and few resources to work with. Then, there are times when the inconvenience just doesn’t justify the cost. It’s just easier to stay miserable than deal with the stress of rebuilding.

There’s little question that misery, depression, and boredom are bad for your love life, your sex drive, and everything in between. Learned helplessness is just the catalyst. Instead of blowing up in your face, love just whithers slowly like a piece of rotting fruit, getting emptier and deader with each passing day.

In some cases, it’s difficult to avoid. Some people just find themselves in relationships where they lose control and accept their misfortune. They’re content to just accept the misery and make the best of it, however fruitless it might be.

In others, you can take steps to avoid that kind of misery. Think back to those awful experiments involving dogs. After a while, the dog just stops trying to avoid the pain. The key to avoiding that kind of misery is to keep making an effort. Don’t stop trying. Do what you can to avoid mistakes. Moreover, do what you can to improve your situation, however possible.

That might mean pushing yourself when you don’t want to. It’s like exercising, which sometimes requires extra motivation. Within a relationship, it’s even more difficult because both you and your lover have to share in that motivation. You have to want to maintain that passion, even as you get older, have less energy, and feel less sexy.

In my experience, the most successful couples I know never truly stop dating each other. Even when they’ve been married for decades, they still carry themselves as a couple that’s still dating. They still go to interesting places, try new things, and explore new activities. Some aren’t always sexy, but they have the potential to be.

Every couple is different, but nobody benefits from learned helplessness. Whether you’re a dog, a dumb-ass, or a hopeless romantic, falling into that pit of apathy will never inspire your passion or increase your sex appeal. It’ll drain it, bit by bit.

Nobody deserves that. I certainly want to avoid that if and when I ever find a steady lover. I’m not a relationship expert or a therapist, nor should anybody assume I’m one, but I hope to help in whatever way I can. Whether it’s making people aware of learned helplessness or writing sexy novels, I intend to do my part.

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Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships, War on Boredom