Here’s why you should never take dating advice from romantic comedies

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Julia Roberts classic, My Best Friend’s Wedding. The film centres on the heroine’s obsession with sabotaging an engagement in order to snare the groom for herself and honour their years-old marriage pact. That could never happen in real life… right?

There are actually married couples out there who got together as the result of a similar pact. This Reddit thread reveals a whole host of different stories which begin with the same “if we’re both still single by 30/35/40, let’s get married” agreement — and it turns out, some of them are pretty damn happy. But let’s be real; that’s rare. What these pacts really say is; “I love you as a friend, but I’m holding out for something better, and you can be my last resort when I’m truly desperate.”

My Best Friend’s Wedding eventually sees sense and reaches a logical conclusion, with Julia Roberts’ character coming to the realisation that she isn’t in love with Dermot Mulroney, she just wants the kind of happiness he has with Cameron Diaz. Also, can I just point out, Roberts’ character Julianne is just turning 28 years old in the film? This, we are told, is the age when you should stop dating new people, give up on finding love, and fall back on your high school bestie. Not to mention that Julianne is a successful food writer! She is a total catch, and yet the narrative frames her as sad and a little bit crazy just because she happens to be single at the ripe old age of 28. (Sorry if I, a 29 year old writer, am taking this personally.)

These “if we’re still single” arrangements, often made in jest, show how many of us have the tendency to follow ludicrous romantic comedy clichés in our own love lives. But that’s the thing about rom-coms; they comprise of incredibly specific, high-concept situations, played for laughs. They’re not meant to be taken literally. But even so, they do send out all kinds of confusing messages:

A grand, public gesture makes up for all kinds of terrible behaviour

Maybe he was only dating you as part of an elaborate bet (She’s All That). Or maybe she was only going out with you to gather material for a magazine article (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days), or because your parents hired her to get you out of the house (Failure To Launch). Doesn’t matter! A declaration of your feelings, the more embarrassingly public the better, will absolve you of any responsibility for your actions. Or so the movies would have you believe. In reality, if your relationship is built on lies and pretence, it’s doomed.

Only sleep with one person — your future spouse

Rom-coms are packaged as modern day fairytales, and they carry a similarly medieval message when it comes to sex. Just look at Mandy Moore in Because I Say So; she’s a liberated woman and has a lot of fun casually dating two men at the same time, but is made to feel awful about sleeping with them. Similarly, Anna Farris’ character in What’s Your Number begins to panic that her “body count” is too high. This is nonsense! Maybe you sleep with someone on a first date, maybe you don’t — it is entirely up to you, and nobody should judge you for it. 

If all you do is fight with someone, they’re probably your soulmate

This trope is everywhere in romantic comedies; the pair who get off to a bad start, and spend the majority of their screen-time trading insults, before realising just in time that they are actually in love. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s zinger-filled back-and-forth in You’ve Got Mail is a famous example, but you can find similar patterns in the classics. Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen are the archetypal dislike-at-first-sight couple (lovingly recreated in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

The origins of the bickering lovers go back even earlier; Beatrice and Benedick’s witty banter in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing set the benchmark for every romantic comedy that would follow. But while these tempestuous unions are entertaining to watch on the stage and screen, they’re hardly a healthy model on which to base a real and lasting relationship.