We must be done with Harlequin or Mills & Boon romance notions of love

I (Jeff) have never read a romance novel, but I have watched a few movies of that genre — the Jane Austen type I suppose. Austen’s novels are way better than the pulp romance novels because she exposes more than one wicked character: she depicts how people can get duped by the wicked, and how they can resist the tactics of the wicked.

I’m talking here in this post not about novels by authors like Jane Austen (Barb says there is no author as good as Jane Austen, though Charlotte and Anne Bronte come close) but about the kind of novel which comes from imprints like Harlequin or Mills & Boon, or the “princess” stuff written for girls. Formulaic page-turners that are really just pulp.

We must never take romance novel ideas into the realm of abuse. You know the notions I am thinking of —

  • “He changed and they all lived happily ever after.”
  • “In the end, all of her friends awakened to the truth.”
  • “The moment she saw him, she was smitten and taken by his spell.”

Once again, you all can probably do a better job than me adding to this list, but you get the point.

Why did this subject come to my mind today? Because recently I was speaking with a smart, talented, really nice gal who has been targeted more than once by abusers. She is just coming out of the fog and growing wiser and wiser as to the reality and nature of abuse. Her worst enemy has been her “nice” parents and being brought up in a typical “nice” church, receiving really no true wisdom and instruction about evil, evildoers, the typical tactics of evil, and so on. The nicer and kinder and friendlier such a person is — well, as many of you have told me — your Christianity set you up to be the mouse in a room of cats.

And one of the recurring and in some ways most traumatic things that has happened to her, like so many victims, is the “counsel” and “love” she has received from her, you guessed it, family, friends, and fellow church members. The one that was fired at her recently was this:

Oh, Jane, please just go back to him. I talked with him at length and he really loves you. I just know that he has a soft spot in his heart for you.

See it? Just what does “a soft spot in his heart” mean, anyway? The thing is meaningless. It is common, but it is empty romanticism. It totally ignores all of the abuser’s actions (wicked deeds of abuse carried out over years) and gives him a total pass because he has this “soft spot” in his heart for the victim.

Somebody has a soft spot alright. A soft spot in the head!

Think of it. A soft spot in the abuser’s heart is an admission that the rest of his heart is as evil and hard as stone! So he habitually has carried out all this evil abuse — but there is this one little spot, way, way, way back there in the depths where you can’t hardly ever see it, that loves the victim. Have you ever heard such nonsense in Scripture? Of course not. A human being either has a heart of stone or a heart of flesh. Not a mixture.

Actually, Scripture does talk about this….and it shows that”‘soft spot” in the abuser for what it really is: just another abusive tactic the abuser employs to wheedle his victim back into his web and to manipulate the victim’s family and friends to wheedle her back on his behalf.

(Judges 19:1-3  CSB)  In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a Levite staying in a remote part of the hill country of Ephraim acquired a woman from Bethlehem in Judah as his concubine. But she was unfaithful to1 him and left him for her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah. She was there for four months. Then her husband got up and followed her to speak kindly to her2 and bring her back. He had his servant with him and a pair of donkeys. So she brought him to her father’s house, and when the girl’s father saw him, he gladly welcomed him.
1 LXX and Old Latin: was angry with him
2 literally, speak to her heart  [Emphasis added.]

That wicked Levite ended up doing the most bloodthirsty wicked act of male violence against woman that is described in the whole Bible. And he then manipulated eleven tribes Israel into carrying out even more bloodshed, and more violence against women. Could such a man possibly have spoken with true kindness to his female partner? Could he have had a soft spot in his heart? No. He was designedly and skilfully destructive every step of that story, it’s just that his destructiveness was mostly covert. In fact, we can’t even really say he had a soft spot in his brain. His brain was as sharp as knife in carrying out every choice he made in that narrative.

His speech was smoother than butter,
But his heart was war;
His words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords.  (Psalm 55:21)

So when some soft-headed romantic comes along, giving counsel and instruction on a topic they know nothing of, and pull this “he has a soft spot in his heart for you” business, let me translate for you what that person really is telling you:

Yes, I know, he has done some horrible things. He demeans you in front of people. He likes to destroy the things you love. He humiliates you sexually. He isolates you economically and socially. But because he has this thing, this soft spot in his heart, you are bound and obligated to ignore everything else he has done to you and run back into his arms while the orchestra plays and the screen shot of “The End” comes up.

You see, we all need to start calling people on the carpet when they pull this on us. They need to be confronted with the fact that what they are saying is worse than meaningless and that in fact their real motive is to prevent their own world from being shaken. Pastors don’t want their record of “no divorces in this church” broken. Some parents would rather see their own child stay married to a wicked spouse just so the Christmas holidays aren’t ruined. And they all need to be brought face-to-face with their selfish motives.

Watch or read romance novels if you will. Barb heard of one woman in a very demanding job whose work involved helping victims of domestic abuse. She said she read Mills & Boon every night to switch off and get to sleep. But never, never, never bring fiction into real life. Fiction gets people killed, deceives, and enslaves.

[March 24, 2023: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to March 24, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to March 24, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to March 24, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (March 24, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

The Levite’s Concubine — A YouTube presentation by Barbara Roberts.

Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

Emotional Abuse, the movie “Tangled”, and a Revealing Comment

When we want to see good in everyone — a lesson from Pride and Prejudice


UPDATE  Sept 2021:  Barbara Roberts has come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches.  He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.

24 thoughts on “We must be done with Harlequin or Mills & Boon romance notions of love”

  1. Jane Austen writes brilliant and witty social commentary. Harlequins are crap. (You can edit this word out if you want.)

    Harlequins (at least the early ones) got a pass for being “clean” because there was no sex before marriage. But the standard plot was that it was “okay” and “normal” for the man to be domineering (power and control), but he could be changed by the heroine’s love and chaste behavior. And to make it even worse, the reason for his control was because he couldn’t help himself out of “love” for her. How many women were brainwashed over the years into thinking abuse is normal by “nice” romances?

  2. There is an entire genre of “two strangers had to get married” (generally for stupid reasons), “didn’t like each other at first, but then it all changed” too.

    Funny you mention the Brontes, because when people talk about women in missions, particularly overseas, I always think of Jane Eyre and how she wanted to go be a missionary but wasn’t allowed to go unless she married that guy.

  3. Excellent. I think what we are missing in the church is discernment all around. I preached on God-talk a few weeks back, about how often professing Christians simply use meaningless church-talk with each other. They don’t intend to convey truth, but to manipulate people into doing what they want them to do. You hit the nail on the head. This is just the same thing with relationships.

    1. God-talk. Oh man, I hate that stuff. Now when I come across someone pulling this I am immediately on guard and assume that the probability is that I am dealing with a phony trying to manipulate me. “Oh stop it! Get real and knock it off!” I am practicing responses like this to use.

  4. Yes. The whole thing about the nice, kind, friendly woman whose nice parents and nice upbringing were but a trap — a calling card to all abusers, predators, criminals, and corrupt, depraved characters.

    Then the advice that follows as to how if you look to see the good in people, you’ll find it. Sure, I bet Bernie Madoff [Internet Archive link]1 made a financial contribution to some charity or another at least once along the way….but taking out a magnifying glass and looking as hard as can be to see something redeemable and all in someone otherwise thought to be wholly wicked….Nonsense!

    Then, what’s worse is when the nice, kind, friendly woman dares to speak of the evil and its damaging effects, she’s told that she is wanting to focus on the negative, bitter, or worse yet, thinking everyone is evil, that all people are bad….

    What crap! Even Scripture tells us that the road to destruction is wide and well-traveled which means the vast number of people in this world are going to hell. So these, “think positive thoughts”, “don’t dare speak of evil” — as though evil and wickedness, being properly called such, is profane — “as I will have none of this foul talk” insane beliefs are not only NOT based in God’s Word, but wholly dangerous. Then the nice, kind, friendly woman, who is chewed up, brutalized, violated, desecrated, victimized, defiled, and pulverized ends up being written off as though she is but a bitter woman who needs to be more polite when interacting with others (regardless of how abusive, wicked, and predatorily they treat her) as they will not have their daughter not being “nice”, polite, and appreciative!

    Just saying, that is….

    1[March 28, 2023: We added the link to Wikipedia’s page on Bernie Madoff. The Internet Archive link is a copy of that page. Editors.]

    1. This is exactly how my biological mother is treating me as I am divorcing my abuser. He has snowed her, and she’s sided with him, convinced he “loves me” and would “do anything” to get our marriage back. Of course, I’m never going back, but despite the fact that I have recordings on my phone of his verbal bashings of me (and she has heard them) she is convinced he’s a good man, and that I am the one at fault, because I refuse to try harder to make it work. I DID try. But there is breaking point.

      My mother is so disappointed in me because it’s not my first failed marriage. Yet, every marriage I have had has been abusive. Because I’ve always been taught to be “nice”, I have drawn the abusers in like flies to honey. It’s been a vicious cycle over the past 12 years. And I am so guilty of trying to “see the good” in all people. I think this is in part why I have always ended up with abusers — I have the “fixer” mentality, and feel like if only I love someone enough, they’ll change and become a decent person. I was wrong. Some people are evil and rotten to the core, and there is no changing that.


    I used to read romance novels, but I didn’t read them for the romance or the sex that was written in them.

    Decades ago — before the internet when books were our only option — a good friend of mine collected many different series of books that were technically romance novels. We would spend hours reading together, she was a GREAT friend and a genuinely beautifully-hearted person and it seems funny to me now that we would spend the entire weekend reading, but still be in each others company. She introduced me to these many different series of books and I really enjoyed them.

    During the earlier parts of my marriage when I realized I couldn’t spare the time or money to go to college (my husband made sure to keep me pregnant and poor) my brain was STARVING for some kind of “meat” to read. I had always been a voracious reader….I needed to read like I needed to eat….so my husband would “thoughtfully” buy me romance novels. It’s so disgusting now to look back on it….these books were garbage but he seemed so thoughtful, he fed me garbage and I was too well-groomed to think he had any ill motives. (I found out later he thought I only read them for the sex.)

    When I finally went back to college in my forties, I decided to start out by taking classes that I WANTED to take versus my previous classes that were all prerequisites. This was God showing me my heart and mind — I realized this later because to even CONSIDER what I liked or wanted was completely foreign to me. What did I choose? HISTORY CLASSES. And God revealed to me that what I actually hungered for when reading “romance” novels, was the history that came with it. I NEVER read the sexual parts because they offended me as I’ve always disliked sex and the authors of the series of books my friend had were all based on historical truth. (I would then look up the different dates and times and check the facts — this was back in the olden days when a person had to go to the library — and it actually got me to look more in-depth at history.) (Authors like Victoria Holt — who had several aliases — and other American authors whose stories were historically based.)

    So thank you, Jeff and Barb, for yet ANOTHER thought provoking post! I so needed to read this!

    1. I went through a phase where I read a lot of “Regencies” [Regency Romance [Internet Archive link]1] and I know part of it is that I like history and historical time periods. I’m glad you’ve found something you’re passionate about! I tended to speed read / skip the “sexy” parts (mostly because they weren’t really part of the story, just fluff to me). There are some very good writers writing good stories and mysteries with the “romance” parts thrown in for marketing, imo (but some of them are just terrible and I never read Harlequin’s).

      1[March 28, 2023: We added the link to Wikipedia’s page on Regency Romance novels. The Internet Archive link is a copy of that page. Editors.]

  6. In my experience, this stereotype of romance novels is most true of the “clean” romance. The “cleaner” it is, the more likely it is to glamorize abuse, and rarely in the blatant role-play fantasy or satire that you can find in some sections of the genre that aren’t “clean” (and, frankly, can’t be, by CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] standards, for various reasons).

    The outright worst examples I’ve read of modern fiction that excuse abusive behavior have been “Christian” or “teen” fiction. There is something very wrong about that.

    If you look at romances that don’t care about the “clean” label, it’s pretty easy to find authors who point out the duplicity of wickedness and the damage it causes. (Case in point: Courtney Milan, originally published by Harlequin….and now self-published, because the money’s better. Most quality romance authors seem to be self-publishing, now.)

    A lot of those authors include disclaimers or even outright in-story “lampshading” [a writing term] “dude, this is abusive”. Some particular branches are based around illustrating “So you love this type and wanna stay with him? Here’s your body bag.” Some even point out how misapplication of fantasy romance in real life is presumptive at best, and potentially dangerous. (This is part of why folks protest the “Fifty Shades” series being labeled “BDSM” — they say it’s not really a fair representation of the community or the genre. I’ve not read it, myself.)

    When readers misread or misapply such illustrations, it’s not exactly the author’s fault….but some do misapply it. :-/ Maybe they don’t pay attention, or don’t know how to read social cues or sarcasm, or accept what they’ve been told at face value, or seek the books that imitate what they’ve seen in life. So if a character calls something a sign of love, they cling to that interpretation even if the book itself is making the point that it isn’t.

    For some people, the romance genre is the main place they can find examples that differ from the abuse and disrespect that surrounds them. The examples often aren’t Christian, but they can still be beautiful illustrations of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (It can also open awareness of “Wait, some people call this “abuse”?” and get a person thinking.) When I asked to be treated politely, not ordered about and yelled at, I was accused of reading too many romance novels. (That was one reason why I initially sat down and read enough to form an informed opinion on them.)

    Even the arranged marriage premise can be applied in a good way. Arranged marriages have happened and still do in some of the world, and the emotional premise tends to be along the lines of “If both parties are willing to work at it, the marriage can work” — with the prerequisite that BOTH parties must be willing.

    But seeing those examples does often require a person to at least read “steamy” / “spicy” romance (which is distinct from erotic romance, which is distinct from erotica (which isn’t romance)). I don’t experience lust or any desire in that sense whatsoever, so I can only intellectually understand how or why steamy or erotic books cause conflicts of conscience for some folks, but I assume that’s why the generalizations continue to be applied to the entire genre.

    Ultimately, misapplication of fiction to reality (regardless the source of that fiction) seems to derive from a desire to insist particular motives or emotions must necessarily apply to particular actions, or that particular motives or emotions cannot apply. (All the pre-suppositions about how X “must” Y, like “He’s your husband, so he must love you” or “She’s your mother, so she only wants what’s best for you.”) That insistence precludes discernment, and it strikes me as a consequence of idolizing the ideals of the relationship….but might not that idolization derive from a lack of discernment? It’s such a chicken and egg. :/

    1. I loved you bringing in Courtney Milan (I’ve read a couple of her books) and pointing out reading [about] healthy relationships takes finding the “best” writers — sometimes self-published, and often non-Christian romance. This conversation about abuse is one the secular romance-writing community has had / is having, and it shows.

      Catherine Anderson is a romance writer who seems to have purposefully taken on abuse as a driving theme: half or more of her books seem to be about a woman with abuse in her past (affecting the present), and the topic appears to be handled well — it carries real weight as opposed to simply being a plot device (the way some other writers use it).

      Ultimately I agree with the conclusion about applying discernment, and / but I’ve also been “lucky” (or diligent in my choosing?) to find stories that support the happy reality of couples who will work together for a happy ending. These stories are myriad, but….maybe only if you’re comfortable skimming / skipping / ignoring certain elements?

      1. Hi, Amy, I changed your screen name to Amy#2 as a precaution for your safety. Welcome to the blog. 🙂

        We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

        If you want us to change your screen name to something else, just email The woman behind the curtain: twbtc.acfj@gmail.com — she will be happy to assist. 🙂

  7. Why do we have such a hard time discerning between an evil heart and an ordinary sinner who messes up, who isn’t perfect, and full of weakness and sin? Many don’t “see” EVIL because they don’t want to — to SEE it is to admit it DOES exist. Those of us whose lives have been forever altered KNOW evil exists!

    It was hard for me to admit being deceived by a “husband” with no conscience, an abuser carrying on in life with NO remorse, spinning outrageous lies and slander to destroy my reputation, and all the while acting spiritual and playing “Mr. Christianity” yet without any fear of God.

    Scripture IS clear: Among God’s people there are wolves that wear sheep’s clothing. Every human heart is inclined toward sin. But ordinary sinners do NOT indulge in and practice evil and we feel ashamed and guilty when we do have sinful and wicked thoughts. Not so with the evil heart.

    Recently I read this by Leslie Vernick, speaking about the EVIL heart:

    1) Evil hearts are experts at creating confusion and contention. They twist the facts, mislead, lie, avoid taking responsibility, deny reality, make up stories, and withhold information….

    2) Evil hearts are experts at fooling others with their smooth speech and flattering words. But if you look at the fruit of their lives or the follow through of their words, you will find no real evidence of godly growth or change. It’s all smoke and mirrors….

    3) Evil hearts crave and demand control and their highest authority is their own self-reference. They reject feedback, real accountability and make up their own rules to live by. They use Scripture to their own advantage but ignore and reject passages that might require self-correction and repentance….

    4) Evil hearts play on the sympathies of good-willed people, often trumping the grace card. They demand mercy but give none themselves. They demand warmth, forgiveness, and intimacy from those they have harmed with no empathy for the pain they have caused and no real intention of making amends or working hard to rebuild broken trust.

    5) Evil hearts have no conscience, no remorse. They do not struggle against sin or evil, they delight in it, all the while masquerading as someone of noble character.
    [Emphasis original, Source [Internet Archive link]1.]

    So there you have it — call EVIL what it IS. And to all those DO-NOTHING people who refuse to face reality, the reality God warns of, YOU choose to become prey for the predator. And what’s worse, you become a dangerous person as you toss about your “wisdom” that this evil heart has a “SOFT SPOT”. Sadly, whether or not you believe this, does not make it any less true. YOU are nothing more than a pawn in the hands of the evildoer.

    1[March 28, 2023: We added the link to a page containing the quote Anonymous quoted from Leslie Vernick’s post Five Indicators Of A Evil Heart. The Internet Archive link is a copy of that page. Editors.

  8. Austen fan here too! But Dickens, Gaskell, C.S. Lewis et al are also very good at describing the human nature, and the cruelty and evil that drives some people.

    I hardly ever read novels today — only the classics if I do, and all the modern day trash novels are genuinely boring, to be honest. What women seem to long for, is a man who takes initiative and who has this sense of adventure. Of course, combined with a sense of entitlement, it leads to abusive and arrogant behavior…. Most of the romance novel heroes are absolute and complete jerks and megalomaniacs.

  9. I, too, am an avid reader (and LOVE Jane Austen!).

    In keeping with this topic, I do regularly read fiction novels published by Christian publishing houses (as well as a variety of non-fiction). Many of these fiction novels also have a romantic element to them. Now, as I’ve learned more about the nature of abuse, I have seen more toxic threads creeping up in these novels (or at least become more aware of them). For instance, in one book, the “hero” readily admits that he just doesn’t take “no” for an answer. From anyone. Ever. (Even the heroine.) He brags that people eventually do whatever he wants them to do. And then he actually breaks into the heroine’s house to compel her to accept an outrageous gift. (Can we say, “Criminal trespassing?” “Breaking and entering?” Maybe even “stalking?”) All of this is portrayed as devastatingly sweet and romantic. (Again, let me reiterate that this is a book published by a well-known Christian publishing house.)

    It strikes me that perhaps so much of what’s out there (as far as romance-type writing) is actually an appeal to the descriptive curse found in Genesis 3:16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” I’m not trying to speak in generalities, but perhaps it’s fair to at least consider this.

    In any case, it’s wise to keep those discernment antennae on alert and read everything “romantic” through the lens of awareness. (This could also apply to movies, TV shows, etc.)

    1. Hi, Keeningforthedawn, if you review that novel on Amazon and point out the dangerous ideas it conveys, email us and give us the Permalink to your review. We will then publicise it here, like we do with Avid Reader’s reviews. 🙂

    2. Wow. Some of the worst heresies come out from “Christian” publishing houses…. There seems to be an appetite for this kind of “romance”, an overbearing dominant male not being able to respect a “NO” and unable to have any humility.

      It strikes me odd that books written several centuries ago (in a world where women had fewer rights than today) actually had more accurate portrayals of men and their character weaknesses. Egoism was not seen as a positive trait (Austen et al….) in man OR in a woman. Humility and other virtues were the mark of a “real man”.

      How is it that romance writers and readers today find foolishness attractive, I cannot see the light here….

  10. My sister writes Christian romance and I warned her about this….don’t create an abusive character and then have him miraculously change and become wonderfully kind and considerate in order to have a happy ending. That is not real life and it’s a dangerous view to promote.

  11. You see, we all need to start calling people on the carpet when they pull this on us….And they all need to be brought face-to-face with their selfish motives.

    I had a cousin who was just pre-teens when I was in mid-primary / grade school and that cousin acted really creepy with me. I felt sexually harassed by him. I told my cousin, his sister and mother, but they just got upset with me and dismissed it. I later told my mother and she empathized, but as far as I know she didn’t want to say anything to her sibling (the parent of the harassing cousin). I think my mother knows she’s wrong to be too afraid to ever rock the boat with her family in a foreign country. This cousin of mine has two daughters. They still live in that foreign country. He molested my sister.

  12. Barb and Jeff, thank you so much for posting this!

    I’m not a professional writer, but I’m current working on a novel. It is mainly for my kids to read when they get older, although I may try to publish it some day.

    The genre is fantasy / fairy tale. It is an adventure / war story but also has a lot of romance in it. Part of my reason for writing it is to do a critique / satire of the “Christian” patriarchy movement. The story compares and contrasts two different imaginary cultures, one of which is very patriarchal and the other fairly egalitarian, perhaps even matriarchal. And yet at times, I find patriarchal ideas creeping into my writing, just because I have been so brainwashed.

    I will take you words as a warning, and try to be even more careful about what I am conveying in my story.

    1. Hi, The Wary Witness,

      Welcome to the blog!

      We like to encourage new commenters to read our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for staying safe when commenting on the blog.

      Again, welcome and thank you for your encouragement!

Leave a comment. It's ok to use a made up name (e.g Anon37). For safety tips read 'New Users Info' (top menu). Tick the box if you want to be notified of new comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.