Why is “Settling” a Dirty Word in Romance?

While reading message boards online, I have happened upon a phrase that stuck with me. The reader said that she couldn’t stand to see how “Heroine X settles for Hero Y”. She expected her heroine to find love with another, and regarded her turning to the hero and her finding love with him as ‘settling’. I have come across this phrase more than once in comments various places, usually when a romance heroine has the choice between a very compelling love interest and one who is slighly less fascinating, often a beta hero. If you think about it, how often does the heroine choose the less compelling, but more stable, love interest? Very rarely! Why is the more rational choice of a life partner called ‘settling’ and frowned upon in romance?

If you look at real life, you will see many women who end up not with the guy who was the most captivating they ever dated, the one they loved with the greatest passion and self-abandon. Yet their marriage to a guy they met a couple of years later, a guy whom they love less tempestuously but possibly more deeply, is often more happy and fulfilling than the all-encompassing, but at the same time more stormy and painful love they experienced when they were younger. Is such a love ‘settling’? Is it worth less than an amour fou? And if we approve of more temperate love in real life, why does it incense so many readers when it occurs in a romance?

One may argue that in order to make the fantasy work, the romance heroine must tame the most unlikely male around. A man spoilt by riches or fame, a man who’s slept with hundreds of supermodels or accomplished courtesans, a man who treats the heroine with suspicion or disdain until the second to last page, may appear as the greater achievement, may make the happy ending more fantastic and hence more romantic. Sparks of passion fly, quarrels lead to making-up sex, and all this is so much more compelling than the mundane everyday lives(no matter how happy they tend to be overall) we aim to escape when we pick up a romance.

So far, so good. My problems start when the difficult male who is about to be transformed by his love for the heroine turns out to be so obnoxious that I have severe difficulties believing in the HEA. If the hero behaves like an utter jerk to the last, if he’s been insanely jealous, accusing her of being a whore throughout the book, or has spent years being notoriously promiscuous himself, I rather doubt their relationship will survive the first quarrel, her first flirtation with a colleague at work or his first encounter with a long-legged blonde out to land a CEO. So what if he’s given her the best sex she’s ever had, or if he’s her long-lost first love? Does she really want to live with the guy for the rest of her life? Do I wish it on her? No! I have read several romances which had me longing the heroine had chosen – settled for, if you must call it that – the nice neighbor with whom she’d been friends for years instead of Mr. Super-Controlling Multimillionaire. Because I could have believed her happy with the neighbor, but the jerk? Not.

A famous example for a heroine choosing the less romantic lead is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I have never liked Willoughby, as Jane Austen makes it abundantly clear he’s a selfish cad, albeit a charming one. But when I first read Sense & Sensibility, Marianne’s romance seemed too muted to me. It took a rereading some years later, and – I admit it openly – the appearance of the divine Mr. Alan Rickman in the role of Colonel Brandon on the screen to make me see that he is right for her, that his love for her is far deeper than Willoughby’s could ever be, and that Marianne has a far greater chance for happiness with Colonel Brandon. Is that settling? Possibly. But to me, it’s a very romantic story of a beautiful second love.

Do you like romances in which the heroine ends up with the less glamorous male lead? Do you sometimes like romances that are more muted than wildly passionate? How do you feel when the heroine chooses her partner both with her head and her heart? And how do you like Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon?

-Rike Horstmann

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26 Responses to “Why is “Settling” a Dirty Word in Romance?”

  1. Katie Mack says:

    Thank you for writing this post! This is exactly how I’ve been feeling. Whenever there is a love triangle type plot, I always find myself rooting for the beta hero. I too have trouble believing in the HEA’s that feature notorious womanizers turned good. It is quite rare that people change so much. I prefer those stories where the heroine uses both her head and heart to choose, because, let’s face it, in a few years that all-consuming passion will have faded. If the couple doesn’t have a deep love and respect for each other, not to mention friendship, their marriage will never last.

  2. Lynn Spencer says:

    I have to admit that I tend to root for beta heroes, too. I think it’s the quiet strength of many of them that gets me. There are some alphas out there that I like, but the betas seem more prone to the meltingly sweet (but not flashy) gestures that move me. Think the guy who does things for the heroine because he wants to make her happy as opposed to the guy who does things to show the world the heroine is HIS.

  3. LeeB. says:

    I LOVED Alan Rickman in the role of Colonel Brandon. The scene where he carries her in from the rain — now that was romantic and so touching!

    In fact, if I had been Elinor (Emma Thompson’s character), I would have gone after him instead of Hugh Grant’s Edward.

  4. Janet W says:

    The most delicious “non-settle” ever is Freddy of Cotillion — sometimes I wish I could lose my memory so that I could have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again. Alas. But dashing Cousin Jack was the ultimate young girl’s dream — can we say shades of Vidal anyone — but it was Freddy. Wonderful Freddy, who turned out to be the love of Kit’s life. For all the right reasons.

    Who can forget the gentleman in The Grand Sophy who got the MUMPS, only to lose the girl to the poet — but thankfully, not for long. Sometimes you want someone who can get a carriage to stop in a rainstorm.

    All books by the Divine Heyer.

  5. Marcella says:

    LeeB, my thoughts exactly. That voice alone! He could read from the phonebook and I could listen for hours.

  6. Trish says:

    After reading the book and watching the various adaptations of it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Colonel Brandon actually was a true match for Marianne. He’s kind of Willoughby grown up and less selfish – at least the parts of Willoughby that Marianne thought she knew and admired. He’s a hopeless romantic, has a poetic soul and loved just as passionately as Marianne would have wanted. His steadfast devotion to his first love and then her daughter is everything Marianne would admire had she known. She saw him as a stodgy old guy compared to Willoughby when he really was just a man tempered by experience and a more contemplative nature.

    I loved Alan Rickman as Brandon and I loved Emma Thompson’s screenplay. It had more wit and life to it than Ms Austen’s original for my money (S&S is one of my least favorite Austen books).

  7. Anna Lee Huber says:

    I’m certain I’m in the minority here, but I happen to prefer David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon in the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre 2008 release. I think it has something to do with Alan Rickman’s role in Die Hard. I can’t help but always think of his Hans Gruber character.

    I also like Dan Stevens portrayal of Edward. I found his chemistry with Elinor more believable.

    I think Trish’s comments are spot on in her assessment of Brandon and Marianne, and I think Brandon is a wonderful, and unfortunately rarely portrayed, hero.

  8. Susan/DC says:

    I actually love beta heroes and have read a number of books where I thought the heroine should have chosen the “other” man. However, the only romance I can remember where I think it is the hero who settles is Heyer’s “A Civil Contract”. Some people love this book because they feel it is a classic fairy tale where the plain girl gets the hero; they think it represents hope for all us ordinary people out there. I’d agree except for the fact that I don’t find Jenny at all interesting. She makes Adam’s life comfortable, but that is all that I remember about her. Her father, with his financial acumen and love of fine Chinese porcelain, seemed a far more interesting character. I don’t need a heroine (or hero) to be the smartest, kindest, most astoundingly gorgeous person ever, but I’ve got to get a sense of why the hero loves her and not someone else, and from my POV Jenny just faded into the woodwork. Of course, YMMV.

  9. HazelB says:

    Thank you, Rike, for saying what I often think. People just don’t change that much–not even for “true love.” The old saying “Reformed rakes make the best husbands” just doesn’t ring true, even though it is a romance cliche. The beta heroes are likely to make better life partners.

  10. AAR Rachel says:

    I always thought Colonel Brandon deserved better. Marianne is a flake. Love Alan Rickman! As Hans Gruber and everything else.

  11. Karen says:

    When I’m reading a romance, i’m looking for the hero who has the best connection to the hero – not a sexual connection, but the one who connections on an emotional level. Do they have long conversations where they just “get” each other? Do they share things that no one else understands? That means more to me than the lust connection that seems to be the focus in so many books. I’m always reluctant to pick up a love triangle book, because usually the heroine ends up with the hot, lusty guy, and I just don’t get the attraction.

    By the way, if you want to see Alan Rickman in a straight-up romantic part, try Truly Madly Deeply, which came out in th early 1990′s. It’s a bit of a tear jerker, but oh so romantic.

  12. LeeB. says:

    Karen: I remember watching Truly Madly Deeply and bawling my eyes out. That was a good movie!

  13. misty says:

    I think I have a different view of what settling is. Settling, to me, is when you’re in love with someone, but for whatever reason they aren’t available, so you start a relationship with someone else, even though you’re still in love with the other person. It’s fine to start out “settling”, but I would have to see that the heroine’s feelings have changed, otherwise I would not like that in a romance, at all.

    If the heroine can choose between two love interests, and goes with the beta, that’s a type of settling that I like. Beta heroes often seem to have a sense of fun and easiness about them that is so appealing. It’s so much better to have someone in your life that makes you laugh rather than cry.

  14. CindyS says:

    I love Alan Rickman in every thing – and Lee, I cried buckets watching Truly Madly Deeply also. Have you see Quigley Down Under? Awesome historical romance with AR playing the villian yet again!

    I don’t know that I’ve read a romance where I thought the heroine was settling. I did read one where the heroine ended up with the hero but I thought she should have been with the guy she met halfway through the book because he was kinder and gentler – turns out in the epilogue the hero and heroine have many happy years together but he dies youngish and she marries the second guy. Nothing like having your cake and eating it too!

    I know I loved it when Marianne figured out that the Colonel was the one. To me, he was always the right choice.

    CindyS

  15. June says:

    I’m reminded of Victoria from Once and Always. Her childhood friend, Andrew I think, comes to England to marry her and take her back home to America, but she’s already married Jason, an over-the-top alpha male. Andrew is a nice guy, devoted and faithful. There is lovely scene when he describes to Victoria his future wife. I’ve always hoped he might get his own book. If Victoria had settled for Andrew I’m sure she would have been very happy.

  16. Heather says:

    Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon. Drool. Alan Rickman as Snape. Drool. Alan Rickman. Drool.

    Sorry, back to the original question. I like beta heroes. I like tortured beta heroes even better. So there is no question of ‘settling’ if the heroine gives up the alpha male for the nicer guy!

  17. Rike says:

    Misty, I agree with you here: The marriage of convenience plot, where the heroine (or the hero, come to think of that) enters a relationship while she is still in love with someone else, has to take place at the beginning of a romance, and IMO works best in historicals, when marriage is the only real career option around for a girl.

    Another situation I hate is when the heroine (again, or the hero) waits for the one passionate love and neglects to keep her eyes open for the nice guy(s) she already knows. This setup makes me wish to slap her. Love comes in so many guises that I hate it when an author reinforces the concept that you must feel this all-encompassing passion, or else it’s ‘settling’.

    Heather, I love tortured beta heroes, too, just as much as the light-hearted ones who make the heroine laught. Yea for beta heroes!

  18. Rike says:

    Heather, I just reread your comment and suddenly the idea hit me that of course Snape is the ultimate suffering, tortured beta hero, who in fact loses the girl to a shining and self-confident alpha hero. It’s just that James isn’t quite perfect after all, which actually made me like him better in the books, because first Harry’s (and Sirius’s) hero-worship of James quite went on my nerves. I wonder how they will do the scenes with the parent generation in the next HP movie! Getting back to Snape: I had an inkling of his feelings in vol. 5, but I was still overwhelmed when I found out the whole truth about the past in vol. 7. Had to get out some hankies!

  19. Dj says:

    I guess I didn’t see Colonel Brandon as a beta hero at all. He seemed mature, with many responsibilities, and a strong sense of honor, as well as a romantic soul.

    He was ready to leap into action and help his love, even when she didn’t yet love him.

    It didn’t seem like settling when she fell for him, more like she was finally seeing him and Willoughby for what they truly were.

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  21. Tahyun says:

    I have never seen this movie. But now, I think I must.

    I have to admit, I wholeheartedly agree with you. It IS hard to believe that a man can change so suddenly and actually stay changed like that, isn’t it? I mean, I will be the first to admit that I am downright cynical about these things, but I always feel a little… well, put off when that happens, even if there isn’t a second choice available. For me, rather than create a great fantasy and leave me dreaming, it shatters the illusion completely. I often lose faith in the story after that.

    So I suppose I would say, I would rather a heroine “settle” than strive for the impossible and (after the books ends, naturally) inevitably fail (which is what my Inner-Mind-Theatre shows happening in the afterword).

    Thank you very much for your insight. :)

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