Is reading romance novels good for your heart--and marriage?

I’ve been a lifelong reader. I love the story that taps into my imagination and makes me think new thoughts. I love trying to figure things out before the author reveals what has happened.

However, not all my reading has been good for my heart. In this post, I wrote about my relationship with romance novels. As I’ve been going through some boxes and shelves in preparation for a move, I’ve come face-to-face with tangible reminders of all the time and money I’ve put into reading these books—and with the ways my heart and marriage were shaped by my reading.

Reading into Romance

I began reading them in my early teens, starting with “light” romance. There was some sexual tension in the books, but nothing ever happened below the waist and the most explicit it got was maybe an exposed breast. Heavy on the romance and barely hinting at the sex, I read these voraciously throughout my teens.

I gradually progressed to the kind of book known as cheap trashy romance novels, or bodice rippers. These books included depictions of sex that were both graphic and emotional. The male characters were everything I wanted in a man: strong, deeply attached to the heart of the heroine, and demonstrating in multiple ways that he cherished her and could protect her. The heroine was everything I wished I could be: beautiful inside and out, pure, and so very lovable.

After I married, I stopped reading these books for a while. It wasn’t intentional, and I didn’t even notice it for a long while. Then, I began to read these books again, not realizing at the time that this happened at the same time as our marriage began to hit hiccups and hurdles. It was so nice to escape to the wonderful relationship in the book that didn’t involve petty arguments, constant insensitive requests for sex, or laundry.

Some of my favorite authors wrote series, and these added another layer. Each book would focus on the development of a romantic and sexual relationship of the hero and heroine. Meanwhile, in the background of the story would be couples from earlier books in the series. It showed that they still had all these characteristics and that even settled into married life, their relationship was wonderful.

Bad for My Heart

While these books didn’t sow discontent, they certainly encouraged my existing discontent to flourish. The men were everything my husband wasn’t—and that I yearned for him to be. The women were how I wanted my husband to see me.

The books would arouse me. Sometimes after reading a steamy scene late at night, I would initiate sex with my husband, all the while imagining that maybe someday he would become the man I wanted. Frequently, though, I took matters into my own hands. It was easier to just take care of the physical need than to put myself in a position of becoming emotionally vulnerable again.

Reading these books was socially acceptable—yet somehow, reading them made me feel broken. I always felt like I’d done something wrong that my life wasn’t like the lives depicted in the books. And I was bothered by the disconnect between my clear interest in a vibrant sex life and the drab life of my real-life marriage bed.

A year or so before I began my efforts to make changes in sexual intimacy, I was on a plane. I’d packed my current romance novel into my carry-on bag. As I reached into the bag to pull it out, I noticed that a man a few rows ahead of me was reading an adult magazine. I thought, “Oh, that’s just icky. Even if no one else sees the pictures, he is going to be sitting there feeling all aroused and thinking about sex around other people. Just gross.”

I looked at the book in my hand, and in one of those “God smacked me between the eyes” moments, I realized that the man looking at the magazine with naked women was no different than my reading this book in the presence of others.

The sexy romance novel was my version of porn.

I pulled out my crossword puzzle book instead.

About a year into my sexual transformation, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read one of my favorite authors. I pulled out one of her books and began reading. I skipped over the sex scenes—partly because I wasn’t particularly interested in them (frequent sex had taken away that voyeuristic interest) and partly because I thought that if I skipped the sex scenes, it would be a little less like reading porn (sort of like a guy who really does look at a magazine “just for the articles”). Yet l got to the end of the book feeling a bit more discontented than usual. The emotional connection portrayed in the book affected me just as much as the sexual connection.

By the time 50 Shades of Grey was released, I had an instinctive understanding that it would not be emotionally healthy for me to read. I had friends who talked about reading it and then going to jump their husbands. I read innumerable accounts of women who said their sex drives had been rekindled by reading these books. I saw bondage items crop up in stores everywhere and wondered if the women buying these items would have been interested in them the year before. The term “mommy porn” seemed quite apt.

I thought about how glad I was that my marriage was in a place that kept me from wanting what I suspected the book might have offered me: a renewal of discontent with my husband and our marriage, sexual arousal created by fiction rather than by my husband and my desire for him, and a desire for specific sexual activity in hopes that it would give me what I’d been convinced I should want.

Shades of Romance Reading

Last year, I read Pulling Back the Shades (affiliate link), by Dr. Juli Slattery and Dannah K. Gresh. I was stunned. The book grabbed at me in the first chapter, as the authors identified five longings in women’s hearts that can leave them ripe for the temptations of erotica and porn:

  • Escape from reality
  • Being cherished by a man
  • Being protected by a strong man
  • Rescuing a man
  • Feeling sexually alive

These are exactly the things that I had loved so much about all the books I’d read—and they were longings that had begun to be filled as I became happier in my marriage.

Next month, the 50 Shades of Grey movie will be released. I am part of a team (a big, big team) helping promote Pulling Back the Shades in response to the movie’s release. I will be sharing posts on my social media sites related to this book team, so you’ll see a lot of that.

I will also be writing more about my struggles with romantic and sexual writing and how those struggles have shaped my marriage. (Click here for Are Romance Novels Okay for Christian Women?)

Facebook Cover Photo- I'm on the book team for (1)

Image Credit Authentic Intimacy


We understand that a man who began viewing porn as a young teen often faces lifelong battle with sexual views and expectations shaped by porn.

My experience suggests that a woman who began reading romance novels as a young teen can face a lifelong battle with relationship expectations shaped by that reading.

Oh, how I wish I could tell you the struggles are over—but I can’t. There are times I still want to seek out the escape from reality to a world with a perfect husband and sex life. Sadly, I am not always successful in fighting this battle.

Pulling Back the Shades has helped equip me to fight the battle with knowledge and a deeper understanding of myself. It is a battle I still fight—but now I have weapons and knowledge to help me.

If you have faced any of these struggles in your life (especially if you suspect your marriage might have been affected), please, please, please read the book. And stayed tuned for more in the coming month.

Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young at

10 Thoughts on “A Shaded View of Romance

  1. Your forthrightness identifying romance novels, especially the steamier ones as a female equivalent to porn, is refreshing, though many women would disagree I suspect. As one who struggles with a porn addiction, I understand all too well, how this would present the same challenge for wives, as porn does for husbands.
    For those whose husbands struggle with porn, perhaps viewing it in he same light as steamy romance novels would help in being more understanding of their husband’s struggle. Like you, I’m an avid reader, and my first exposure to porn were erotic detective novels my Dad kept laying around.In many ways, they are virtually identical, only from a man’s point of view, to romance novels. And yes, they both lead to discontent, and unrealistic expectations with your own marriage.

    • In a video chat for the Pulling Back the Shades book team last night, Juli Slattery made the comment that both porn and erotica teach us to mentally go elsewhere during sex. She made the distinction between sharing bodies and building intimacy, and I think that is so true.

      I know a lot of women won’t agree with me on this. I know that for me, these books function like porn and are not spiritually or emotionally healthy for me.

  2. You pick up on something important: the hook of pornography is not just the ideal partner but an ideal self. Male-focused porn usually appeals to male vanity: be the big stud, love ’em, leave ’em, bed another one. And that ideal self is also a total failure of a human being.
    I’m always frustrated and humiliated to realize that for all my proclaimed Christianity, some part of my soul still operates under criteria borrowed from Hugh Hefner. But it helps to be aware of it, beg the Holy Spirit to work on that part of my heart, and never feed it with fantasies.

    • I hadn’t thought about the appeal to male vanity in porn, but you’re right. Not only do porn and erotica encourage discontent with our lives, they encourage us to be discontent with our very selves.

  3. Coming from the background I had with porn and now being able to help people, both male and female, I agree with Peter and the fact that with the “ideal” self It brings about a lot of self-worth issues because you do not match up to the person on the screen, photo or imagination.

    Chris, I have had many women tell me that their addiction to porn and sex started with romance novels as a teen. So, in my eyes, it is mommy porn.

  4. IntimacySeeker on January 20, 2015 at 1:20 pm said:

    Regarding the five longings, is “escape from reality” a healthy longing and one to be met by sexual intimacy with one’s spouse? I guess I’m confused about those longings–some seem honorable–others not so much.

    • Here is what the authors say:

      The fact is: your heart was designed for adventure, intrigue, romance, and suspense. These are the things that make you feel alive. God made your body to physically respond with invigorating chemicals like adrenalin, dopamine, and cortisol when life becomes excting and semi-unpredictable. Your longing is legitimate. We just believe there are ways to get what you are looking for without God’s standards. (page 18)

      A healthy sexual relationship is the escape from reality.

      When the drudgery or stress of life used to get to me, that healthy longing led me to reading that led to discontent. Now, when I need to escape reality, that longing leads me to my husband’s arms. In healthy sexual intimacy, I escape the details of life that can wear me down. In moments when we are truly connecting with each other, both fully present with each other, the bills, worries, bickering, laundry, and family obligations drop away for a time.

      I am now able to say to my husband sometimes, “I’m really feeling overwhelmed by my to-do list. Can you take my mind off of it for a while?” And he does.

  5. IntimacySeeker on January 20, 2015 at 2:25 pm said:

    Thanks, that helps. It seems we are talking about sex as a sort of Sabbath. I am not as far along as you in my journey, and sometimes my most frightening and brutal realities are MOST prevalent during sex. Perhaps I connect with my fears rather than with my husband, or perhaps my fears are all about my husband, so connecting with him is the same as connecting with those fears. I don’t see him as provider, nor as protector, nor as someone with whom I can safely escape reality. More often than not, he is the reality I long to escape.

    The other core longing the authors name that mystifies me is the longing to rescue a man. In Al-Anon we learn NOT to do that. Seems dangerous to acknowledge that as something God created within women.

    Guess I should read the book.

    • The book does a much better job of explaining this longings in the context of marriage than I do.

      When dealing with abuse, mental illness, or addiction/substance abuse problems, it’s good to remember that things that are written to describe what happens in many situations may not apply. I would suggest that you read the book, see what sticks, and don’t sweat what doesn’t.

      I think the longing might be healthy–but how we try to have that longing filled might not be. For me, the longing to rescue a man is largely about me knowing that my husband’s life is better with me than without me. I’m not rescuing him from his sin or his humanity as much as being the person that fills his heart more than any other person and being the one that helps him grow with God.

      • IntimacySeeker on January 20, 2015 at 3:10 pm said:

        Maybe filling the role of Ezer (power, strength, etc.) is what the authors are getting at then. I’ve come to think of this term as “the one without whom he fails to thrive.”

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