By Liz Massey, Feb. 12, 2015.

I’m glad to see that Echo is celebrating Valentine’s Day with an issue praising the unique pleasures of queer love. For many years, I thought that I was unromantic, but after coming out, I realized I was simply out of synch with the sexism and heterosexism of mainstream culture.

This discovery actually ended up making me feel happy, since that meant that I missed out on the staggering misogyny present in romantic depictions during the first half of the past century, as well as the confusion and resentment that seemed to fuel skyrocketing divorce rates during the second half.

But cultural stories around romance are persistent. Hollywood continues to churn out formulaic romantic comedies and melodramatic love stories because we find the formulas satisfying, or at least expected. One of my greatest fears as we contemplate nationwide marriage equality is that we’ll fall into the trap of only sharing same-sex love stories that mirror our cultural myths, instead of influencing opposite-sex couples to step up their game and be a little more original.

But, despite its often-pernicious influence, one element of American popular culture – the movies – can be a very effective aid to building a successful long-term relationship. All you have to do is behave in a manner that is the exact opposite of what the film’s characters are espousing.

Here are a few love lessons I learned at the movies:

Lesson 1: Tell the Truth

We all giggle at the comic confusion that reigns in movies like Christmas in Connecticut, where the protagonists are all lying to each other. But the stark reality is that the perky leading men and ladies probably can’t shut that not-so-endearing trait off when the movie ends and are probably well on their way to becoming pathological liars.

Lesson 2: Opposites Repel 

The “opposites attract” meme has some traction (at least on a biological level) for some cisgendered straight couples. But even then, a pair of lovers needs at least a few common interests beyond mutual physical attraction to make a relationship work. The lesbian classic Claire of the Moon belabors how different its lead couple is, and it is one of the aspects of the film that would make a scene including nails being dragged across chalkboards seem like a relief.

Lesson 3: Have Similar Expectations

One of the plot points that dooms the gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain is that Jack Twist wants to settle down and play (ranch) house, while Ennis Del Mar can’t envision anything braver than a few clandestine camping trysts per year. Such conflicts make for compelling movies, but result in agonizing relationships in real life.

Lesson 4: Avoid Trauma Bonding

The violent excitement of Bound or the RED franchise of movies is part of what makes them fast-paced thrillers. What they don’t show is how forming a relationship under those conditions plays havoc with being able to trust each other under less dangerous conditions, as well as one or both parties needing regular injections of chaos into their relationship because that is what feels “normal.”

Lesson 5: Infatuation Doesn’t Last Forever

At some point, the white-hot intensity of new relationship energy mellows a bit. With luck, and some collaboration as a couple, it transforms into a steady glow of emotional warmth that both parties can rely on and enjoy for the long haul. If it doesn’t, please don’t follow the example of The War of the Roses, and transfer your intense positive focus into an obsession that aims to vanquish your now ex-lover.

Not all movies paint an unrealistic portrait of how love works. The LGBT fan favorites Desert Hearts (1985) and Big Eden (2002) both represent the ups and downs of queer love in a true-to-life manner. Even the end of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind captures an important point: When we realize we truly love someone, we should consider giving things another chance, even if the outcome is uncertain.

When the lights go down and the next love-story movie comes on, it’s not necessary to become a cynical curmudgeon about how it depicts romance. Just remember that the characters’ relationship only exists on screen for a few hours, and doesn’t have to pass what I call the “ever after” test. Our own love life is always going to be exponentially more complex – but thankfully, it is also entirely ours to shape and frame.

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