Stand By Me

In many good novels, there comes a point where the protagonist (hero/heroine) has been battling heavy odds, facing setback after setback, though all hope is not quite lost… until the author takes away the one other character who has been faithful no matter what. The lover, mentor, sidekick, cheerleader, beta hero… they are either killed off (I would never…), they desert the cause, they are captured by the forces of darkness, or they reach the limit of their patience with the protagonist.

Why do authors doooooo this?

Authors have their reasons. It turns out that if we have even one ally, one person telling us we’re not crazy, we can stand firm in the midst of a horde of doubters and detractors. A psychologist by the name of Solomon Asch figured out a way to test how powerfully social pressure works to create conformity.  He sat twelve people in a room and set up a bunch of comparisons like the one at the right, showing four bars. The question was, which of the three bars at the right is the same length as the bar on the left.

The correct answer in the example is C, and 95 percent of us can do this test, example after example, and get the right answer every time–if we’re answering in writing, individually. Asch took things a step further. He had the twelve participants answer out loud, one at a time, and stacked the room with shills so that by arrangement, subjects one through eleven gave the same wrong answer two thirds of the time. The independent variable was subject number twelve, who didn’t know the whole thing was a set up.

Seventy-five percent of the participants caved to a blatantly wrong answer at least a third of the time, if the group was against them. When Asch debriefed his subjects, they gave explanations such as, “I wondered what was wrong with me… I knew something was off… The choices were difficult…” [They weren’t.] In a neutral laboratory experiment, with no consequences whatsoever for voting against the group, most people caved at least every third try. Everybody also underestimated how often they had caved.

But–and this is a big but–if even one person shares our position and is willing to say as much, we stick to the evidence of our individual perception.

This explains part of the high stakes in a romance. The protagonists are asking each other, “Will you be the one person who tells me I’m not crazy, when my entire  family/town/upbringing/society is against me? Will you help me hang onto the parts of me that see clearly and speak honestly?” This is part of what’s lost when the big, black moment threatens to end the whole relationship.

That’s psychological life-or-death stuff, and it resonates with people who’ve been ostracized, ridiculed, or held in contempt for defending a personal truth. So the next time somebody is blathering about romance novels being fluffy reading, you just explain Solomon Asch’s experiment to them. Romance is the very stuff of truth, honesty, and courage. Doesn’t get any less fluffy than that.

To one commenter I’ll send a signed copy of My Own True Duchess. Who stands by you when you’re going against the crowd? Who has stood by you? Was there a time when you had to stand alone?


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18 comments on “Stand By Me

  1. I dislike alluding to scripture in a blog.

    The prophet, Elijah, was weary and told the Lord he was the only one left. The Lord told him that he had 7,000 that had not “bowed the knee to Baal.” (1Kings 19)

    Elisha told his servant that there were more for them then against and prayed that the servant might see the force on their side (2 Kings 6)

    Sometimes when I have been absolutely sure that no one stood by me and have prepared to be difficult, I’ve found support from unexpected people and places (or compelling research.) This is one of the beauties of Happily Ever After, finding that special one with whom to stand. And as I’ve totally gone with scripture,

    “9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.

    10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.

    11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?

    12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 3)

    • I like Scripture. Even if it’s not scripture from my own tradition, it’s wisdom literature, words that have been around for a long, long time–for reasons. And because the tales told are usually of the stature of parable and tradition, they can lead to great questions.
      Did Adam and Eve have a happy marriage?
      Did he ever forgive her?
      For what?
      Were they happy in the Garden or merely safe?

      This is what comes from having been dragged to Mass from infancy up.

  2. So, I gonna go in an opposite direction. I had three people hurt my feelings three Sundays in a row. Two women I decided to not say anything because they are crazy and it wouldn’t help anyway. But the last was my best friend, she had hurt me deeply, I thought she doesn’t get a pass. We have talked on Saturday and have resolved our differences. Sunday she called me, she didn’t actually apologize or say she was sorry , but she did offer to travel with me, she hates to travel. If the relationship is important enough, I think it is important to speak up, even if it is a difficult conversation.

    • I absolutely agree. There’s a chart among the conflict experts, that plots how much we care about the relationship on one axis, and the effort it takes to solve a conflict on the other.
      For people you absolutely do not care about, you can shrug and walk away, or just cheese them off so badly, they never want to see you again. In the middle is the go-along-to-get-along zone, and the place where we compromise to keep the peace.
      For relationships that really matter, if we don’t take the time to unpack and resolve our differences regarding the big stuff, the relationship erodes. You are absolutely right: If the relationship matters, nobody should get a pass, though that takes courage and commitment.

  3. Such a wonderful post! I so appreciate getting “under the hood” to see how the romance genre has transported my spirit in some difficult times. In part, it is because it keeps me in touch with relational specifics that I know to be essential.

    I have long had the support and love of family and friends, but these days, it’s the times when I stand with myself that seem the most powerful.

    • Interesting times, no matter where you come down on the issues. I think we’re all struggling with when and how to speak up, and about what. What strikes me about Asch’s experiment is how powerful one ally can be. Even if ten other people tell us we’re full of baloney, if only one person will support what our senses/convictions/instincts are telling us, we stick to what we know to be true.
      If our sense are accurate, that’s wonderful. If for some reason our radar is off, then it’s not such a good thing.

  4. My sister stands by me through thick and thin. I don’t know what I would do without her! Even though she is thousands of miles away, I know I can count on her for support when life throws me a curveball. Sisters are the best!

  5. In my life, it depends. Often it’s my spouse but not always when HIS family was concerned. His family is crazy, yep, in some instances certifiable, but he wouldn’t say a word against them until….they did the same thing to him they’ve been doing to ME for almost 39 years. Now he understands and even acknowledges them saying one thing to him then behaving terribly to me…and our kids.It made me so unhappy and caused so many arguments I finally wouldn’t say a word not matter. It made me more unhappy to not be believed.

    Now that he has seen the light, it makes me uncomfortable. But I do share and do complain after not being able to; I see that as a *win*.

    • You wonder why it took us so long to come up with the term “gaslighting,” for when people attempt to manipulate us away from the truth. You see in Jame Austen novels, but we didn’t give it a name.

      I think any time you can deal in a shared truth, it’s a big step forward. You are to be commended for not backing down, your husband is to be commended for finally, finally admitting what’s going on. Not everybody would, even when it became obvious. Sad thing is, it got to the kids, and he didn’t see it then.

  6. I was married in 1965. From that day I always had my husband standing with me, telling me I was the prettiest girl, the smartest, too. I lost Paul almost 3 years ago. Now, I have
    my sons and their families and I’m grateful. But there is no one to stand beside me and keep me smiling. Only his memory.

    • Florine, I am sorry for your loss, but glad you had fifty years with a wonderful man. My parents were together for seventy years, and the last few years were in some ways as sweet as the first few. They became best friends, and more than the parenting or the spousing, that gave their marriage a glow. Sounds like you had the same glow with your husband.

  7. I was a 20-year-old American student separated from my friends near Speaker Corner i Hyde Park when I was singled out by the speaker to defend the U.S. against every political and moral crime you can think of. (At least it seemed that way to me.) I couldn’t find a single ally in the crowd or even an avenue of retreat. I did my best to respond with reason and counter-examples. but without any support against a speaker milking full entertainment value from my isolation and my flustered youth, I quickly folded with the parting shot–and the truth–“You’re not interested in listening.” When my friends came up to me soon after, I was shaking and sobbing so much they thought I’d been assaulted. A black moment, for sure. The flip side was the instant effect of having my friends hug me and reassure me and get so indignant on my behalf they were ready to yank the speaker off his podium and give him a genuine American tongue-lashing!

    • Wow. A black moment, indeed, and nobody stopped him, nobody stepped in, nobody called out unfair tactics for badgering you when you were alone. You WERE assaulted, though the weapons used were close-mindedness, bigotry, and words rather than fists.

      I got a tiny dose of the same thing once in London. I wanted some fruit for breakfast rather than buying an expensive hotel breakfast. The street vendor looked at me like I was vermin, and said, “I’m not open yet.”
      He was open for business, he’d sold a banana to the guy in front of me. So I went across the street and waited until he’d done a few more sales, and came back. Then it was, “I can’t break a twenty, Yank. I told you, you’d best shop elsewhere.”
      He hated me as soon as I opened my mouth. I simply wasn’t prepared to be hated on a London street corner, but I’ve never quite viewed the city–or myself–the same way since.

  8. This does not really address your question at all, but I really want to make a comment.

    I don’t have any sisters. My two best friends (of 30+ years standing) have 13 between them. I have always wanted a sister, and used to feel that the distribution among the three of us was unfair.

    I am past 70 now, and have (mostly) outgrown that feeling.

    But truthfully…………….it always does my heart good to read about readers appreciating their sisters!!

  9. My sister. I literally had to drag her into school at the age of five, six, seven… get the picture. She HATED school. I made up excuses for her, held her hand and defended when needed. When I got pregnant out of wedlock (my dad was a missionary) she made excuses for me, loved me, defended me and held my hand. When I lost that baby two years later, she was there, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer (with 10 & 13 yr olds girls) I was there, when we found out that she carried the BCRA2 gene ( by finding breast cancer) I was there and when we found out last year that it’s back and stage 4, I was there. We have loved, laughed and lived in the intervening years, but do you get it? WE WERE THERE.