“We Accept The Love We Think We Deserve” A Study in Romance

Do you recognise the quote in the title? If not, then let me introduce you to it. It’s one of my all time favourite quotes from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a bestselling book that twenty years after its release was adapted into a movie. However, for this article I will focus mainly on movies and how they portray romance and support the theory posed by this quote. It’s a saying written by Stephen Chbosky, the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and who consecutively wrote the screenplay and also directed the movie of the same name. In this article, I will explain why this quote is so significant not only in movies but in everyday life, and why it is such an important thing to realise in order to break through unhealthy relationship habits. 

The quote in the movie first appears during a conversation that the main character, Charlie, whose senior year in high school we follow throughout the movie, has with his English teacher Bill, who is also a role model for the high school student. It is in reference to Charlie’s older sister, who is in an abusive relationship. Charlie feels helpless, knowing that she has to make the choice to leave herself. This is something he struggles with throughout the movie: feeling helpless while others are in pain, watching as they devote themselves to people who are not good for themselves.

This is where the quote, “we accept the love we think we deserve” comes in and plays a significant part throughout the movie, as well as the book, because it is a prevalent theme: people like Sam and Charlie’s sister, Candance, choose people who are, to outsiders, not worthy of them and treat them badly. This, according to the quote and therefore according to Bill, is because these people believe that this is the type of love that they deserve. 

The specific question that Charlie asks that inspires this answer from his teacher is, “Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we’re nothing?” However heartbreaking this is, it is often true. 

I have in hindsight very often accepted being treated badly, not only from romantic partners, but also from friends, because I felt that that was what I deserved. I’ve seen many people around me do the same. To be entirely honest, I think the same exact thing happens to Charlie in Perks of Being a Wallflower. As much as we root for Sam to finally realise Charlie’s romantic feelings for her, at the end they are not compatible on this level — and that’s okay, because that’s what life is about. 

This is one of the reasons that the story is one of my favourites: it is a heartbreaking but realistic story about a high school student who tries to work through his trauma, while simultaneously tackling everyday adolescent issues like falling in love, friendship, family problems, etc. 

How do we see this phenomenon represented in romance movies today? Perks of Being a Wallflower was released in cinemas 10 years ago, with the book of the same name dating back even to 1999. Since unfortunately I do not have all the time in the world nor a very expansive word count (who would read this if it was about 10k words, right?), I will only be analysing The Kissing Booth trilogy (as one, because it really doesn’t deserve much more recognition than that, sorry Beth Reekles) and Love Actually, (specifically looking at Mark and Juliet) and The After Trilogy

The Kissing Booth Trilogy

In this analysis, I am mainly referring to the second and third instalment of the series, as that is when a second love interest, Marco, is introduced. Now, am I alone here in saying that I was rooting for Marco from the start? Noah always gave me iffy vibes, but it got exponentially worse as throughout the second AND third movie they absolutely refused to talk to each other about anything. As a writer and reader, I absolutely detest the miscommunication trope and this was, unfortunately, a perfect representation of it. 

In my opinion, Noah doesn’t treat Elle the way she deserves, as he becomes emotionally distant from her when he goes to Harvard in the second movie, as well as in the third movie when Elle is in a dilemma between choosing Berkeley or Harvard. Noah has pretty much planned her life out with him, at Harvard, giving her no choice. She is forced to choose between the two, and thus between Lee and Noah (Berkeley has been her dream future with Lee since they were kids). Quite unfair (from either of the boys), as they expect her to cater to their preference rather than her own, but the main problem in the trilogy is that they simply never t-a-l-k

The reason that I think Marco is the better guy for Elle is because he does not immediately assume that he is her first choice: he understands clearly that she has a boyfriend, and the moves that are made and flirting that is initiated is by Elle (not necessarily her best moment, but okay). There is obvious chemistry between the two, which doesn’t go unnoticed by either of them, as Elle clearly states at the end: she’s attracted to Marco but still loves Noah.

Which is fine, really, until we get to the next movie and they pretty much have maybe 10 minutes of screen time together. Now, some people have said this was done because of the awkward breakup between Joey King and Jacob Elliot, but it still ruined the movie for me. However, I think what happened in the fictional universe of The Kissing Booth was that Elle didn’t want to go through the hassle of breaking up with Noah when she was certain they could be “fixed”, and did not acknowledge how he had been acting throughout his time at Harvard.

Elle thus, instead of opening herself up to a new love which has the potential to be healthier for her, decides to stay with Noah even after they have become emotionally distant. This is the exact kind of behaviour that Stephen Chbosky meant to represent with the quote “we accept the love we think we deserve”. Elle didn’t think she deserved a guy like Marco, but rather that Noah’s behaviour was acceptable and therefore she stayed with him.

Love Actually 

Although they never have quite an established relationship and it’s more a case of unrequited love, even that is something that is worth studying in the case of “we accept the love we think we deserve”. For those unfamiliar, one of the starting scenes of the movie is the wedding between Juliet and Peter, and no, I did not mistype. Mark is Peter’s best friend, and hopelessly in love with Peter’s now-wife Juliet. 

This causes some awkward moments, unexplained tension and overall coldness from Mark’s side towards Juliet, which she interprets as him “simply not liking her”. However, it is the complete opposite of that. How does she find out? He was the videographer for their wedding and gives her a completely ruined copy (in the time of the tapes, it’s 2002) when in truth he has a perfectly beautiful one in his studio, but it only shows her. Kind of creepy, sort of supposed to be romantic, but very awkward when Juliet comes over with banoffee pie (having finally had enough of Mark’s standoffish behaviour) and slips the tape into the tv. 

Anyway, why is this an example of the phenomenon this article is all about? Because choosing to continue to feed into such a love, one that nears obsession rather than simple admiration and rushing, butterfly-like feelings around them, can also be a form of “[accepting] the love we think we deserve”. 

Of course love is not a choice, but often when there is a realisation that there will be no further chances for this person to like you back, something inside of you usually puts a wall up and starts to try to get over this person. Mark doesn’t do this, actually he does the opposite, until one of the last scenes in the movie — one of its most famous, the one with the Carol singers — when Juliet does give him a kiss, and he walks away muttering “enough, that’s enough”. Something in his brain clicks and he realises that this is not what he deserves, neither what his best friend nor Juliet deserves.

The After Trilogy

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two out of three movies (franchises) that came up in my head when writing this article originated as books from Wattpad. In case you didn’t know, After was originally a Harry Styles fanfiction (yep) and I actually even read the original before it was edited and published, before it became a paid story on the app. I never read The Kissing Booth, though. 

Anyway the reason that I don’t think this is a coincidence is because teenage girls seem to romanticise the bad boy, slightly toxic guy with daddy issues that for some reason never seems to want to change and continues to make the same mistakes. Hardin from the After series is a perfect representation of this kind of guy: a boy with daddy issues that results in some sort of rebellious, unable to express love in a healthy manner, type of character.

Tessa, the protagonist in the movie series, is an English major, a goodie-two-shoes, a virgin, etc. The entire romanticised girl next door vs bad boy with tattoos trope that has existed since Wuthering Heights (although in a different form).  It then comes as no surprise that the novel is represented throughout After and is clearly one of its main inspirations. 

Anyway, what I remember from the first book/movie is that Tessa goes to college, is confronted with this guy named Hardin in her dorm because he’s her roommate’s something (friend with benefits?) and there’s immediate tension. Tessa is introduced to the friend group, which surprise surprise Hardin is a part of, by her roommate. Hardin makes a bet that he will be able to wrap Tessa around his finger and take her virginity, and that’s pretty much the first, giant red flag. 

Why does Tessa continue to forgive and forget every mistake Hardin makes? Because she doesn’t think she deserves better, most likely. Also something that ties in with the phenomenon in this article is that sometimes, staying in unhealthy, toxic relationships is easier than breaking up. Speaking from experience here. A lot of factors come into play when breaking up with somebody, and as someone who is quite a people pleaser, pushover type of person (not proud of it, but being realistic here) it can be very hard to set boundaries and enforce consequences when those are broken. 

Which, I think, is also why I identify with Tessa quite a lot in hindsight, even though I have refused to sit through the other half of the movie and the two that follow. This is also why I think Elle is annoying — she had a great guy up for grabs but chose to stick with the one that didn’t treat her right and who obviously had major communication issues. Perhaps I find her annoying because she reminds me of who I used to be. 

In conclusion, “we accept the love we deserve” is a phenomenon that we find mostly in teen dramas, and a trope that is still relevant in the stories that we find in films today. It is seen easiest perhaps in series, because movies are often centred around a Prince Charming sort of ideal and not often around a love triangle, unless it is a movie series like After or The Kissing Booth, or in a movie about multiple people, like Love Actually. 

Written by Vivian Van Klaarbergen

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