What do Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Sally Albright and Harry Burns, Patrick Verona and Kat Stratford, Sam and Diane, and Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sharma have in common? They’re all examples of one of romantic fiction’s favorite tropes—the enemies-to-lovers arc.
The plot line is so enduring because it makes an appealing story that fits into the myths so often told about how love works. But according to relationship experts, the sparks this dynamic produces in books and films generally aren’t replicable in real life.
Why going from enemies to lovers seems so appealing
Couples who somehow make the leap from loathing to love have been part of the fictional fabric of romance since at least 1813 when Pride and Prejudice was published. In Jane Austen’s classic novel, stubbornly independent Elizabeth Bennet and prideful aristocrat Mr. Darcy do not get along straight out of the gate; she abhors his aristocratic airs and perceived snobbery, while he finds her an unfit match for him socially and her family gauche. Over the course of the book, they realize that their mutual hatred was actually rooted in misunderstanding, and they end up married and hopelessly in love.
Over the years, the enemies-to-lovers narrative arc has been remixed and repurposed into slightly different iterations on the same theme. Take last year’s highly watched season of Bridgerton, which saw Viscount Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sharma, a fiercely independent woman who wasn’t looking for love, come together when a season-long feud dissipated to reveal an intense chemistry. In one particularly heated moment, Anthony makes a declaration to Kate that exemplifies this cold-to-hot interplay: “You are the bane of my existence and the object of all my desires.” Spoiler alert: The season ends with them on their honeymoon.
“People want to believe that love makes anything possible, and if people who are enemies can become lovers then anything within the context of love is up for grabs.”—Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist at Tinder and Bumble
Why would it be appealing to romance someone you hate? Part of how we imagine love to be derives from the stories we tell ourselves about it, says relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist at Tinder and Bumble. The ideas we glean from the media we consume, like romance novels and films, help build our concept of what romantic love looks and feels like, and going from enemies to lovers demonstrates the power of love to overcome barriers.
“The enemies-to-lovers trope falls within that mythology because in theory two people who are sworn enemies shouldn’t be together, so it plays into these myths related to love and its power,” explains Dr. Carbino. “People want to believe that love makes anything possible, and if people who are enemies can become lovers then anything within the context of love is up for grabs.”
The excitement and resolution of conflict are also part of why these stories are so compelling, according to therapist Claudia de Llano, LMFT. “When you see conflict resolved, it really gives us a sense of hope, and we’re particularly attracted to this heroic journey of feeling tension and then riding through it into a resolution, and what better resolution is there than love?” she says.
How likely is it to go from enemies to lovers in real life?
Despite the narrative appeal of enemies to lovers, both de Llano and Dr. Carbino say this dynamic is much more realistic in fiction than IRL. Disliking someone intensely enough to declare them your enemy isn’t a recipe for long-lasting, ardent affection and love if the sentiment is rooted in genuine dislike and strife.
Of course, the drama of a pairing like this is partly why enemies to lovers are such an appealing idea, but in actuality this pattern presents issues. Declaring someone your enemy in the first place points to some insurmountable difference generally, which is bound to cause frequent fighting. Constant conflict and disagreement are more of a turn-off than a turn-on, and always butting heads puts a couple in a chronic state of stress, which does more harm than good.
“The more we hold onto stress in a relationship, that’s when the relationship becomes toxic because you have to be able to work through resolutions, and in real life, you don’t want to be riding that wave all the time,” says de Llano. To be sure, some level of strife and conflict is always going to be present in any romantic pairing, she says. The key to long-term partnership is moving through conflict so you’re mostly living in harmony.
No couple will agree on everything, and being with a partner who differs from you in some way can be beneficial, says Dr. Carbino. She calls this “completing each others’ psychological arc,” or basically fulfilling each others’ perceived shortcomings. For example in When Harry Met Sally, Sally and Harry initially find each other to be too particular and picky, but they both eventually see that their particular neuroses are complementary. “I really think it’s about bringing to light the characteristics in ourselves that we may not necessarily find the most attractive,” Dr. Carbino adds.
A key element of the enemies-to-lovers romance that makes these relationships more feasible is that the couple in question’s hatred of each other is rooted in misunderstanding or mild disagreement, not genuine true aversion. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that they have more in common than not and the enemy declaration was unwarranted.
For example, the romantic roadblock in Pride and Prejudice stems from a misreading by both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet of the others’ character; they both in fact share a deep and abiding loyalty to their loved ones that brings them together. Ultimately, their values lined up. According to Dr. Carbino, someone whose perceived weakness is enough of a deterrent to be considered a genuine enemy would probably just turn you off from them completely.
“If you are actually real enemies, there’s no way the relationship is going to work in a meaningful way unless the enemy status is a complete and total misunderstanding á la Pride and Prejudice,” says Dr. Carbino. Truly disliking someone (or even hating them) on the basis of their character and values is different from complementing each others’ perceived weaknesses. “There’s a distinction and I wouldn’t want to take it too far because I think people who are fundamentally different and who are enemies probably are not going to develop a romance,” says Dr. Carbino.
So while opposites may attract, it’s highly unlikely that enemies will find the type of healthy, deep connections you’d want to aim for IRL, and it’s best to relegate the fantasy where it belongs: in fairytales.