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The Romantic Comedy Guide to Having a Fake Relationship

As seen in Netflix’s latest movie ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,’ maintaining a phony romance takes great effort—and adherence to a certain set of rules

Netflix/Disney/Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable lock eyes across a flimsy barrier in a motel room; Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney slow-dance to Michael Bublé; Matthew Goode and Amy Adams kiss at a dinner table full of elderly Irishmen; Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock share an endearingly awkward engagement party with loved ones. None of them are actually dating.

The fake relationship is a notoriously cheesy, gloriously reused trope of the romantic comedy world. And thank god for that: Few plot devices are as immensely satisfying as watching two people who hate each other enter into a phony relationship for mutual benefit, only to fall head over heels in love by the end of the movie. Over the years, it’s happened over and over with only slight variation—sometimes, it’s two high school students pairing up to win the affections of their respective crushes; other times, it’s two adults getting married for usually terrible reasons.

After a renaissance in the late ’90s and early aughts on the shoulders of films like Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Wedding Date, the fake relationship briefly retreated from the spotlight, along with the rom-com genre at large. But both are back in a big way this week thanks to Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a tremendously enjoyable rom-com that nails the trope in adorable fashion. Beyond introducing audiences to a savvy leading lady and a crushworthy love interest for the ages, To All the Boys perhaps marks the apex of the trope, depicting a well-executed fake relationship that successfully operates via clearly set boundaries and open lines of communication. It’s downright inspiring—and quite instructive. In fact, To All the Boys could probably help you should you ever need to start a fake relationship. “Why would I need to do that?” you may be asking yourself incredulously, but trust me, you never know when something—a wedding, a bet, crippling debt—might come along and force you to fake a relationship. For whenever that time comes, here are the essential rules of conducting a phony relationship, according to To All the Boys and its many predecessors.

1. Both Partners Must Be Aware of the Arrangement

The most basic rule of fake dating is seemingly the most obvious—but clearly, rom-coms love nothing more than a toxic, questionably unethical relationship that features little to no consent from at least one of the parties. I’m talking to you, Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping. She and Sandy Cohen were doomed from day one, considering he was in a coma for the majority of their fictional romance. Extremely not OK!

The fake relationship in While You Were Sleeping is messed up, but it’s also not alone. In this year’s Overboard remake, Anna Faris gaslights Eugenio Derbez into thinking she’s his wife after he loses his memory. She does this because he’s a rich asshole who fires her from her cleaning job, an excuse I do not think would hold up in a court of law.

There’s also an offshoot of this first important rule that must be condemned involving relationships that are built on a foundation of lies and ulterior motives. Think She’s All That, in which Freddie Prinze Jr. woos an artsy outcast solely to win a mean-spirited bet he makes with Paul Walker (a real thing Paul says before finding a girl for the bet: “Let’s go shopping”); or 10 Things I Hate About You, in which Heath Ledger is paid to date Julia Stiles so that multiple men can ask out her sister, Alex Mack from The Secret World of Alex Mack; or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, in which both Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey enter into a relationship with their own undisclosed agendas. These kinds of relationships are fake in their own right, and also bad—just because they all eventually lead to actual love does not mean we should hold them up as models.

While we’re at it, let’s put the kibosh on fake relationships with icky power dynamics, like when Sandra Bullock (I’m not sure what her problem is) makes her assistant marry her in order to gain U.S. citizenship in The Proposal. I’d also rather not think about how Adam Sandler bullies his assistant (Jennifer Aniston) and her kids into going along with a wildly elaborate lie just so that he can hook up with Brooklyn Decker in Just Go With It. Say it with me: Consent! Is! Everything!

2. Both Parties Must Benefit From the Fake Relationship

If you’re not getting something out of a fake relationship, then why are you doing it? Take the couple in Drive Me Crazy, for example: Both Adrian Grenier and Melissa Joan Hart get spurned by their respective love interests, so they team up to make them jealous. That right there is a mutually beneficial partnership. The same goes for Lara Jean and Peter in To All the Boys—Lara Jean wanted to avoid an awkward confrontation with her sister’s boyfriend (to whom she accidentally sent a love letter), and Peter wanted to get his ex back after being brutally dumped. They both got what they wanted out of the fake love, and then they fell in real love for good measure.

Now, it must also be said that money isn’t an ideal incentive, but it does do the trick. While it’s undeniably depressing and pathetic to watch a young McDreamy pay a cheerleader $1,000 to date him in Can’t Buy Me Love, it works out: Patrick Dempsey’s character does become more popular, the cheerleader does get to replace the white suede outfit she spilled wine on, and the two do eventually fall for each other. Plus, there are other fake-relationship-for-money exchanges in rom-coms that are less dismal, like the deals Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney make in Pretty Woman and The Wedding Date, respectively. They’re professionals, so it’s more of a business interaction. The point is, everyone gets something, and then everyone falls in love. Which is good.

3. Set PDA Ground Rules

An admirable quality of To All the Boys is Lara Jean’s no-nonsense approach to negotiating the terms of her fake partnership, down to writing up a contract that clearly outlines just how much PDA she’s comfortable with. Yes, girl! So many movies leave a gray area here, and it too often leads to disaster. See: The Proposal.

Additionally, in Leap Year, Matthew Goode and Amy Adams pretend to be a married couple in order to stay at a conservative Irish inn, and things get awkward when they’re basically forced to make out at a dinner table.

Avoid the secondhand embarrassment and set those boundaries early! Otherwise, at least discuss and come to grips with the very real possibility that if you purport to be in a relationship, someone at some point may request that you prove it through displays of affection.

4. Get Your Stories Straight

The importance of prep work in a fake relationship can’t be understated. Not all fake relationships are the same, however: Some require putting much more work into developing the story behind the relationship. In To All the Boys and most other high school rom-coms featuring the trope, the pair only has to do some light fibbing in order to keep suspicions at bay. But there have been times when marriage enters the equation, and it gets messy—especially when the marriage is for citizenship reasons, like in The Proposal and Green Card.

If your entire relationship is based on fooling U.S. immigration authorities, you gotta get your facts straight! Lying to random strangers is slightly easier than lying to family (more on that in a minute), but basic life-story prep is essential. For example, things get out of hand quickly in Just Go With It due to easily avoidable flubs, like forgetting to establish that Jennifer Aniston shouldn’t reveal that she has kids in front of her fake husband’s love interest. In Leap Year, meanwhile, Matthew Goode and Amy Adams fall into the world’s most avoidable trap by not deciding on a joint last name before becoming fake married for a night. Amateur hour!

5. Lying to Family Is Always a Bad Idea

If you enter into a fake relationship, lying to your family members is in some respect going to be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a terrible idea every single time. “I wish we could’ve kept our families out of it altogether,” says Lara Jean in To All the Boys after her little sister starts to bond with Peter. The same could be said in, uh, every other movie!

In certain variations within the genre, the fake relationships are concocted specifically to fool family members, and it always ends badly. In Love the Coopers, Olivia Wilde bumps into Jake Lacy at the airport and convinces him to pose as her boyfriend at family Christmas, so that her parents won’t be disappointed in her love life. In The Wedding Date, Debra Messing hires a male escort (Dermot Mulroney) to attend a wedding with her in order to make her family think she has a steady boyfriend. In movies like Green Card and The Proposal, families are just blatantly and shamelessly lied to. The Proposal is an especially painful example, as the family goes so far as to give Sandra Bullock’s character the family wedding dress to wear.

To their credit, though, Sandra and Ryan Reynolds did a pretty good job overall, laying the groundwork to their fake romance—successfully following rules 1 through 4—before gaslighting his entire family. That’s progress, I guess!

6. Break Off All Real Relationships Before Attempting a Fake One

I’m undecided on whether conducting a fake relationship while maintaining a real boyfriend or girlfriend is worse than conducting two legit relationships at the same time, but doing either is despicable and should be avoided at all costs. All it leads to is heartbreak and disaster—see To All the Boys, Leap Year, Can’t Buy Me Love, The Decoy Bride, and Green Card.

I don’t care how much you say you love your real boyfriend, Andie MacDowell—you literally married Gérard Depardieu while he was away on a business trip, and doing that sort of thing hurts people.

7. The Best Fake Relationships Are Between Enemies

Fake relationships work best if the fake partners really dislike each other. Their love should blossom from a place of hatred, as all healthy relationships do. It goes without saying that in 10 Things I Hate About You, Julia Stiles doesn’t start out as Heath Ledger’s biggest fan, but she gets there eventually, because he takes her to a paintball place and buys her a guitar.

Specifically, the popular kid/social outcast combination is a classic for a reason, because it’s more fun to watch people who have nothing in common fall in love than people who get along from the beginning. We see it in She’s All That and To All the Boys, as popular jocks end up with artsy smart girls, and when the genders are swapped and popular girls pair up with nerdy guys in Drive Me Crazy and Can’t Buy Me Love. So take note: STOP LOOKING FOR COMMON GROUND. It doesn’t matter if you’re the popular one or the brains of the operation. All that matters is that you can’t stand each other, because eventually, you won’t be able to stand being without each other.

8. Do the Opposite of Whatever Melissa Joan Hart Does

Sandra Bullock’s questionable actions in The Proposal and While You Were Sleeping are child’s play compared to the three failed fake relationships Melissa Joan Hart is responsible for. First, she made a myriad of mistakes in Drive Me Crazy, in which she played a popular high school student who teamed up with Adrian Grenier to, well, drive their exes crazy. Hart doesn’t do anything too concerning in this first attempt, other than giving her fake boyfriend a very ’90s makeover. But they do end up on the verge of becoming step-siblings after their parents also fall in love, so that’s a concerning twist.

In Hart’s second go as a faker, she starred in the ABC Family original movie My Fake Fiancé, in which she conspired to marry a man drowning in gambling debt, solely motivated by the potential money and gifts people would give her at the wedding. Her reasoning is partially sound—she had been recently robbed and needed money to buy things—but it’s still wildly unethical and unbelievably greedy.

Still, nothing compares to the third Melissa Joan Hart Has a Fake Boyfriend movie, Holiday in Handcuffs. The name says it all, but watch the trailer anyway:

Let’s review: Hart holds Mario Lopez at gunpoint twice, handcuffs him to her car, and also smashes his phone with a hammer. Holiday in Handcuffs isn’t a fake dating rom-com, it’s a horror movie. If you’re planning on starting a fake relationship, please do not do anything Melissa Joan Hart does. And Melissa, please read this blog and take notes so that you can apply them to the next Lifetime original movie you will inevitably do.