Yup, the most heretical thing I believe about romance novels is that love alone is not enough.
Love is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the HEA. Knowing that they love each other is nice, but I need more. I need to know the couple will be financially secure, healthy, and happy. And it's that last one -- happiness -- that is the most contentious.
I do not believe -- in real life or in fiction -- that love alone can make you happy.
What I do believe, though, is that love has transformative powers.
Love can make the timid brave, the lonely more social, the awkward more confident. Love can help heal the damage wrought over the years. It just can't do any of these things alone.
I fell in love with my first husband when we were both 24. We didn't marry each other until we were 42. That's because I knew the first time that love wasn't enough, that we didn't have what we needed to make a go of it. We weren't there yet. There was no big fight, no wrenching scene. We didn't even "break up." I just left, and didn't see him again in a romantic light for nearly two decades.
Timing is everything in real life, and I appreciate romances that show something of how two people are perfect for each other at that specific point in time. In Balogh's Slightly Dangerous, it seems significant that Wulfric has married off the last of his siblings before he finally meets Christine. In Spencer's Morning Glory, if Will comes along to Elly's farm while her husband is still alive, he maybe gets a job but he doesn't get married. Chances are, he gets shipped overseas and -- with no one to come home to -- he maybe doesn't make it.
I also need to know that the characters meet each other as equals, both adults in the transactional sense. In Mary Jo Putney's The Beast of Belleterre, Lord Falconer rescues Ariel. Very parent-child, that rescue. He desires her as a woman, but won't let himself approach her as an equal. I don't think it's accidental that she comes into her own as a creative being before returning to her husband.
Finally, love can be the precious gift we've always wanted but didn't think we were allowed to have. It's easy to pin that on some external factor -- the hero fears he's not wealthy enough, or the heroine worries she's not good enough -- but it's not really that. It almost always boils down to: "I'm not lovable enough."
I think it misses the real power of love to save it all up for the last scene. Love can drive the novel. Those characters do and say very different things because they've met each other. They maybe don't fall in love on the first page, but there's no reason to keep them clueless or too timid until the end. Where's the growth there?
Ultimately, it is the transformative power of love that fuels all my favorite romances. Vibrant characters who fall in love and in the course of doing that change themselves for the better. You can still get maximum angsty goodness in a book like that because the big mystery isn't "Do they love each other?" but rather "Is their love enough to make them abandon their fears and flaws?"
I know the answer will be yes, but I still cry.