Valentine’s Day annoys a lot of people. So here’s a reminder that some relationships that are considered the greatest love stories of all time were pretty messed up.
1. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson
Why we love it: Edward was king of England, and he gave it all up for a woman. He even made a famous speech where he poured his normally guarded English heart out to the whole nation, saying he couldn't be the best king he could be without "the help and support of the woman I love." Since Wallis Simpson was divorced (twice) and an American to boot, there was no way she could marry him and be queen; the royal family and the public wouldn't have accepted it. Instead, Edward became the first British monarch to abdicate.
What we forget: Wallis Simpson didn't really want to marry Edward. Sure, she might have given in if there were a crown involved, but she did not want her boyfriend to abdicate. By then she was sick of him, but knew she was pretty much trapped. Plus, it wasn't that much of a sacrifice on Edward's part, since he knew being king would be a drag, what with all the openings of Parliament and ship christenings getting in the way of his jetting around the world to party. The newly dubbed Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed together until Edward's death. They indulged in their hobbies of throwing house parties where they screamed at each other in front of guests, having affairs, and talking about how great Hitler was, an opinion the Duke aired in public until at least the late 1960s.
2. Abelard & Heloise
Why we love it: Star-crossed lovers of the Romeo and Juliet variety, Abelard and Heloise is the classic story of two people deeply in love whose circumstances made it impossible for them to be together. They were forced apart by her family but wrote love letters to each other for years.
The book of their letters is still popular and studied in some schools. Their story has been the inspiration for many novels, plays, movies, and even a ballet, and their relationship has been referenced in everything from Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to The Sopranos.
What we forget: The important medieval thinker Peter Abelard was rich, pretty famous, and much older than the teenage Héloise when he was hired to be her teacher sometime in the 1100s. Since even medieval celebrities need groupies, he seduced her. But when he inevitably got her pregnant, he sent her away to the French countryside. At some point, they secretly got married, and he sent her off to a convent until things blew over. When the girl's uncle found out about the wedding (and misunderstanding the convent gesture), he sent some thugs to beat up and castrate Abelard. Abelard, by this time probably pretty angry at his wife's family, became a monk. Not content to be the only one in the relationship who was suffering, he forced Héloise to become a nun, something she told him she absolutely did not want to do. Oh, and that romantic correspondence they engaged in? Yeah, some of it includes Abelard detailing the times he raped her and telling the mother of his child that he never really loved her. Romance!
3. Napoleon and Josephine
Why we love it: Just as we fixate on royal couples today, Napoleon and Josephine allow us to escape to an opulent world full of power and passion. Napoleon’s letters to Josephine are so brimming with love and affection that you can imagine they were absolutely devoted to one another. In one he says, “Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Josephine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you?”
What we forget: Josephine was a widow set on finding an important man. She had already seduced many of the most influential French politicians when the rising star Napoleon caught her eye. He seems to have fallen head over heels immediately (except with her name—while everyone else called her Rose, Napoleon decided on Josephine), and they were married. Unfortunately, only a few days later, he had to go off on a military campaign. He wrote his passionate letters from abroad, which Josephine may have read with one of the many men she took as lovers while he was away. When Napoleon found out, he was furious, and embarked on affairs of his own.
One story has it that their marriage almost ended shortly before their joint coronation, when Josephine walked in on Napoleon with another woman. But it was after he impregnated one of his mistresses that he finally divorced her, now knowing that he could in fact produce children and was not reliant on her previous offspring for the succession. Napoleon, who could be very romantic on paper, was far less so when he stated that he wanted to marry a womb.
4. Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour
Why we love it: Considered the greatest love story between a king and his "official mistress" ever, Madame de Pompadour only lost her exalted position when she died at 42, after 19 years with the king. He was so distraught at her death that he didn't take another official mistress for four years. More than half a dozen movies have centered on their relationship, and it is compared to that of Eva and Juan Peron in the musical Evita.
What we forget: Not only was Louis her boyfriend, he was also her landlord, employer, and—oh yeah—her absolute monarch. There was no way this was ever going to be a two-way relationship. She spent virtually every day of those 19 years by Louis's side because if the royal eye wandered, she would find herself out on the street, and possibly broke. This meant partying until all hours with a smile on her face when she was really sick, joining the king on long hunting expeditions that routinely made her ill, and acting like everything was fine when both her only child and father died within days of each other. Also, since she rarely slept with the king due to a painful gynecological condition, she encouraged him to make use of his private brothel, which housed disturbingly young girls.
5. Bonnie and Clyde
Why we love it: Perhaps no criminals are as romanticized as Bonnie and Clyde. We forgive their crimes because they played up their relationship to the camera, and through those historic photos they become real people—real kids in love. Even their violent death rings of Romeo and Juliet: two people whose only choice was live apart or die together. Their relationship has been romanticized in song and movies, most famously in the classic 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
What we forget: Beyond the whole robbing banks and killing people stuff that everyone already knows about, new research shows that Bonnie may have had a mental disorder that made her attracted to seriously violent men. There is a sexual fetish called hybristophilia, or “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome,” and we still see it today in the dozens of admirers that convicted murderers attract. Some even marry them, like Carole Ann Boone did with serial killer Ted Bundy. So the entire romance between the intelligent and vivacious Bonnie and the career-criminal Clyde was down to her disturbing paraphilia.
Not only that, but despite being just 23 when she died, Bonnie had been married for seven years … and not to Clyde. Her husband was in prison and she was still wearing her wedding ring when she died.
This story originally appeared in 2012.