by Alice Wilder

I was in 8th grade. The most romantic thing that had ever happened to me was a sweaty slow dance at summer camp to Stairway to Heaven. And I wanted to be Bella Swan.

I owned every Twilight novel and read them religiously. On the weekends my friends and I would congregate in my bedroom holding our copies of the book, flipping through, arguing over which parts were the most romantic, whether we’d want to date Edward or Jacob. We agreed that Bella was pretty boring and didn’t make great choices, but we couldn’t hide our longing. I dreamed of someone loving me like Edward loved Bella.

At the time, his obsession over keeping her safe was the most romantic thing I could imagine. How wonderful would it be to have a boy who loved me so deeply that he would endure constant pain and temptation just to be around me. How magical would it be to have the love of my life abandon me without explanation, only to reappear after my suicide attempt, when he’d tell me that he’d loved me the whole time. See, he disappeared because he loved me too much. Is that a Drake lyric? Anyway, this was my dream. I told myself that this all-consuming love would happen to me one day and life would be so perfect. The obsession dissipated as the books fell out of fashion, but the desire for that kind of relationship remained.

That changed when Parks and Recreation came into my life the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Leslie Knope is walking sunshine, a wonderfully intense woman who made the same kinds of mistakes that I did. Her relationship with Ben Wyatt, who enters the show as a state auditor, was never the “take off the glasses, let down your bun and stop caring so much about work!” plot that occupies most media about ambitious women. Instead, Ben falls in love with Leslie because she cares about small town politics and lives without cynicism.

When people claim that “healthy relationship” is synonymous with “boring” or “passionless,” I point them to the episode Smallest Park. Ben and Leslie had to break up because she’s running for office, and if it got out that she was dating her boss, her campaign would fail. When they broke up, Ben said it would be too hard to be friends and said they needed to be just co-workers. It was hard for Leslie to respect that and she acted pretty manic for a minute, not able to accept that the romantic part of their relationship was over.

Leslie and Ben meet up at the park they designed together and she apologizes to him for not respecting his wishes. Leslie tells him that if he doesn’t want contact with her she understands and won’t fight him. Then after the Mature Boundary Setting Conversation there is a Totally Romantic Moment–they decide to say “screw it” and make their relationship public, no matter the consequences.

My roommate Logan and I often talk about how the lines that make us swoon now are the ones where Ben tells Leslie how much he respects her work ethic and passion for local government. It’s amazing how being a feminist changes your notions of what’s romantic. Do you know what line in Twilight I used to love? “I can’t live in a world where you don’t exist.” In that section, Edward  also tells Bella that life was literally worthless to him unless she was there with him. That is so messed up ya’ll. It’s toxic and unhealthy and nothing to aspire to.

Leslie and Ben also had to break up even though they loved each other, but nobody threatened to kill themselves. When Ben has a great career opportunity in Washington D.C. Leslie encourages him to go, even though it’ll mean they’ll have to be apart for six months. At first she’s afraid of the idea but eventually realizes that since he made sacrifices for her career, she should do the same for him

See, this could have gone two ways: I could have grown up with Bella and Edward’s relationship as my model, and then moved on to Olivia and Fitz of Scandal. That girl would have thought that love was supposed to mean losing control of all decision making. That girl would grow up thinking that when a man abandons you it’s because he loves you too much. That you could have maybe one friend outside of your relationship. Instead I know that a good partner will encourage you to pursue your dreams, respect your decisions and trust you.

Leslie and Ben aren’t alone (although like, in my opinion they are the #1 always and forever). My Twitter followers told me that How I Met Your Mother’s Lily and Marshall, Bone’s Booth and Bones, and New Girl’s Nick and Jess are their healthy relationship inspirations. It’s also very much worth noting how few healthy queer relationships appear on mainstream television. There was a gay couple on Scandal, but their relationship was manipulative and emotionally abusive. Though Glee’s Kurt and Blaine are gorgeous and talented, their relationship lacks honesty and trust. But Orphan Black’s Cosima and Delphine are a wonderful example of a queer relationship, with the added bonus of bisexual representation. Members of SPARK’s Action Squad also gushed over healthy queer relationships on The Fosters, Modern Family, and Pretty Little Liars.

But we still need many more diverse healthy relationships. We talk a lot about the need for healthy depictions of women in the media, and that is absolutely true, but we also need to remember that many of us are getting into our first serious relationships, and these models matter. We can (and should) have presentations in high schools about healthy relationships, but having couples like Leslie and Ben on TV matters too.