I see the term frequently in the book description of sexy contemporary romances: off-limits. The hero meets the heroine but he can’t have her because she’s “off-limits”. The heroine has been in love with the hero for ages but they can’t be together because he’s forbidden.
After reading a lot of romance stories with this set-up, I realize that my definition of “off-limits” might be different from the author’s definition. Do I have too high of standard for these characters? Or worse, is my moral compass broken?
Dictionary.com says off-limits is an adjective and it means “forbidden to be patronized, frequented, used, etc., by certain persons.” This site also defines forbidden as “not allowed; prohibited.”
So are these romantic relationships truly not allowed? Let’s consider these common set-ups:
Scenario #1: The heroine is in love with the hero, but since they work together, he’s off-limits.
Is the relationship really forbidden or is it simply a risky choice? Is there an imbalance of power or is there a rule in the employee handbook? If the relationship fails, what would happen to the hero or heroine? Are we talking high-stakes here or more of an inconvenience? What would happen to the couple if someone finds out? I get very annoyed when it turns out all that’s needed is a conversation with Human Resources.
Scenario #2: The hero is in love with his brother’s wife/fiancée/girlfriend
Yes, I would consider this off-limits because the hero should have a code of honor.
However, I don’t consider the relationship forbidden when a) the brother is dead, b) the brother is no longer in a committed relationship with the heroine, or c) the heroine is in a fake relationship with the brother. (It’s a romance novel; this could totally happen.)
Is pursuing the ex a violation of the bro code? I think that depends on what the hero has promised his brother or friend.
Scenario #3: The heroine is in love with her best friend’s brother/the brother’s best friend/ her best friend
Why is this even considered off-limits? It’s changing the parameters of a relationship at best and, at worst, a poor decision. After all, what are the consequences? That their future interactions will be awkward? That they will no longer be friends? The potential of suffering a loss does not make it forbidden. It makes it a risk.
Scenario #4: The hero and heroine are in love but their relationship would be considered against the law.
Yes, this would be forbidden. I don’t even need to know why it would be illegal because the details might have an ick factor.
Scenario #5: The hero wants the heroine but she’s too young/too innocent/the boss’s daughter, etc.
Please, don’t waste my time. This isn’t forbidden and the heroine is not off-limits. It’s not about what’s wrong or what’s right—it’s about effort. The relationship requires more care from the hero.
Some books are labeled “off-limits romance” but if there’s no high-stakes, irreparable consequences, or the threat of incarceration, then how can they be considered forbidden?