We’ve all read the stories at one point, where the stalking and controlling by one partner is seen as them being protective. Characters are suddenly purified of their abusive behaviors because of a messed up past. Then there’s the romantic interest – the pure, (most of the time) virgin, kind-hearted one who breaks themselves to save the other. We manage to convince ourselves that this can’t possibly be abuse because character A never hit character B. And character B is certainly wouldn’t be “in love” with A if it was abuse.
After all, relationships are soooooooo boring without the constant conflict.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. I could start with a sob story of my experience or rant viciously about how wrong you are; I could name books to back up my claim but unless we pick apart the abusive characteristics, nobody would understand. So, let’s start by acknowledging that abuse isn’t necessarily physical. Verbal and emotional abuse is just as important and just as dangerous.
Take a look at the relationship dynamics first. When A and B fight, does A own up to their mistakes or do they victimize themselves? Does B have to find an explanation to B’s behavior by blaming it on a messed up past? How many time is character B allowed to get away with shitty things because A believes with all their heart that B can change?
This doesn’t teach anyone anything about becoming a better person. What this story is saying is that it’s okay to stay with someone even if “love” outweighs personal health; it claims that romance is all about understanding B’s need for detachment, for manipulation, and for their bursts of anger. Because, at the end of day, A’s got someone who goes out of their way to protect them.
Scratch that. This is what I absolutely hate reading about! Where authors write in a controlling character as being protective. A wears their top too low and her colleague can’t stop staring, so B goes on a drinking binge. When A decides to have a night out with friends, B is constantly checking on. Oh, and god forbid, A asks for a personal day because what’s love if they spend a day apart.
Reminding someone to eat their meal or to be careful when going out; having a decent conversation about why one feels uncomfortable about their SO seeing so and so is concern. Control is when said person stalks their SO to the club to watch over them or gaslights them about staying friends with so and so. I hate how some authors make concern by a partner seem weak while control makes the character a far better provider. What happened to respect and independence?
In all seriousness, though, this is a very insidious conception of what romance should be like. Teenagers reading these kinds of story lines are going to be playing them out in real life. Unless you’ve experienced such a thing, you cannot even imagine the trauma one goes through; add to that the belief that this is supposedly love and you’ve got yourself someone who will find any way to convince themselves to stay.
And what about consent?
“Buuuut they said, yes!” you might say and sure, they did but consent can be withdrawn. Honestly, I have read fiction where the person says yes because they’re too scared to say no. That is not consent. Some books have characters interpreting rape as passion. Even as I am writing this, I am completely revolted by how easily these things can be normalized. This teaches people that it can’t be rape because your body responded, that it can’t be rape because you didn’t say no, and whatever other blatant lies.
Now, I’m not victim blaming here nor am I targeting anyone’s sexual kink, I’m just stating how these books tend to play it out.
There is nothing wrong with romance or smut for that matter, but as writers, we all have a responsibility. We can’t write about abuse as if it’s the most normal thing to have in a relationship. We can’t write about people shifting from an abusive person to someone who’s suddenly understanding and selfless. Maybe it happens, but it takes years for such a change to occur.
Everybody loves a story about a downtrodden sinner who finds redemption through love. In truth, the only message I get from this is: coddle the abuser. Doesn’t sound as romantic, does it?
I get that without the conflict stories won’t be as interesting but why choose abuse over everything else? Why is it so hard to romanticize healthy and consensual relationships?
I know everyone wants a once in a lifetime kind of romance but is the story worth the expense of one’s mental health?
Stories like these aren’t going to disappear over night, and I’m not one to ban books. Though I do believe that discussions should be made about these tendencies to romanticize abuse, to understand the impact it will have on readers.
This evidence of subtle abuse in fiction, needs to be pointed out rather than glossed over so as not to ruin a favorite book. I, for one, would rather ruin a book than someone’s well-being.
There are a lot of things I may not have mentioned so if you think I missed something, please leave it in the comments below. I’m open to discussions 🙂
I’ll be having another post up about how to write romance in novels! If you’d like to stay updated, consider signing up for my newsletter
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