Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships


Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

Comments

  1. says

    “The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept.”

    I also think that, in addition to saying we don’t have to agree with the message, it’s perfectly reasonable for us to say, “Hey, people, as a society of storytellers, we can do better.”

  2. jose says

    One of the weirdest things from movies and tv shows I’ve seen is the hate-kiss. Who came up with that? Does it even exist? They’re having a huge argument, literally screaming at each other, and suddenly they violently make out. lolwut

    More on topic, I’m having trouble finding a movie with a true-to-life love story… Manhattan Murder Mystery is all I can come up with.

    • says

      Yeah, that has literally never happened in my life.

      Sometimes kissing/sex can smooth over the tension after an argument has run its course, but if it’s used as a way to avoid resolving the disagreement, that can’t end well.

  3. left0ver1under says

    “True love involves betrayal”? It sounds more like an attempt to excuse philandering.

    Gee, I wonder if this is at all related to the genders involved, those who make the decisions in Hollyweird. Most of the cheating in films is done by the men, yet it’s usually the women who “realized they were wrong”.

  4. 742 says

    non-creepy/horrifying love makes a shity story, in and of itself, but its a great element to add to a story thats mostly about something else.

  5. says

    I’ll admit I usually roll my eyes when feminists start comlaining about fictional characters. It sometimes seems like they wouldn’t be happy unless all the women were perfect in every single way. I’ve heard feminists say Buffy is sexist because she depends too much on men, and I’ve heard a feminist say that Lost is part of rape culture because it DOESN’T feature any sexual violence so it is therefore sweeping the issue under the carpet. I’ve also heard a feminst complain that the latest Tomb Raider game is sexist because it DOES feature threats of sexual violence. It’s just like a writer can’t win what ever they do.

    But when you say this…

    “The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept.”

    I think that’s a very fair point and I agree.

  6. Tim says

    As someone who has (sadly) attempted several such relationships under various narratives, I wholeheartedly agree on this matter. There is however one thing in your post that strikes me as odd. It is this:

    “I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning.”

    I am sure this is a no-brainer for you, but a person not loving you back makes them in no way a Not-Good-Person. There are lots and lots of perfectly good reasons to not love someone back including not actually being attracted to the person. It does not (but certainly can) require abusive behaviour.

    • says

      Yes, of course.

      But I also talked about a number of forms of maltreatment in this post, including cheating and manipulation. Obviously every couple starts out not loving each other (yet), but not every couple starts out doing stuff like that. To me, a good person doesn’t do such things, but in these stories such behaviors are presented as stepping stones to a healthy relationship.

  7. says

    “Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise.”

    I hadn’t compared it to a movie love story before, but this basically describes my current relationship. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be in a committed relationship a lot (he didn’t even cheat, he was just non-committal), and finally I was like “dude, you can only wander off so many times before I move on with my life.” So I did move on. And he started coming back around and I was like “dude, really, people don’t just change.” But after a few months it did seem he had changed. And now it’s been a couple years and I guess some things just stick. Nothing particularly dramatic or romantic about it, other than he slowly decided to stick things out.

    tl;dr People can change, but only because they want to get their shit together, not because someone else put up with their shit out of “love”.

  8. trazan says

    Romance is so pervasive in culture. It is what poems, paintings, songs, books and films are about. I guess the ideas and images of romance leave stronger impressions on people than their own experience. Also, if you are not that romantic, you may think that your significant other and those around you expect you to behave in a romantic manner.

    I may want to change things about myself, but I wouldn’t like a partner trying to manipulate me into changing without my participation, even for a good cause.

  9. JW says

    I really love Emilie Richards romance (and other) novels, as examples of healthy love relationships developing. I’ve been looking for this kind of book ALL MY LIFE!!! and am currently very chuffed to have found ONE writer I trust! Even so, there are a few of her novels I like less well, but they’re mostly among the older ones, and I can tell myself that she’d write it differently now :) – other writers I trust about relationships are Barbara Kingsolver and….. nope can’t think of anyone! Oh actually, Meg Cabot’s adult novels… and my favorite book on good love is ‘Lucky in Love’ by Catherine Johnson – I can’t believe it’s out of print EVERYONE SHOULD OWN ONE I OWN TWO!!! and the less cheerful books ‘The Verbally Abusive Relationship’ by Patricia Evans, and ‘Why does he DO that?’ by Lundy Bancroft I would also like to be required reading – I think a lot of people don’t ‘see’ the abuse that happens to them without it being pointed out – if people had to read this stuff in schools, maybe they would find it easier to recognize Edward’s (honestly relatively subtly abusive) behaviour as abuse.

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