The Glorification of Abusive Relationships

Trigger Warning:  Discussions of Child Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence

I’m an abuse survivor.  I’ve been pretty vocal about that over the years.  I spent 21 years in an abusive home and 13 years in an abusive relationship.  I was so used to the abuse and had been so thoroughly gaslit by my abusers that it took my sister-in-law years to convince me I was even being abused.  I just thought that was how people treated each other.

I was 34 years old before I lived in an environment where I wasn’t being abused constantly, and to be perfectly honest, it was hard to adjust to the lack of abuse.  I was depressed, I was lonely, I felt ignored and isolated.  I lashed out at people I loved.  I ruined a relationship that meant the world to me.  I went from manic highs during the first years, to 2 solid years of suicidal depression.  11 years later, I still have issues.  I’m easily triggered.  I have flashbacks.  I have nightmares.  I have days where all I want to do is cry.  I have days where I can’t get out of bed, and days where looking in the mirror makes me sick to my stomach.

Now, hold that thought for a minute, because we’re going to come back to it shortly.

I love romance.  Not necessarily the entire romance genre, but I love stories about people falling in love and stories about people being in love.  I adore pining, slow burns, friends to lovers, forbidden romance, secret relationships, hurt/comfort, domesticity, fluff and more.  I can’t get enough of it.

As a reader, and as an author, I recognize the fact that a story needs conflict.  It’s a part of what makes a story work.  The conflict can be fairly minor, or the conflict can be a fight to save the universe, but there has to be some sort of conflict to drive the story.  When a story centers around romance, the conflict needs to be connected to the relationship in some way, which brings us back around to abuse.

A disturbingly common occurrence in the romance genre is for both readers and writers to confuse conflict with abuse.  Writers have a character do horrible things to a person they are supposed to be in love with, and the audience, instead of being horrified, swoons and talks about how delicious the angst is.

I hate it.  I hate seeing it happen over and over again.  I hate it in books, I hate it in movies, I hate it in TV shows.  I hate the fact that if you say anything about it, if you criticize the character for the horrible thing they’ve done, if you dare to call it abuse, the fans, and often the writer, will blame the character who is being abused.

I don’t understand it at all.  I like romance stories because for me they’re a happy place.  I like them because they are supposed to be about two people who care about each other and love each other, and who find joy and comfort and happiness together.  I don’t go to romance stories because I want to relieve the worst years of my life.  I don’t go there because I am looking to relive the abuse it took me decades to escape.

Abuse is conflict, but abuse as conflict has no place in romance.  I am normally hesitant to tell anyone they shouldn’t write something, but I will say that no writer should write a story where an abuser and their victim have a happily ever after together.  No writer should ever write a story that blames a victim for their abuse.

I see it over and over again, and it’s a nightmare.  It’s like being told that all the horrible things that happened to me in the 13 years I was with my ex were my fault, that I’m to blame for every horrible thing she said and did to me.  It’s like being told that if I’d just tried harder, if I’d just been more understanding when she was grinding my soul under her heel, that everything would have worked out in the end.

I want to ask, seriously, if we can stop doing this.  If we can stop treating abuse like it’s swoon worthy.  Because it’s not healthy.  It’s teaching people to accept and even romanticize their own mistreatment.  It’s teaching abusers that they are the hero, and if their victim fights back, then it’s the victim that’s wrong.

People will say it’s just fiction.  It’s just a story.  But stories have power.  We see people acknowledge that all the time when they talk about representation in fiction.  We see them talk about the power of seeing POC or queer narratives in media.  We’re perfectly fine acknowledging the power of stories then.  But the moment we start talking about the damage these narratives do, it goes back to ‘it’s just a story’.

Except, it’s not ‘just’ a story.  It never is.

I’m a writer.  Most of my work is focused on romance.  It’s usually a driving force in my stories.  I won’t pretend that the romances are always perfectly healthy, but the thing I try to center in any romance I write is genuine care for each other.  I never write characters who set out to hurt each other.  I never write abuse and frame it as romance.

I never want my writing to make the world a worse place.

If you’re a writer, I’m begging you to look at your work and really ask yourself if the relationships are abusive or not.  If they are, fix them, or at the very least, frame them as abusive, rather than romantic.

If you’re a reader, I’m begging you to look at what you’re reading, and ask yourself if these characters are really treating each other with love and care, or are they taking out their anger and frustration on each other.  Are they deliberately hurting each other?  And if they are, ask yourself why you think that’s romantic?  Why do you think abuse is something to swoon over?  Is it because you really think it is, or is it because you’ve seen it glorified and held up as the exemplar of relationships in media?

Romances are stories, but a story is never just a story.  Every story we read, every story we write, shapes us and our world view.  It changes who we are, even if it’s just a little bit.  And stories where cruelty takes the place of love, where people inflict harm when they should be giving affection make the world a little bit colder, a little but harder, and a little bit more painful to live it.

So, please, can we stop glorifying abuse?