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When Love Hurts

How romanticizing abuse normalizes toxic and violent relationships

By Nian Hu, Crimson Staff Writer

The “Twilight” series created a worldwide splash when it was first released 11 years ago, setting records as one of the biggest selling novels of 2008. The series’ success can be attributed to its inclusion of vampires and werewolves, but most of all, its depiction of an “instant and eternal attraction” between the dark and mysterious Edward Cullen and the innocent and naive Bella Swan. Twilight is, at its core, supposed to be a love story about two teenagers, one human and one vampire.

However, when we look closely at the story, concerning elements emerge. In “Twilight,” Edward has a habit of sneaking into Bella’s room to watch her sleep. In the books, this is shown as the height of romance. In real life? Not so much.

Edward also damages property when he is angry, physically hurts Bella and leaves marks on her body, routinely scares and intimidates her, controls where she goes and who she talks to, and threatens to commit suicide if she leaves him—all of which are signs, according to the National Domestic Violence hotline, of an emotionally or physically abusive relationship.

More recently, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the series depicting the romantic BDSM relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, has also been hailed as a steamy, desirable love story. Though a significant draw is the sexual aspect, most readers agree that they read the book because it is a “classic” romantic fiction.

Once again, however, there are abusive elements within the story wrapped up in a seemingly romantic narrative. Christian once tells Anastasia, “Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone—remember?” Another memorable line is: “He’d probably like to beat seven shades of shit out of me. The thought is depressing.” And yet, Anastasia still thinks of Christian as her perfect lover, her soulmate. What should be seen as unacceptable behavior is instead described as manly and attractive.

In many ways, domestic abuse has been normalized through the pop culture we consume. Men have been socialized to be persistent in their pursuit of women, and women have been socialized to be flattered and touched by his persistence. Studies have shown that when women watch romanticized portrayals of stalking in movies, they are more likely to accept stalking as desirable. The way we have been socialized makes it hard for women to identify abusive behavior as abusive, rather than just an extravagant act of love, and also makes it hard for women to be taken seriously when they are abused.

And while it may be easy to justify psychological abuse, such as stalking and manipulation, as being rooted in love, there should be absolutely no justification for physical abuse. Yet, that is still not the case. When Merrit Smith took her 4-year-old daughter for stitches after she was hit by a boy in her class, a staff member at the hospital reassured the girl, “I bet he likes you.”

The fact that this type of antiquated thinking is still being perpetuated by people is appalling. And even if these people are among the minority, their reinforcement of this line of thinking is insidious nevertheless. The idea that young boys express their affection for young girls by pulling their hair, grabbing them, wrestling them to the ground, and teasing them is nothing new. We are quick to brush off these incidents off with, “He just likes her!” or “That’s just how little boys are when they have a crush!”

But at what point is it no longer acceptable for abuse to be used to express love? At what point does a boy hitting a girl, or a boy following a girl, or a boy mocking a girl, become something that we are concerned about, rather than something we brush off as an act of romance? At what point do we stop romanticizing abuse?

When a kindergarten boy shoves his female classmate, or when a teenage boy reads his girlfriend’s text messages, we find this behavior a little possessive, perhaps, and a little extreme—but it’s romantic, it’s cute, and he clearly cares about her. Yet, when it’s a grown man beating his wife or forbidding her from talking to other men, we suddenly cringe and call it abuse. We draw a line separating love and abuse where there wasn’t one before.

The way we romanticize abusive behavior is dangerous because it normalizes toxic relationships and domestic violence from a very early age. It makes us think that abuse can be okay. It makes us think that abuse can even be romantic. And this makes it hard for domestic violence survivors to identify their partner as abusive, and even harder for them to leave or seek help, because part of them is still not sure whether it’s love or abuse.

Love and abuse: the two are complete opposites. Love is about caring for and supporting someone else and making them happy. Love is not about hurting someone else, or making them unhappy, or causing them pain. That is called abuse. And when we conflate love and abuse, we not only glorify toxic and abusive relationships, but we also undermine the value of strong, healthy, mutually supportive relationships that are truly grounded in love.

Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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