Throwback Thursday: Character Psychology 101: Emotional abuse is not romance

character psych 101


If you've been a long time follower, you may remember this feature.  It combines my passion for and expertise in psychology with my love for books!  And I want to bring it back.  Every post I'll have a different topic linking psychology (with actual real facts from research!) to popular fiction.  Hopefully this will be interesting as both a deeper discussion of the novel, as well as teaching you something you may not have known.  To kick off the renewal of this topic, I'd like to share the first Character Psych 101 post. 

twilight & abusive relationships

So, let’s imagine a relationship between two people, a boy and a girl in high school. They meet and there’s instant attraction. The boy oscillates between flirting with the girl and telling her to stay away from him. Eventually he gives in. They date. She spends all of her time with him. Her family and friends don’t know where she goes or what she does with him. He disapproves of some of her close friends and tries to get her to stop seeing them. He tells her what to do because he wants to keep her safe. They alternate between blissful making out and extreme fights. He’s her only world. She’s his source of redemption.

Anyone else creeped out yet? Because this describes Bella and Edward in Twilight, as well as many of the relationships that are pop up in teen, young adult, or new adult romance.  (I'm going to pick on Twilight because it's popular enough to have some armor and because it's almost universally familiar to people.)  It also describes your garden-variety abusive relationship. 

And it’s not romantic. It’s not sweet. It’s glorifying a controlling union in which the boy is free to be possessive and authoritarian because it’s seen as sweet, caring, insert more delusional crap here. It’s sick. And it’s giving teen girls a very twisted idea of an ideal relationship. Girls aren’t guilt-free either. Our heroines are often guilty of many of the same controlling, possessive behaviors--and tend to get called out on it less.

This isn't new.  This isn't groundbreaking.  But how many times do we have to talk about this before people start getting the hint?  Twilight.  Hush, Hush.  The Vampire Diaries.  50 Shades of Gray.  The D.U.F.F.    Don't make me keep listing.

Sure, you don’t see a lot of YA heroes out there hitting their girlfriends. Most people know how to recognize that kind of abuse. But what about emotional abuse? Let’s take a look.

Common types of emotional abuse courtesy of The Hotline, and some Twilight examples:

  • Calls you names, insults you, or criticizes you

  • Does not trust you and acts jealous or possessive -- This is hugely common in YA. Edward gets annoyed that Jacob gives Bella a present (Twilight). Yeah, all people get jealous, but Edward's reaction to Jacob's affections for Bella are over-the-top and don't give Bella the agency to handle the situation herself.   

  • Tries to isolate you from family or friends -- Sounds extreme, right? Well, what about Edward disabling Bella’s truck so that she couldn’t go visit Jacob? Pretty creepy.

  • Monitors where you go, who you call, and who you spend time with -- See above about the truck. Also all of Edward’s annoyance over Bella’s relationship with Jacob. Even telling her to stay away from him.   

  • Punishes you by withholding affection

  • Expects you to ask permission -- Edward gets super annoyed every time Bella goes off and does something risky on her own without telling him first.   

  • Humiliates you in any way
  • Monitors your communication -- Spying on your partner's cell phone is not cool.

These are just some examples , but the fact that they’re part of a relationship portrayed as desirable and ideal is worrisome. What’s wrong with healthy relationships built on mutual trust? It's fine for books to portray abuse, but when it's done uncritically and in the guise of idealized romance, it sends a dangerous message about women should want and expect. 

And it's dangerous.  Emotional abuse damages a person's self-esteem over time.  It can isolate people from friends and family to the point where their partner is their only meaningful relationship, and they have no where else to turn.  Maybe Edward preventing Bella from seeing Jacob is seen as a harmless mistake in the book, but if a guy did that in real life, it's almost certainly a sign of controlling, coercive behavior.  While Edward thankfully didn't ridicule or demean Bella, this is one of the most common (and damaging) parts of emotional abuse.  Both in research and in anecdotes from battered women I've worked with, many assert that they'd rather have their partner hit them than verbally attack them--the emotional abuse felt worse and the effects lasted longer. 

While Edward and Bella's relationship doesn't show some of the most severe kinds of abuse, it's full of incidents and red flags that are characteristic of abusers.  It's often these "lesser" forms of abuse that eventually escalate into more violent forms.  By that time, the woman or man feels trapped. 



What are some examples of abusive relationships or behavior in YA and teen books?
What characters fit the abuser profile? 
What are some examples of healthy relationships in YA and teen books?

Other Links:

Twilight and the Abuse Checklist: In which a clever reader goes through the abuse checklist and finds that Edward and Bella fit nearly all of the warning flags.
Relationship violence in Twilight -- In which a psychologist discusses how Bella is the prototypical woman at risk for abuse.
Bad Romance -- A fantastic post about YA novels, particularly Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, and rape culture.


  1. So true! I cannot stand YA books with unhealthy relationships, and there are a lot of them. The worst I've read is Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire. That book was SUCH a horrible example of a relationship. And people love that book. So bad.

    One of the best relationships I've seen is in Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway. They support each other and encourage each other to explore their interests apart from each other. So healthy!

    Great post!

  2. What a timely post! I've just read a different romance, The Lonely Valley by Gwen Kirkwood, and found myself getting angry about just the same types of behaviour and wondering if I had missed something. Sexual assault is so not romantic, neither is the male hero repeatedly throwing stroppy tantrums until the heroine turns into (even more of) a complete doormat just so HE is happy. Why do authors, especially female ones, continue to promote these examples as ideal relationships? And can anyone recommend books that break this damaging mould?

    Stephanie Jane

  3. Twilight is much more complicated than being used for typical relationships.

    1. The only Twilight relationship that was typical boy girl was Jacob and Bella. Even with the werewolf situation there was still a level of normalcy between them like any other pair of teens.

    2. Edward is not a typical teen boy at all and can't be compared to a typical boyfriend. Here is how his life would be like in the real world based off his lifestyle and behavior:

    a) Edward is from a family that moves a lot and lives under the rule of a cult they believe is all powerful. No matter where they go the cult has people from high up who can find out things about all their members unless they go into deep hiding. Any outsider found to know about them either has to join or die. So he does not get attached to people he can't really be honest with anyway. After falling for Bella he's super protective so that he can keep her under the radar. Jacob from a vying cult that is more open to their members comes on the scene and Edward is worried what might happen since his group believes the other is dangerous and vice versa. He gets to the point where he goes overboard breaking down Bella's car and watching her sleep (which are wrong by the way and can fall under the abuse tagline). There is an attack from another group of cult members and Bella gets hurt.

    Bella is extremely attached to Edward and even when he tries to leave uses emotional abuse to get him to stay declaring she can't live without him and makes him scared to leave. When he does leave for the good of the family and Bella, she falls into a deep depression. Her dad has to deal with her emotion attachment issues as she screams at night and barely functions. Jacob comes in and pulls her out of her depression and she becomes emotionally attached to him like a leech. When something happens and he has to push her away she won't allow it and is determined to find out what has him gone because apparently no one leaves Bella Swan. When she does find out she decides to ignore all the dangers and still attach herself to Jacob and in between tries all kinds of dangerous stunts to get hallucinations of Edward to come up. Mental unbalanced much? When it's falsely reported that Bella has died, Edward who has developed his own attachment issues and separated from his family decides to commit suicide.

    Bella goes with his sister to prevent this but ends up falling into the clutches of the cult Edward tried to keep her away from. The threat is issued that she either joins or dies and a time limit is placed. Proving most of Edward's over protective behavior to be very founded.

    B) The Cullen families are a secret agent family for a foreign country and have to be careful of exposure.

    3. There are a whole lot of themes in the series including:

    1. Mental Illness: Bella hallucinating Edward

    Edward attempting suicide

    Bella becoming immediately toxicly attached and Edward eventually following suit even after extricating himself from the relationship.

    2. Female cunning: Bella using emotional tactics to keep Edward.

    Female using her wiles to draw in a group of teens to use to murder a family who killed her boyfriend/mate.

    3. Male possessiveness: Edward spying on Bella.

    Edward sabotaging her car.

    Edward keeping her very close without explaining why in full detail.

    Possibly using scare tactics.

    Jacob trying to keep Bella away from Edward after they officially are a couple.

    Jacob going behind their backs and revealing this to Bella's father.

    4. Family

    5. Cult/Vampire rule

    6. Romance


    At the end of the day I believe Twilight realistically shows what would happen if an emotionally unbalanced girl from a broken home gets with a guy who seems perfect and popular but lives a double life with deadly consequences for those who get too close. Does not sound like any typical romantic teen relationship I have heard of in real life. If Edward was not a vampire he would be a regular teen in love with a girl.