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?
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.