The price we pay for normalizing toxic relationships
TW: toxic relationships/sexual assault
I was twelve, maybe thirteen.
“It is just a wife’s duty to put out when her husband wants sex,” a guest on Dennis Prager’s radio show was saying. “Even if she doesn’t feel like it, it’s her job.”
I was bouncing along in the passenger seat of my dad’s truck on the way home from school. I knew that what I’d just heard didn’t sound right, but it had been said in the presence of a national figure, one my own parent, along with millions of other people, trusted. And I’d heard statements like it before: on TV, from the mouths of the deeply religious, even from my own peers. I didn’t have to agree with it to accept it.
A few years later, when my “high school sweetheart” groped me in a movie theater, I didn’t tell him to stop. I certainly didn’t encourage him, either, but I knew — or thought, rather — that as the female in the relationship, it was my job to shut up.
Though clearly an extreme example, this give-and-take — my receipt of the notion that girls and women were sexual playthings for boys and men, and my giving of my own physical agency to someone who did not have my best interest in mind — is by far the most memorable example I have of a time unhealthy relationships were normalized during my upbringing. And that normalization had consequences.
It has consequences for other people, too. For a high school friend who said she faked her orgasms so the boy she was sleeping with would just “finish up and get off of” her. For a different friend, who thought it was normal for the woman in a heterosexual relationship to be unhappy as long as her male partner was happy. For teenage me, who thought her boyfriend had to be incapable of maintaining friendships with girls without also cheating on me with them.
Unhealthy relationships are normalized nearly everywhere you look. From Taylor Swift’s legacy of romanticizing wildly toxic relationship dynamics in her music to the way we idolize unhappy couples on the silver screen, it’s easy to understand why many people are raised to think unhealthy — even abusive — relationships are worth striving for or putting up with. This normalization is so prevalent that a group of sociologists wrote a book about it: in The Normal Bar, they discuss which dynamics are commonly seen in couples and how they impact those couples’ overall satisfaction. (In one example, a woman does 100 percent of her family’s laundry because it’s what she’s always believed is expected of her. When she finally learns that most happy couples actually share laundry duty, she begins to split the responsibility with her husband.) Though mass media is beginning to improve at portraying healthy, happy relationship dynamics — hello, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Schitt’s Creek — I’d argue that these are still the exception, not the rule.
The way we frame certain subjects shapes the way they’re represented in other people’s lives. It’s why we’re so concerned about the integrity of journalism as we approach the 2020 presidential election; why we constantly argue over whether teenagers should be exposed to things like rap music, violent video games, and vaping. But why aren’t we placing this same level of concern on how we portray romantic relationships to others? Why don’t we acknowledge that how we publicly frame relationships, from the abstract to specific relationships in our own lives, impacts the dynamics others get themselves into under the guise that what they’re doing must be “normal” and therefore okay?
I didn’t leave my high school relationship until I was two years into it, when I found out through the Internet that relationships weren’t meant to be as unhappy as mine was. And up until recently, learning what a healthy, equitable relationship looks like was difficult. I’ve dedicated a good chunk of time to learning about healthy relationship-making; I’ve committed myself to educating others on the same and refusing to frame my own relationships in a way that would set a poor example for others, including my younger siblings. It’s brought me to the other side of the equation, where I’m constantly mind-boggled over how nonchalant people are of their hatred of their significant others.
I’m not saying the burden of others’ toxic relationships should fall on those who make the occasional joke about their relationship. As someone recently pointed out to me, many people have the capacity to infer humor and determine whether a good laugh is the result of harmless fun or a red flag. But I do challenge how frequently these “jokes” are actually made out of good-natured humor, not an unfortunate truth. After all, if society hadn’t already normalized unhappy, even unhealthy relationships, would “GAME OVER” t-shirts with silk-screened newlyweds exist? What about wedding cake toppers depicting actual murder, or bachelorette party balloons that say “run while you can”?
Similarly, people should be free to talk about their romantic struggles — not only is it healthy to do so, but it would be unrealistic to expect that everyone’s relationship with their partner is perfect. (Virtually no one’s is.) But I believe there should be a distinction between opening up about one’s relationship failures with friends, family members, or even social media followers versus accepting that the perpetuation of that failure is normal and worth facing long-term. It’s one thing to vent to your friends about an instance of miscommunication or hurt feelings in your relationship. It’s another to make a joke at every dinner party you attend about how your husband is a pain in your side.
When you — or the media you consume, or the content you post online, or the loud conversations you have with friends in public — normalize unhealthy relationship dynamics, people are listening. They’re internalizing the values presented in that relationship, they’re believing those values are normal, and they’re going about their day, passing this belief onto others. On the flip side, you deserve to witness romantic relationships that are joyful, communicative, and equal despite being imperfect. This will only happen if we pay attention.