A Toxic Kind of Love – Huffington Post

A Toxic Kind of Love – Huffington Post

As well as ranting on about all things Greek, I also write for non-Greek-related publications (!) including The Huffington Post.

Recently I penned an article about how many youngsters are heavily influenced by the media and society when it comes to relationships. Heck, even Disney movies teach us that love is blind. Do some of us unconsciously gravitate toward relationships that aren’t good for us because of what we have learnt through the media? I explore these themes in my article. You can read the original post here.

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A Toxic Kind of Love

A friend of mine was recently sitting on a bus, offering comfort to a close pal who was confiding in her about her controlling, verbally abusive boyfriend. At only 20, the girl was already starting to question her looks, dress sense and career plans, based on the opinions of her jealous, dominating 23-year-old sweetheart of one year. As the bus stopped, an elderly woman who had been sitting nearby got up and handed a note to the girls. The note read, “You need to get out now. Trust me, I’ve been there.”

Many people often seek comfort from friends and family when their relationships show signs of deterioration, but strong advice is not always acted upon or even given; in this case, it took a complete stranger to issue the wakeup call that was desperately needed. The girl in question was arguably young and naïve and not yet strong enough to stand up to someone whose own behavior displayed signs of emotional immaturity. Yet increasingly, it seems that even confident, independent women are bearing the brunt of their partner’s insecurities and continuing to suffer at the hands of the man they supposedly love. In the UK alone, more than 1.1 million women have been victims of some kind of domestic abuse in the past year.

Of course we all say things we don’t mean but the continual put down and dismissal of a partner’s ideas, ambitions and individual opinions is incredibly damaging. The strange thing is that more and more women seem to be accepting of this behavior and what is worse, conclude that it is a mere mild fault of their loved one that should not overshadow their good points.

Take Nigella Lawson for example. Whatever personal issues she may have had, there is no denying that Nigella is a talented, intelligent, beautiful woman who could no doubt have had her pick of fish in the sea. Yet, she ended up married to the ‘brilliant but brutal’ Charles Saatchi, a man who she claimed subjected her to ‘intimate terrorism’ which left her feeling ‘isolated and in fear.”

While it seems easy for us to say that Nigella surely had both the financial and emotional support to simply walk out and create a new life for herself, in practice, turning your back on a long-term co-dependent relationship can cause such turmoil for all parties involved that it may seem preferential to just ‘stick with it’. For most of us mere mortals, walking out is not even an option. Finances may be tied up, children are often involved, or traditions and religious views may bear a heavy weight on our decision. Sickeningly, the word ‘fear’ is often used as a reason to stay. ‘I fear he will destroy my confidence’. ‘I fear I won’t find anyone else’. ‘I fear he will try to take the children from me’. Heartbreakingly, I have heard this last statement one too many times.

In this modern age where gender equality is such a current issue, why are some women still being controlled both mentally and sometimes physically by their male counterparts? Is the man entirely to blame? Or have we become prisoners of our own devices, welcoming behaviour that we have been taught to accept from childhood as normal?

The media plays a huge part in what we view as acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour. From a young age we are taught the basics of right and wrong, to love and not to hate, to say sorry and more importantly to forgive. But what about the more subjective matters that surround love such as jealousy, power and control?

In all its controversy, pop culture has often been blamed for romanticising negative relationships and sending mixed messages to impressionable young minds. You only have to listen to Rihanna sing ‘Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, that’s alright because I like the way it hurts’ to see why some youngsters and adults alike believe that intense passion and intense pain go hand in hand.

Ambiguous song lyrics about love are nothing new. Back in 1962 pop group The Crystals had a hit with their song ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)‘. Apparently intended as a sympathetic story, the lyrics were largely perceived as an endorsement of domestic abuse, ‘If he didn’t care for me, I could have never made him mad, But he hit me, and I was glad’.

Even Florence Welch has jumped on the bandwagon with her record ‘Kiss with a Fist’ which she explained was about ‘two people pushing each other to psychological extremes because they love each other’, with lyrics such as ‘You hit me once, I hit you back, You gave a kick, I gave a slap, You smashed a plate over my head, Then I set fire to your bed’. Taken literally or not, the message is clear: Psychological abuse is OK when expressing your love.

In books, films and songs the greatest love of all is always perceived as difficult, even if only to begin with. As children we absorb the fables and fairy tales and grow up trying desperately to mesh our idealistic fantasies with the cold reality of life.

My favourite Disney film is Beauty and the Beast; a story about Belle who is clever, brave and doesn’t glamorise her looks like most of the other princesses. When her father is captured by the Beast, Belle goes to save him and offers to take her father’s place. She goes on to win the heart of the Beast who eventually shows his more gentle side, transforms into a handsome man and they live happily ever after. While it never occurred to me that the Beast was anything other than a misunderstood animal who needed some tender loving care, I was firmly of the opinion that Belle’s other potential suitor, the vain Gaston, was a male, chauvinistic pig. Despite aggressively locking Belle in a room, refusing to give her food or water unless she dined with him, and howling so ferociously in her face that she flees the castle fearing for her life, the Beast seemed a much better choice than the superficial, egg-loving French-man.

I somehow missed the glaringly obvious examples of Stockholm Syndrome and the Beast’s violently aggressive nature and dismissed it all as his mere frustration at being cursed by an enchantress. I learnt that being kind and gentle, will surely tame even the most violent and emotionally abusive of monsters. Sadly in reality, telling someone you love them does not prompt a magical transformation accompanied by fireworks and singing teapots.

There are various example likes this across the board and children lap it up. Of course there is the danger of the slippery slope here and are we to say that women who put up with controlling relationships do so because Walt Disney told them too? Well no, but it is obvious in most childhood stories that we are taught that abuse, bullying, ostracism and criticism, whether direct or indirect, passive or impassive, can all be swept under the rug with just one kind word.

In our adolescent studies, the examples become even more confusing. Othello smothers his wife Desdemona believing that she has committed adultery; Bill Sykes beats Nancy to a pulp just after she has declared her love for him by singing ‘As long as he needs me’; the powerful, charming Christian Grey tempts innocent young Ana Steele into his dark world of sado-masochism. So ok, he spoils her a little with material goods; but he also punishes her by giving her a good sexual beating, has her followed, picks out her clothes and decides who she can and can’t speak to. Yet we don’t question their love, for true love is always painful and sacrifices must be made. As the saying goes ‘You always hurt the one you love’.

Aside from the skewered view of the modern media, for hundreds of years it was believed that domestic abuse was in fact legal and that a man had a statutory right to beat his wife if she fell out of line. The well-coined phrase ‘rule of thumb’ was thought to have originated in ancient Welsh laws which apparently stated that ‘a man may beat a woman with a stick no thicker than his thumb’. However, while British common law permitted a man to give his wife ‘moderate correction’, this specifically excluded beatings and only allowed the husband to confine his wife to the household; Beauty and the Beast springs to mind once again.

In the United States, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties adopted in 1641 states, ‘Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction by her husband, unless it be in his own defence upon her assault’. Nevertheless these legal policies do not extend to other countries and shockingly, physical chastisement of women is accepted as common place in some cultures. While the origin of ‘rule of thumb’ may not be accurate, belief in the existence of laws that excused spousal abuse still lurks in certain circles and the fact that women had little recourse to physical abuse was certainly true and in some cases still applies today.

Of course while I have focused on the acceptance of abuse towards woman, we should never forget that men too can be victims of mental and physical abuse. In the past year there have been 720,000 men in the UK who have reported cases of abuse, with many more unreported. The shame and embarrassment that many victims feel is just one of the reasons even more cases are never reported. Overall, 30.0% of women and 16.3% of men had experienced any domestic abuse since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 4.9 million female victims of domestic abuse and 2.7 million male victims. Disturbingly, surveys show little difference in attitudes between men and women towards acceptance of abuse with around 10% of the British public believing it to be acceptable to hit or slap their partner during domestic spats.

From a young age we are taught that forgiveness and acceptance is the key to happiness. But have these teachings been misconstrued to such an extent that we now have a warped view of what actually deserves forgiveness and acceptance? Do we now unconsciously gravitate towards destructive relationships, believing that without pain there can be no real passion? One thing is certain; abuse of any kind is not acceptable, and no amount of fairy-tale airbrushing can excuse the damage of a toxic kind of love.

Follow Ekaterina Botziou on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ebotziou

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22 Comments

  1. MM Jaye
    21st July 2014 / 2:39 pm

    Excellent post indeed! I just wanted to add a Greek cultural aspect that you can’t know about since you weren’t raised in Greece: in old Greek comedies–the ones watched by the entire family–there’s often a pattern where the timid husband who cowers before his dominating wife at some point explodes and slaps her hard across the face. The standard reaction by the woman would be “oh my God, he’s a man!” or even worse “Do it again… I liked that!” As if suddenly, the reversal of roles (back to the perceived normal) smoothed everything out and gave the necessary denouement. This was the fifties and the sixties, but we grew up watching these films, and I don’t remember anyone telling me that that was domestic abuse! Of course, the woman’s behaviour before being “brought to her senses” was equally abusive, but that was portrayed as blatantly wrong, and ultimately the guy’s fault for not showing who’s the boss around the house!

    Thank God, society caught on… Of course, there is abuse in Greece even now, but I don’t think the statistics would be that much different than other European countries.

    • 21st July 2014 / 2:58 pm

      Sounds like the Greek TV-shows my in-laws watch now!

  2. 21st July 2014 / 10:19 am

    I’ve read it… ’cause I’ve been a HP-fan for years: the US one, the Canadian one and of course the French one… I’ve used to contribute to them, now and then… 😉
    * * *
    if we could take off the roof of any house, we’d be able to see and to understand lots of “stuff” about couples/people living indoors… 😉

  3. 19th July 2014 / 1:51 am

    I read somewhere that Nigella married him after he husband had died in awful circumstances (a lingering death, presumably of cancer) and Saatchi was a family friend and always around …

    • 19th July 2014 / 6:47 am

      Yes her first husband died of cancer and I believe she initially received a lot of negative press about her relationship with Saatchi.

      • 19th July 2014 / 6:56 am

        … so you’re right about the fact the she probably should never have married him. But he was a link to her first husband, the poor sad little creature.

        • 19th July 2014 / 8:20 am

          I don’t think she shouldn’t have married him – he could have been a wonderful man to begin with – I think she should have got out sooner but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors at the end of the day!

  4. 18th July 2014 / 10:14 pm

    As a male and someone who’s been part of at-times chaotic relationships, my feelings toward this issue are often strong but also conflicted.

    Certainly women face the brunt of relationship abuse, whether verbal or physical, from controlling men who are no doubt mentally ill themselves. Patriarchal sexism and obvious size and strength differences between men and women arrange for most societies to gloss over horrid treatment of women, particularly in more conservative societies in marital relationships where the husband is allowed to do “whatever he wants” to his wife. In India, for instance, as in many countries, spousal rape is not in fact legally considered rape.

    Even in the United States, where women’s rights and relationship abuse are treated with a fairness and seriousness not seen in much of the rest of world, and where cops ALWAYS give the benefit of the doubt to the female in a domestic issue, problems are rampant. Almost 1 in 5 (19%) of female college students are sexually assaulted on campus, usually by male perpetrators they know. Heck, even in Sweden, widely considered one of the most if not THE most progressive nations in the Western world, faces rampant sexual assault and relationship crimes against women that dwarf those in many Asian countries (altho its worth mentioning most crimes against women may not even be reliably reported in less developed nations).

    But to bring it back to a more personal matter, I’m not sure what the immediate, short-term solution is. Clearly, telling men and women to be more selective in terms of screening for past emotional abuse history and psychological health in potential partners is desirable, but I think it’s unlikely that women will stop being drawn to high-status, socially dominant males and men will stop being drawn to physically attractive, sexually available females as there’s a host of social and biological drivers that encourage those behaviors, often overriding other warnings of mental instability. Men and women are by their very nature quite shallow when initially selecting for partners (though they’re shallow for very different things), and this often leads both sexes into deeper waters when deep-seated emotional issues and possibly violent behavior emerges later on once they get past the initial flirting/dating stage.

    I think the key is that when both men and women find themselves in these toxic relationships, they somehow get their abusive partners to seek psychological treatment, medication, and/or counseling. Short of that, there’s not much else you can do and the only real options are to butt out and seek emotional fulfillment elsewhere. As you pointed out, that’s much easier said than done but women and men don’t often know that they’re in a toxic relationship until they’re already in too deep. It’s hard to notice those potentials for abuse and mental instability when you’ve only dated someone a few times.

    Of course, this only touches on problems in more developed societies where relationship abuse is socially frowned upon or legally punishable (in the case of physical abuse). These problems are a lot more deeply ingrained in highly conservative cultures where male dominance (emotional, physical, verbal, etc) is socially accepted and even encouraged, and thus seen as normal behavior.

    So in short, I’m not sure what the immediate answer is, but you touched upon a good point that the media influences us to a large extent and determines how far we’re willing to take these toxic relationships, how we view what as “acceptable.” Women certainly bear the worst of it, as most of society worldwide is still inherently patriarchal and of course most women are much physically smaller, weaker, and less aggressive than males.

    • 18th July 2014 / 11:47 pm

      Thank you for your extensive comments – you have raised some excellent points. The issue of abuse whether physical or mental is such a complex one and as you pointed out society itself by it’s very nature may act as a catalyst for such behaviour. I doubt there is any immediate answer other than to bring these cases out into the open and raise awareness for the victims as well as the perpetrators who themselves may not be aware of their own actions.

  5. 18th July 2014 / 6:10 pm

    Brilliant article! Domestic abuse is a huge issue back home in my country, Pakistan too. I remember when I first saw the movie ‘Enough’ starring Jenifer Lopez, I was surprised at how this violence was a huge issue around the world too. That was many years ago. Now I see and hear about such incidents all the time. It has nothing to do with culture or geographical boundaries. It’s something more personal, more vicious. No one can tell what goes on in a man’s head. For many years it could all be hunky dory and some odd incident could just flip the switch. Of course family history and other psychological factors play a role here, but overall its a demented approach towards women, an innate disrespect and grudge towards them that triggers this insanity. Oh Beauty and the Beast is my ALL TIME favorite Walt Disney cartoon. And I remember hating Gaston SO MUCH!!! He was exactly what you said, and so much more. Sadly, there are a lot of Gastons scouring the planet. May God give women and girls all over the world the strength to say ENOUGH.

    • 18th July 2014 / 6:16 pm

      Thank you for your comments Nida – it is a sad fact that there is so much hatred aimed at women today, but we must not forget that men too can be the victims of abuse. As you say enough is enough. We will not stand for it.

  6. Lesley Snell
    18th July 2014 / 12:44 pm

    Excellent article

  7. 18th July 2014 / 12:30 pm

    A really good article. I see it it from the man’s side (no surprise) but totally agree. I always was and always will be surprised by women who seem drawn to men who aren’t just less than perfect but positively horrid.

    In our Airbnb duties we have had several couples with us and within a few hours come to our own conclusions when it seems one or the other is treated badly by their partner and surprise surprise, each time they have split up or separated within a few weeks or months.

    It works both ways of course but perhaps certain women should start aiming for nice men rather than the hottest, baddest, richest guys they can find. Similarly too many young men strive for the 1% of women who look like models or the much larger percentage who dress as if they think they are and then get disappointed when there is no substance in the relationship.

    Unless both parties meet people of similar beauty, intelligence and morality to the other, sooner or later it will go wrong. Kind of like do you lust after getting a new Ferrari because of its status and then get to afraid to drive it or park it outside or do you opt for the sensible, cheaper if a little boring Ford Focus.

    • 18th July 2014 / 12:35 pm

      I like your analogy Stephen – the problem is, sometimes people don’t reveal their true colours until some time later – the little Ford Focus might be cheap and cheerful but may break down, similarly the Ferrari may be brash and bold but only you can drive it. Ok, I think I’ve ruined the analogy now!

      • 18th July 2014 / 1:05 pm

        I get what you’re saying. Maybe it is my fault for picking a car analogy. Still great post 🙂

  8. 18th July 2014 / 12:04 pm

    Excellent post. This sets me thinking

      • 18th July 2014 / 12:08 pm

        Yeah. I can’t respond more now… I have to gather my thoughts. This is one of those posts that makes you think and question many “self-evident truths”

        • 18th July 2014 / 12:30 pm

          I wrote it a while back actually when there was a lot of domestic abuse cases in the papers – just felt I had to put my thoughts to paper.

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