Stop Romanticizing Abusive Couples on Screen

When we hear the words “relationship abuse” or “intimate partner violence,  we tend to think of high-profile, physically violent scenarios — like Rihanna and Chris Brown but many cases of relationship abuse are more subtle than that.

Relationship abuse in the movies

Every time a Fifty Shades movie comes out, I fluctuate between feeling appalled and amused due to its laughable plot and dialogue.

While the Fifty Shades saga has some egregiously bad writing, it does highlight what an abusive relationship looks like, and some of the tendencies portrayed by billionaire creep, Christian Grey, are ones I’ve seen too often.

I'm sure you've heard of stories where someone's partner checked their phone, constantly criticized them, put them down or dismissed their feelings. While not every situation may be an abusive one, patterns of dominance and control certainly underlie these behaviours and can lead to abuse later on.

The prevalence of relationship abuse among young adults in society

Sometimes, it’s difficult to recognize these patterns because we tend to think of the most extreme cases for relationship abuse.

We know that abuse is wrong, but the truth is intimate partner violence is normalized because its so prevalent in our society. 

Youth between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest risk of dating violence, making up approximately 43 per cent of police-reported domestic violence incidents. These offences include assault, criminal harassment, threat utterances and indecent and harassing phone calls among many others.

Although domestic violence is a strong term, Canada's government's definition includes physical, sexual, emotional, financial abuse and neglect. However, note that not all domestic violence is considered criminal.

The exact magnitude of dating violence remains unclear, but several studies highlight its prevalence in North America. The results from a U.S. study from 1992 that surveys university students about their dating habits show that for post-secondary students, 87 per cent of men were afflicted and received some form of verbal aggression while 82 per cent of women experienced verbal aggression. Verbal aggression includes threats, put-downs, name-calling, insults, constant criticism and humiliation among others.

Also, results from another 2004 study surveying university students about dating violence show that 20 to 40 per cent of Canadian and U.S. students report one or more assaults in the course of one year.

StatCan has also found that dating violence is on the rise, especially on campuses.

It's no surprise that many of my friends, who are residence advisors, help their frosh deal with abusive situations. RAs are trained to recognize signs of potentially abusive relationships, provide frosh with support and direct them to resources.

The subtleties of emotional abuse on screen

These patterns of abuse also persist on screen, in many, many story arcs. As frequent consumers of the media, we should be cognizant of these patterns, especially because there’s such a high prevalence of abuse among university students.

As I mentioned above, Anastasia, the lead in Fifty Shades, and Christian are a prime example of relationship abuse. Christian demonstrates controlling behaviour by demanding to know Ana’s whereabouts and dictating what she can and cannot eat.

Also take Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl for example. When Blair tries to break up with Chuck, he physically grabs her and punches the window behind her in a moment of abusive rage, smashing the glass and marring her face.

We've grown up watching shows that portray possessiveness and emotional instability as some of the hallmarks of love, but these messages are dangerous and distort what a healthy relationship should be like, two partners treating each other as equals.

These situations send the message that if you make your partner upset, you deserve excessive anger, verbal abuse or any other form of emotional abuse. They send the message that possessiveness is a sign of deep passion, when it's really a sign of a lack of emotional control. These behaviours have damaging effects on a person's sense of self and integrity that far outweigh the grievances of the abuser.

It's also unsurprising that abuse can lead to other mental health problems, like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and even physical health problems. 

Examples of healthy relationships on screen

However, not all on-screen relationships are toxic. Examples of healthy relationships do exist on screen. Some of them include Monica and Chandler from Friends, Jim and Pam from The Office and Poussey and Soso from Orange is the New Black. What most of these couples have in common is their respect for each other and their commitment to understanding each others’ feelings.                                   

 Jim and Pam from the Office. (Courtesy of the Odyssey)

Jim and Pam from the Office. (Courtesy of the Odyssey)

Moving forward

For now, we need to stop romanticizing problematic couples both on and off screen.

Given the severity of the problem, there's really no simple solution. We can become more cognizant to the toxic behaviours portrayed in the media. But to start, we need to initiate frank discussions on what it means to be in a healthy relationship. We need to start encouraging people to keep their emotions in check, before they damage their own significant others.