I fought the monsters, but became one myself: A musing about relationship expectations

Full title: I fought the monsters, but became one myself: A musing about relationship expectations incorporating Nietzsche’s philosophy, with a brief ranting about romance novels
Content warning: Aside from the Carnival of Aces link, all the other links in this post discuss abuse.

This post is intended to be for the November 2014 Carnival of Aces: Expectations in friendships/relationships. (not sure if it counts though, because much of this story took place before I found the asexual community)

One of Nietzsche’s most famous quotes is very fitting for my experiences with the expectations surrounding romantic relationships:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster… when you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

I wasn’t always this cynical though. As a kid, I grew up watching Disney movies, and I used to have an idealized view of romantic relationships. I expected that one I was old enough for romantic relationships, that they’d be like what’s portrayed in the older Disney movies. I was expecting that romantic spark to happen with someone, and we’d live happily ever after.

That didn’t happen, and shortly after entering middle school, I was jaded towards the idea of romance. I never felt what other people were “supposed” to, or at least I didn’t strongly enough to desire acting on it. I couldn’t see what the hype was with being a couple. Maybe it was a lie? I didn’t give it that much thought though, not until high school.

While I was in high school, I grew aware that the expectations about romantic relationships, portrayed by the mainstream media were not things to strive for. I knew that the idea of possessiveness towards one partner being a sign of “true love” was bulls$&%, and it was just toxic. I didn’t see anything endearing about jealousy either. I also hated the idea of dating, and being in a romantic relationship if it meant being expected to sacrifice so much of my free time for my partner, and for what in return? I didn’t see the appeal. Before I realized I was asexual (and possibly also aromantic*), I just chalked it up to being a loner.

I also hated the expectation of having to make my partner the center of my life, sacrificing a large part of my individuality for them. Apparently, “love” is what I get in return, but this “love” means assimilating into another person, losing individuality in the process. I found it depressing that some people thought that assimilation was a good thing.

Another expectation of relationships, seen a lot in mainstream media is that “love” will change, and complete a person. Tying this with the expectation of two people becoming one, how does romantic love complete a person, if they’re expected to give up a lot of their individuality in the process?! If you love someone, why would you want to change them?

I suspect that because of these expectations, people entered, or stayed in abusive relationships, because they thought their love for their partner would change them. That expectation is very common in romance novels, and it’s usually gendered, with the female lead believing that her love for the male lead (especially one who is the “bad boy” type) will change him, reform him of his bad ways, and show his loving and caring side. In real life, this can be dangerous. Some people are just monsters and can’t be reformed (or they don’t want to), but will take advantage of this expectation!

While I was in high school, Twilight was at its peak in popularity, and I couldn’t tune it out. It was everywhere. Twilight is far from the only romance novel series that portrays abusive, codependent relationships as romantic, and excuses the abuser’s actions as “true love”. It is also far from the first romance novel to do that. It’s just that Twilight is one of the most well-known examples, and stands out for being written for a younger audience, who might end up thinking these expectations are what should be striven for.**

I spent time lurking in the Twilight hatedom (specifically, one of the more reasonable parts that focused on discussing the unhealthy messages it gives out), because that is the first place I’ve seen critical analyses of the abusive relationship tropes in fiction. It allowed me to see the toxic expectations that society passes off as “true love” displayed so clearly, and in so much detail. It allowed me to gaze into the abyss.

I saw Bella (and the many other romance novel protagonists like her) as the monster I must avoid becoming, because she embodied these expectations and their harm. She’s completely passive, an empty shell of a person, and her life revolves around Edward. She thought her life was worthless when they broke up, and she doesn’t really have any interests of her own.

There were some ways I missed the mark though. I didn’t catch on to the idea of there being different relationship models. I assumed that clinginess, jealousy, and possessive behaviors were intrinsic to romance itself. I also assumed that romance inherently changes people, usually for the worse, compelling someone to abandon their friends and give up their interests in favor of their partner. Just like what so much of the media says what a romantic relationship is supposed to be like. I thought the only way out of all of this, to never succumb to these expectations, and avoid becoming what I don’t want to be, was to never date.

Because of this, I couldn’t look to it that I don’t become the very thing I wanted to fight against when someone had romantic feelings for me. I didn’t focus on the root of the problem, which was that one, unhealthy kind of romantic relationship being glamorized by society!

Despite my opposition to many of the societal expectations towards romantic relationships, I still got crushed by the weight of them, and succumbed to them.

What was it that got the better of me? Fear, anxiety, and learned helplessness when I got dragged into a romantic relationship. I didn’t really agree to it, but that was immaterial. I was in a romantic relationship, regardless of the circumstances behind it, and with one of the same people that I described here.

I saved myself from unwanted sex, though that was because I both fought so hard to maintain that one boundary, and got outside help for that. However, I still succumbed to nearly everything else I sought to fight against. I didn’t know what romance really was, so often times I was just lashing out aimlessly. I tried to tell my “boyfriend” that I didn’t want to date him, because I don’t want to become a doormat, and that I hate kissing and cuddling, and that I don’t want to lose my personality. He was right that I don’t have to be a doormat, lose my personality, or enjoy stereotypically romantic gestures, but that he declared we were dating angered and scared me. He told his friends and family it too. It made me feel more trapped, made me feel like he had all the power, and fear more strongly that I will become what I’m expected to be in a romantic relationship.

My lashing out accomplished nothing positive, and I believed that I couldn’t escape unless he declared that we were no longer a couple. Because he didn’t want to break up with me, I felt like it was easier to just stop resisting, and become a passive doormat. Fighting to maintain my boundaries and individuality was difficult and painful. It felt futile. The more I fought against these relationship expectations that I hated, the more I internalized them.

While this was happening, I still read a lot of websites that criticized society’s expectations about relationships, including that part of the Twilight hatedom that gives critical analyses. While continuing to read their analyses, I realized that I practically became Bella Swan (or any other character just like her).

I inadvertently reinforced the ideas I opposed, because I was carelessly lashing out in fear in this relationship, and that was because I didn’t take care to distinguish what romance really is, from the unhealthy mold that society expects relationships to fit.

I felt the abyss gazing back at me, telling me I became what they and I hated.

By early 2012, this transformation was almost complete. I felt like my own life and goals didn’t matter. My purpose in life was to make another person happy, and fulfill his needs, and how can I do that if I have a personality? I was one step away from embracing societal expectations about relationships, because I was about to believe it was hopeless. I narrowly avoided that fate, I spent that year beginning the process of recovering from all the unhealthy expectations that I internalized. I found the asexual community later that year.

I originally wondered if part of my early awareness of several of the toxic expectations surrounding romantic and/or sexual relationships was because my asexuality, and being on the aromantic spectrum, and introversion? If sex and romance never appealed to me, didn’t it come naturally that I didn’t buy into the hype surrounding what mainstream society portrays as the romantic relationship model? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain how I succumbed to those expectations. Fighting against them can still require a deliberate effort, even if someone is aromantic, asexual, and sex-repulsed.

As I continued to get involved in the asexual community, I was surprised by how many people I’ve met there who said that they caved into sex and/or relationships that they didn’t want, because they were expected to. Some of them wanted romantic relationships, but not sex. They had it anyways, because of the expectation that sex must be part of a romantic relationship, and they saw it the price they had to pay to keep that relationship. Some said that they expected that they’d eventually enjoy sex, only to feel broken, because they never could.

Societal expectations surrounding sex and romance got to them, but I can’t fault them for it. Those ideas are pervasive. So many messages about how everyone is supposed to want relationships, how they’re supposed to be a certain way, how we’re expected to behave in certain ways in them, bombard us every day.

Those messages can be countered with a lot of critical analysis, to realize for oneself how arbitrary and harmful society’s expectations are, and rise above them. However, when someone really wants to fit in, or needs to conform to these expectations in order to avoid bullying by their peers for not desiring a romantic and/or sexual relationship, countering society’s expectations isn’t seen as a viable option.

On a more positive note, the discussions about romance and relationships I’ve seen in the asexual community helped make me become aware that there are different relationship models, and that “romance” isn’t as concrete as I thought it was. These discussions helped me rethink what romance actually is, and isn’t, and reaffirmed that the expectations I opposed really are arbitrary but harmful. When I was at my low point in late 2011 to early 2012, I actually had my doubts.

I realize now that I can’t really distinguish romantic from platonic relationships, and I still don’t have a clear idea of what “romance” is exactly, but I know that jealousy, clinginess, possessiveness, and sacrificing one’s individuality aren’t intrinsic to it. I still must fight against society’s and the media’s expectations towards what romantic relationships should be, but I’m much better prepared this time, and know how to avoid the mistakes of the past.


Footnotes:

*Looking back, I think my romantic orientation might have changed over time. I might have been completely aromantic back then, though now I’m gray-romantic.

**It isn’t just the romance and YA novels that perpetuates these tropes so often. The shoujo and yaoi genres of manga also have this same problem, but in the West, they don’t have the same reach that romance and YA novels do, and are seen as more niche. The only people I heard talking about anime and manga of any kind were usually other anime and manga fans. On the other hand, I couldn’t escape hearing about Twilight during its heyday, because my peers were talking about it everywhere!

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15 thoughts on “I fought the monsters, but became one myself: A musing about relationship expectations

  1. luvtheheaven

    My brother told me recently that love can be like a drug – that you don’t care about anything else in your life, that you’d forget about your other priorities more easily, that you can kind of, in a way, “get high” off of just being in your romantic partner’s presence. I think that is sort of what the intoxication of lust can be like for people too. I cannot relate, but I think that’s the idealized memory these adult authors are putting into Teen novels and TV shows and all of them. The memory of being young and inexperienced but already feeling excited and happy by just being around someone who they found sexy or who they had a crush on or whatever it is. I can almost relate. Maybe relate a little, maybe not. I think I might’ve had romantic feelings before. Or maybe they were some other kind of feelings. It’s hard to say.

    I watch a TON of TV shows, old and new, many featuring teenage characters (usually played by adults in their 20s and 30s lol…) and one of the interesting things is how often abusive relationships are painted as the couple you are supposed to be rooting for, that these “Anti-heroes” and villains just need redemption arcs. They need to learn the error of their ways and be sorry and all of it and then everyone can live happily ever after. I’m not sure why this is such a norm. Maybe because in real life it doesn’t work out happily, people want to put this fantasy into fiction, and make a feel-good story that happens to end up reinforcing a bad message.

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    1. Aqua Post author

      That reminds me, Bella described her “love” for Edward as being addicted to him, or obsessed with him.

      I’m disturbed by that trend of abusive couples being rooted for, even if people correctly believe it’s wishful thinking that love will always redeem someone. There are already so many myths about abusive relationships that people believe to be true, and might not see the idea of love redeeming an abusive anti-hero as being just a fantasy.

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      1. luvtheheaven

        My brother’s first girlfriend, first person he was in love with (a girl he started dating when he was 17 and a junior in high school) – after he was with her for 3-and-a-half years he was Googling stuff about when “the infatuation period” ends, wondering if he was confusing loving having sex with her for being in love with her (his first and only, at the time, sexual partner he had any experience with), etc. He felt a bit suffocated too, or… like he had no self anymore because she was a too big part of her life… and he felt afraid to start a fight by telling her it hurt his feelings when she’d criticize his clothing choices or hair style in front of his friends, or telling her Skyping with her for a whole hour every single day they didn’t see each other in person was just too much for him. He ended up breaking up with her but then they got back together a year later, after he enjoyed being single for a couple of months, then spent the rest of his lonely year hating not having anyone to have sex with. He might’ve wanted a new girlfriend too, but he more really wanted sex, from what I can gather. He tried and failed to hook up with other girls… managed to have one one-night-stand but didn’t enjoy it much… and once he got back together with his girlfriend, he was grateful to realize he loved her for quite a bit more than the sex. That for instance when our uncle died he felt really comfortable sharing all of his thoughts and feelings with her and crying in her presence. He also just communicated his needs more, realized he needed more alone time/time to play his guitar/watch TV without her/hang out with his own friends without her around/etc and she was immediately very willing to grant him a bit more freedom to live his own life, having not realized she was preventing him from it before.

        They both seem happy together now, having been together for roughly 5 out of the past 6 years. For instance, last month they both dressed up in similarly silly TV character based costumes for a Halloween party and had fun drinking and attending the party together, and splitting the cost of the cabs to take them there and back (because they are both very good about never driving drunk). Their personalities complement each other well, they talk to each other about anything and everything, they get along with each other’s friends and families, they enjoy a lot of the same things, they have similarly non-religious beliefs, etc. I truly believe they can make it in the long run, and that it’d be a good thing for both of them, that their relationship makes each other happy.

        His experiences make me think even for alloromantic/allosexual people it can be very confusing as to what love is supposed to feel like, what a relationship is supposed to mean for your life, etc. How much time you’re supposed to spend with them, etc.

        I think you’re also completely right about how “There are already so many myths about abusive relationships that people believe to be true” – and it’s such a shame, and it’s so hard to fix these misconceptions in everyone’s heads…

        It’s such a complicated and difficult subject.

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        1. Aqua Post author

          It sounds like he was confusing wanting sex with her with being in love with her. At least he recognized that the relationship didn’t have to be that suffocating, and stepped away for a year. I think that time away helped him realize what makes a relationship work, outside of societal expectations. That’s great that their relationship works out now!

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      2. snowflake0w0

        >That expectation is very common in romance novels, and it’s usually gendered, with the female lead believing that her love for the male lead (especially one who is the “bad boy” type) will change him, reform him of his bad ways, and show his loving and caring side. In real life, this can be dangerous. Some people are just monsters and can’t be reformed (or they don’t want to), but will take advantage of this expectation!

        So you think the content of these novels could effect what people to do in relationship?
        I don’t think it works obviously.Many things not change like that way…for example ,a gay person can’t turn straight by reading these novels …nor yaoi manga can change their gay looking preferences as well…

        (I feel those Mary/Tom Sue characters almost gave me a PTSD just by reading story summaries,therefore I can’t comment the content of Twilight,I can’t watch the Twilight movie since the Bella actress and Edward actor are quite ugly,and Jacob is a pedophile)

        “What is good?”
        “What is evil?”
        These questions I think you can’t answer easily…
        The female lead want to change the male lead to be “good”,is really such good?
        I don’t think so,if you notice the characteristic of those people who like this kind of stories (“redeeming” an abusive anti-hero),they are that kind of person love to change the moral standard of others and pushing their moral standard to others.(Whatever the standard is.)This kind of people are very common in population,then those novel authors write some GOD DAMN Sue stories to fulfill their desire for $$.Authors didn’t change the whole mindset ,they just keeping to read some stories to tell a group of people “what you dream would work in story”But they even didn’t lie to them “it’s a real.”It just a novel.
        If that male anti hero isn’t good looking enough,I guess they just don’t care those moral for that guy.Some of silly fans still think they are a saint for feel good about themselves,then they have to pay for their stupidity and self-centeredness.

        What is my type in novel ???Is it there a type?

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        1. Aqua Post author

          Someone who doesn’t think critically about relationships could end up thinking what they see about them in fiction is realistic. Thinking critically means questioning for oneself what ideas about relationships are reasonable, from those that are harmful.

          The female leads in those kind of novels see themselves as being purely on the good side, believing they can see past the male lead’s abusiveness into seeing his good side, and believes that her love can break his abusive shell, and bring out his good side. However, you make a good point about how that’s still someone imposing their moral standards on another. Briefly ignoring how unrealistic this idea is in real life, wouldn’t it be seen as justifiable in a circumstance like this, because the female lead wants to redeem the male lead?

          Otherwise, when someone wants to use their “love” to change another person, that’s not real love.

          The authors of these novels aren’t deliberately writing propaganda to encourage people to stay in abusive relationships, or I doubt that they are. However, societal norms about relationships hide most of the signs of an abusive relationship; a lot of people still think that the only kind of abuse is physical violence done out of anger, and not all abusive relationships are physically violent, and these novels reinforce these ideas when someone doesn’t think critically.

          I only saw the first Twilight movie. I had forgotten about Jacob and his creepy relationship.

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          1. snowflake0w0

            >I had forgotten about Jacob and his creepy relationship.

            How creepy?I just know he is a pedophile for Bella’s daughter and I saw the posters of Jacob often topless ,which makes me thought Jacob may want to save his $$ from buying T-shirt.

            >The authors of these novels aren’t deliberately writing propaganda to encourage people to stay in abusive relationships, or I doubt that they are.

            If they want to encourage people to stay in abusive relationships,which kind of benefit they can get?Sell more books?The causal relationship isn’t clear.I think they write this kind of relationships in their books since if the male lead and female lead can’t get a happy ending easily, then the author can write more sequels to get more $$ by their inferior creativity.

            >However, societal norms about relationships hide most of the signs of an abusive relationship; a lot of people still think that the only kind of abuse is physical violence done out of anger, and not all abusive relationships are physically violent, and these novels reinforce these ideas when someone doesn’t think critically.

            I just want to say everyone have a different standard…You have to notice Twilight can’t make people who think critically like it ,but hate it so much…I think say Twilight(and Sue novels) is spiting the society would be better.After all ,it fulfilled the lust of many people,once time the lust been fulfilled,these stupid fandom don’t care it piss up a lot of people like me and keeping to being fools.

            >when someone wants to use their “love” to change another person, that’s not real love.
            Okay.

            >The female leads in those kind of novels see themselves as being purely on the good side,
            This statement make me remind Islamic State………….

            >wouldn’t it be seen as justifiable in a circumstance like this, because the female lead wants to redeem the male lead?
            It depends on my benchmarks of good and evil and the whole story plots and the characteristic of male lead and female lead …hard to answer a question just like this without examples…But for most of Mary Sue stories ,my answer is “NO”.

            >Someone who doesn’t think critically about relationships could end up thinking what they see about them in fiction is realistic. Thinking critically means questioning for oneself what ideas about relationships are reasonable, from those that are harmful.

            They want to like Twilight…I can’t stop their individual freedom…………..

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            1. Aqua Post author

              I was referring to his relationship with Bella’s daughter. Everything about it is creepy. That’s not the only creepy thing he’s done either. He also forced Bella’s first kiss on her. I know how horrible that is, because I’ve had someone force my first kiss on me. 😦

              I can’t stop someone from liking Twilight, but I’ve seen some fans say they want their relationships to be just like Edward’s and Bella’s. The only thing I could do, is inform them on why that’d be a bad idea, but it’s still their choice as to whether they accept that information or not.

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            2. snowflake0w0

              Where is the reply button on next comment?

              Thank all gods for I didn’t watched Twilight,except the sparking vampire plot as comedy,I can feel a little bit mercy through this fact………..

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              1. Aqua Post author

                There wasn’t a reply button, because the limit for how many levels a comment can be nested, was reached. I had it set at 6 levels, but increased it to 8. The maximum setting on the WordPress platform is 10 levels.

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  2. snowflake0w0

    After I bombard the god damn Twilight.,here is for yaoi.
    Honestly ,I was a fan of yaoi,that’s why I know how disgusting they are.Although I liked rare shipping ,but 90% of their art must like this:
    Mr Seme MUST taller than Mr Uke.
    Mr Seme MUST never have erectile dysfunction.(The incidence in reality is more than 25%)
    Rape MUST =enjoy.(in 90% of rape plot~)
    The characteristic of Mr Seme even more empty then Bella Swan,but Mr Uke always have too many inner monologue,it makes believe Mr Seme is a sex robot(or sex doll) actually

    Since I can’t find many of their art not like this way , therefore I didn’t into these stuff a while .But some of shippings may not like this.(Example :Mr Uke taller then Mr Seme)
    I read the article of this link :
    http://geeksdreamgirl.com/2012/04/30/an-open-letter-to-shoujo-manga-and-you-too-twilight/

    (Quote:Oh yeah, and you get a giant dose of that whole Rape Is Love trope in josei manga (boy/girl romance manga for adult female audiences) as well. Example: anything by Mayu Shinjo ever. Squick.)
    …So what ?You and me dislike these stupid plots.But it doesn’t mean their fans dislike it ,they enjoy rape fantasy and imagine being a masochist in a abusive relationship is their choice .They LOVE it .What is the reason of they can sold so much in capitalist society?What is the reason of those rare shippings can’t sell many Doujinshi?Just because they love rape fantasy and imagine being a masochist in a abusive relationship,you don’t like it doesn’t mean others CAN’T love it.Actually ,many mantis would eat their mate in mating process(Then the female can get more nutrition to spawning)…is it a abusive relationship?I don’t care,it’s nothing about moral … And these rape fantasy are all about a handsome and extreme self-confidence guy ,which means he have high quality sperm.And since the Mary Sue don’t want to be regard as too cheap (easy girl to have causal sex),and testing that guy is it strong enough(good gene),a rape would be suitable.Even if the Mary Sue dissatisfied the sex ,she can tell cops that guy raped her.
    Of course,reality are not” perfect” as this perfect plan ,they may pay for their stupidity+lust…(These mangas and novels should affected many guys to believe rape =normal in girl’s mind ,even most of them are not handsome)I don’t care their loss ,they deserve it ,since their god damn Mary Sue propaganda pissed off me so much.

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  3. Pingback: Felt broken over how I feel about romance | Cake at the Fortress

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