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.
*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!