It’s not really anything new to assert that relationships as they’re portrayed on TV are total bullcrap. All the people are beautiful and everything is drama all the time. It’s not exactly a perfect representation of everyday relationships. There are many, many things that are unrealistic and unhelpful about the way that media portrays romantic relationships. But lately there’s been a particularly bad doozy of a trope that’s driving me up the wall.
It’s one about breakups, and it’s one that is entwined with all sorts of negative attitudes about both romantic relationships and the ending of romantic relationships. This is the trope in which a woman breaks up with a man, and in response the man utterly loses any compassion or care for the woman, yells, rages, threatens, and becomes basically an asshole.
I was watching The Vampire Diaries (I give 0 craps about your judgment for my taste in TV btw) and the two main characters broke up. After breaking up, the woman got into a relationship with the brother of her ex. Yes, this is not the coolest thing in the world to do, but they were broken up and it’s her life.
In response, he essentially told her that he didn’t care if she lived or died and that moving forward he would no longer put forth any effort if she or her family or friends were in danger (despite the fact that in the past he was portrayed as the good hearted one and that he considered these people his friends as well). He seemed to take joy in showing her how little he cared about her, and when she asked why he was being so cruel he just said “this is me. You’ve never seen me when I’m not in love with you.”
This was portrayed as a perfectly legitimate response.
In reality, this is ridiculously out of line. First and foremost, someone gets to have their own feelings whether they’re dating you or not, and after you’ve broken up with someone you certainly don’t get to dictate their relationship choices. While it makes perfect sense to have anger and hurt when someone breaks up with you, that does not mean that you get to behave in a cruel manner, yell, break things, imply that they could or should die, threaten, or harass.
Particularly troubling is the implication that the only thing that keeps a man from being all these things (many of which are at least bordering on abusive) is being “in love”. It plays once again into the idea that women tame men with their calming influence and that being in a romantic relationship with someone is what keeps your life functional and worth it.
A big part of this is our tendency to see romantic relationships as the defining things in our life, but also for men to feel possessive about their female partners. It has to do with the idea that “love makes you crazy”, and that “without love nothing matters”. And none of this is reality. Of course love is wonderful and can enrich a life, but when you turn one relationship into your whole reason for living, your only source of happiness, of course it will make complete sense if you have a personality transplant when you’re broken up with. No, you don’t own your ex, your ex does not owe you things (except for the basic respect they owe everyone), and you still have to continue being a functional and compassionate human being even without them.
However there are some people who confuse the call to behave reasonably towards your ex with a call to repress your feelings.
At about the same time that I watched this episode, someone posted a comment on one of my friend’s Facebook wall. He said that his fiance had broken up with him and seemed to be opining that according to feminists he was wrong to be heartbroken and sad. He said that his emotions were irrational and so he shouldn’t have them.
Here’s the difference: being heartbroken and sad makes perfect sense. Changing your values, becoming an asshole, blaming the other person for what’s wrong with your life, threatening the other person, verbally abusing the other person, or harassing and badmouthing them are what’s not ok. And those two things are conflated throughout TV relationships (probably because it’s easiest to illustrate hurt and sadness through big, dramatic actions). Then they’re deemed reasonable because “it makes perfect sense to be hurt and angry after a breakup”.
Being angry is not the same as informing someone you don’t care if they live or die. Being an adult means that you have to learn how to feel big, scary, painful emotions, and still behave reasonably and compassionately. And a huge part of this is learning that when a woman breaks up with you, you don’t own her. Scratch that, it’s recognizing that no matter what your relationship is with a woman you don’t get to tell her that you don’t care if she lives or dies, you don’t get to put her in danger, and you don’t get to be verbally abusive. If the only thing that has compelled you to behave ethically and compassionately towards a person and their family/loved ones is that you’re in a relationship with them, you’re really doing love wrong.
It’s possible for either gender to behave inappropriately upon a breakup, to be possessive, to be cruel, to allow their anger to rule their actions and push them to hurt others. However more often than not this is portrayed as gendered. Men are expected to be angry at a breakup, to throw things, to yell, to have a complete personality change. It plays into the trope that a woman should “tame” a man and make him reasonable and good. Without the woman, he is an animal.
There’s something in this trope that says it’s totally reasonable to be angry (which it is) and it’s perfectly reasonable to want to be loved (which it is) and so if you don’t have those things then you should do whatever it takes to get those things because you’re angry (not reasonable). Somewhere in there, a switch got crossed that said ‘having an emotion’ and ‘acting on an emotion’ are the same thing, and it’s part of our larger cultural inability to regulate our emotions appropriately.
In real life, if someone tells you upon your breakup that they would let you die if they were given the option, or that they suddenly don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves, that is called abuse. That is the moment when you feel solid in your decision to break up with them because that is straight out manipulative bullcrap. It implies that you have created a monster and that if you don’t get back together with the individual, you’re responsible for their shitty behavior.
For those who think that this is only a TV phenomenon, let me just assure you that while it is rampant on TV, it has been picked up by people in real life. I’ve had people tell me things like this upon breaking up with them. Now thankfully because we’re not in a fantasy world in which I could be killed by vampires at any moment it doesn’t matter in quite the same way, but it is still manipulative, it is still painful, and it is still unnecessarily cruel.
We can do better. We can write stories in which men are adult enough to manage their emotions, ask for help, do some venting, cry a bit, and then move the fuck on. A break up is not the end of the world. A break up is something that happens. Relationships grow and hold and wane and end, and that is a part of life. People don’t stay the same forever, and we cannot all grow together.
Of course it’s sad to let go of something that you loved, but in almost no other place in life do we see people losing it over the organic end of things (when a pet dies, when a friendship ends, when someone moves away, when school ends). All of these endings are understood as part of life, and, while sad or melancholy, not a reflection upon you as a person, or an attack. We allow people a time to grieve, and then we expect them to continue their lives.
As a culture, we need to learn how to see the ending of relationships as something that can be coped with. It is hard, and we can survive. It is hard, and we can still behave well. It is hard, and we can move on. It is hard, and we can still do better.