Emotionally abusive relationships in fiction

I’ve been watching the whole thing about #AskELJames with interest. I haven’t read 50 Shades. I read the first chapter and decided it wasn’t for me. So I can’t comment on the books. What interests me is the discussion about abusive relationships that it’s raised (again).

As I mentioned, I haven’t read 50 shades. But I have read Twilight, and I find the relationship between Bella and Edward very disturbing indeed. Firstly, Bella talks the talk about wanting to be independent and not get married etc, but really, all she wants is to be Edward’s – mind, body and soul. Even when he points out the bit about losing her soul, she doesn’t care. She wants to be his. So much so that, when he leaves her to re enact the plot from Romeo and Juliet, she crumbles and may as well be dead. So the message is – girl, without your man, you are nothing. Nothing, I tell you. Best throw yourself off a cliff just to get a glimpse of him in case your neurones fire images of him at you while they die.

Then there’s the controlling behaviour. It is not okay to separate her from her friends, to tell her where she can go, what she can do. It’s not protective, it’s overbearing. And that thing about him breaking into her room to watch her sleep? Ewwww. NOT okay. I don’t care if he sparkles in daylight.

Fifty Shades is clearly an erotic fantasy aimed at the adult reader. Twilight is aimed at young girls. There’s no sex in it (not until they get married and nothing graphic even then), but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable reading. As a love story, it’s good fun. I’m adult enough to realise that Bella isn’t a role model and Edward is a made up character. It didn’t rock my world, but I can see how it could appeal to women my age because it reminds us of something we longed for when we were in our teens. But I’ve spoken to very young teenagers who are so totally into it that they see it as a reflection of something real. They want to be Bella and have their Edward, even if he does try to command every aspect of her life. They don’t see that ‘it’s only because he loves me’ is a dangerous excuse.

One of the things I tried to understand when I wrote Doctor January is why an otherwise normal, well-adjusted young woman would allow herself to be bullied by a man who is supposed to love her and why, when she’d escaped from him once, she would keep going back to him, again and again. Writing Beth was hard because I mostly wanted to shake her and shout ‘get out, get out’. It was difficult to show that she wasn’t someone who went around with ‘victim’ stamped on her forehead. Luckily for me, Hibs was already in love with her and saw her strengths. Thank goodness for Hibs, in so many ways. (He’s also very cute and I might fancy him just a little bit – and yes, I DO know he’s fictional, which just makes it better because he won’t leave his dirty socks lying around or anything unsavoury like that).

Can we, as readers, separate fiction from real life? Do teenagers use people from books as role models? What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Emotionally abusive relationships in fiction

  1. I have a very good friend, who has read Fifty Shades and agrees that it features an abusive relationship – yet, a few years ago when she was inside one, she says she couldn’t recognise it for what it was. Something about the proximity of real life made it harder, she said, to see the wood for the trees. So, just maybe, all this talk about the nature of relationships and what makes a good, healthy one, will filter down to young girls.
    And my friend refused at first to leave her clearly abusive relationship, because everyone had warned her not to get involved with the man in question, so when she found out what he was really like, she was too ashamed to admit that they were right by leaving. Hopefully all these discussions will help people like her see that they are not alone, and neither are they stupid to have got involved in the first place.

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  2. I also think I recognised fact from fiction as a teenager. But at the same time, I do believe the world you’re immersed in – from fiction, to family views, to television – provides the framework in which you view life, and can limit or expand your ideas. If you’re surrounded by media or people that portray something as normal, I do think you absorb that, sometimes without even realising it. Our household was randomly picked for an Office of National Statics survey a few years ago, and the (no doubt very experienced) interviewer, was anticipating my responses before I gave them. I could see her mouthing which newspaper I’d read and my response on religion a split second ahead of me saying the answer aloud. It was very unnerving, and made me realise how much I’m a product of the culture in which I live. So the possibility of my daughters having an undiluted diet of certain messages makes me anxious – from those given in Twilight to the media specifying the extent to which they’re expected to shave…

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  3. Without going into too many details, I was in a very controlling relationship in my late teens. I was a well-read, well-educated grammar school girl so thought I knew what love was … except, of course, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, if that makes sense. The consequences of that relationship haunted me (recurring nightmares) for many years mainly because I blamed myself for not walking away sooner, but I was a bit kinder to May, my heroine, in Follow A Star who does find the inner strength to confront her bully. It’s a small attempt on my part to try to show an emotionally abusive relationship for what it is.

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  4. I’m trying to remember back to when I was a teenager – not easy! I read voraciously, but I don’t think I ever lost sight of the fact that the story was made up. The characters filled my imagination, and developed it, but I always knew that they were fictional creations, and I read not to escape, but for the sheer joy of losing myself in a story. For me, a strong story is crucial. I will go along with almost anything, so long as it is a valid part of a gripping story.

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    1. I don’t think I ever lost sight of what was real either, Liz. BUT, I grew up in a very conservative environment and my way of thinking was critically influenced by what I read and watched on TV. I absorbed many important lessons from what I read. For example, we had NO sex ed at school (‘in case it gave us ideas’, no doubt). I was well read enough and sensible enough to know it was important. Which led, years later, to my having to have ‘the talk’ with a friend of mine, then aged 19! She wasn’t stupid. She just wasn’t as well read as I was.

      Most people are celebrating the same sex marriage legislation now. I grew up somewhere where homosexuality was (and still is) illegal. I credit the film Philadelphia with the light bulb moment when I realised that love is love.

      So what we read and watch does influence us, even when we don’t realise it.


  5. Interesting post. I can’t say I was influenced when I was younger but do wonder if youngsters today are pushed to copy a bit more. They look to superstars to base their image upon, do they do the same for their mindset with books? Not sure.

    I have independent female main characters who are abused in my novels, they are based in the Victorian era. I do ensure a happy ending for the reader, and my first two books I put an age limit on them as one contains a rape attack, it is not graphic but enough for the reader to know what is going on. These books I placed in the romance/ suspense/ thriller genre. My second the female is beaten by her husband and didn’t think anyone would like it but it is my romance best-seller. The readers say she triumphs in the end and that is what they look for. As for young folk, I have added an age limit. My third, still in the Victorian era, is about emotional abuse and the rise of the sixteen year old girl during those times. This one I left out of the age restriction and my friend’s sixteen year old daughter loves the book. She said she can relate to the confusion, loss and emotions while finding love. My latest is a modern medical romance. I’ve had the female attacked but very minor, however, I am not sure whether to restrict or not. I can’t stop myself from writing attack scenes but do ensure the reader is aware of the age level. The sixteen year old was allowed to read it after her mother (a beta reader), she said there is nothing she would wish to hide from her daughter. The girl enjoyed the story and said the attack scene wasn’t an issue but made her aware of being out alone. Will others feel the same or do I restrict? To be safe, I will restrict from younger readers.

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  6. I sub in high schools and so I talk with teenagers regularly. Unfortunately, many girls, and to a lesser extent, boys also, see a loving relationship as being totally possessive. They see it as romantic when their loved one denies them any time with other friends, even of the same sex. Somehow we’ve got to reach the kids and explain that someone who really loves you wants you to be happy. Only someone who is terribly insecure and needy will demand all of your time. When that happens, run very quickly in the other direction!

    I think adult readers know that fictional people are just that: unreal. But the problem is that they don’t like what they have in real life, so they prefer to lose themselves in unreal fiction. Like you said, a fictional man never leaves dirty socks around, or passes gas when your Mother is visiting. These kinds of things are normal, but don’t fit into the HEA ideals.

    Unfortunately for a writer like me who writes about independent alpha females and beta males, my preferred trope hasn’t caught the zeitgeist of romance readers…yet, I hope. They’re still stuck on the older, experienced billionaire who will be tamed by the inexperienced awe of a virgin with low self-esteem. He will teach her about passion, she will become an inferno, though she’s spent her whole life without ever seeking an orgasm. He will educate her about everything, and it will make him give up all other women for her. Yeah…right. More likely he’ll be like Ah-nold, and he won’t think, “Maria OR the housekeeper?” He’ll think, “Maria AND the housekeeper!” But that doesn’t make for a HEA.

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    1. I know at least one person whose (thankfully now ex) husband stopped her from reading romance novels or women’s magazines because ‘it would give her ideas’. She didn’t see that was weird – this is not a stupid woman, she had a responsible job and was cheery and outgoing.

      I disagree that people (adults in particular) lose themselves in fiction because they don’t like what they have in real life. Fiction is a nice, safe way to explore emotions. ‘Practice’, if you like. I think the idea that women read romance solely to escape their real lives often gets misinterpreted as an out for sexual frustration.

      Alpha females and beta males sound good. All my heroes are beta males. I tried to write an alpha male once and HATED him (I gave up in the end). Also, whole great sex must equal love trope annoys me. Yes, they often go together, but one doesn’t automatically mean the other.

      I think there is a growing market for stronger women and less dominant men out there. Those who grew up identifying with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain Janeway and Nancy Drew (quick, someone give me a British example!) like to be treated as equals.


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