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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Fellows

A New Love Story

Why taking a stand for domestic violence awareness starts with redefining romantic ideals

Romeo and Juliet. Star-crossed lovers.

Romantic, right?

Spoiler alert: they both die at the end. Unnecessarily, too, I might add.

Is this truly the romance of the ages we declare it to be?

As a culture, we obsess about love at first sight. We get off on love that is intense, all-consuming, life-disrupting.

That “can’t eat, can’t sleep, reach for the stars, world series” kind of love, if you’re into dating advice from the Olson twins circa their It Takes Two days — anyone?

It’s ok to be a hopeless romantic — I sure am one, or would like to think so most days, at least — but that doesn’t negate the fact that our definition of love as a culture is rooted in unhealthy notions of power, control and illusion.

We can easily write off Shakespeare’s play as a parable warning us of the perils of irrational acts, sure; an invitation to discuss the powers of fate versus choice. But fast forward to modern times, and the literary and pop culture options don’t much improve.

Modern Models of Romance & Love

The Bachelor/Bachelorette. Twilight. Fifty Shades of Grey.

There’s the ideal we’re continually searching for: the expectation that “the one” will sweep us off our feet, whisper sweet nothings in our ear, worship us, pine for us when we’re gone, choose us over all others, and fight for an undying love that beats all odds (with a courtship taking place across exciting, exotic locations if you’re basing it off The Bachelor).

That’s not a far cry from the medieval story of two smitten teenagers in Verona, is it? Love is worth sacrificing everything else for, no exceptions — so these stories, both old and new, tell us. Reality is much less fun than fantasy, and these long-held, well-established ideals of romance, whether consciously or not, penetrate the common psyche in more ways than most people care to admit. And if relationships can start off on a high note introduced by an idealized concept of love, why can’t that illusion be carried out over the long haul?

But it’s not as simple as that. This honeymoon period — normalized in media and pop culture — is also a time where patterns of behavior are introduced that can be mistaken as romantic, when in reality they are unhealthy. And while some would say that daydreaming of ill-fated lovers is harmless, what happens when it’s not?

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, a cause that is near and dear to my heart. Reflecting on how pervasive domestic violence is in our culture, it’s imperative that we continue the dialogue on what consent and healthy relationships look like in today’s society. (Sidenote: thank you to HBO’s Big Little Lies for captivating audiences and raising awareness on the topic this past year.)

The reality is striking. Let’s look at the numbers, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.

  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.

[Huffington Post has more shocking statistics on domestic violence epidemic in the U.S. here]

Why is domestic violence so rampant in the United States? Beyond certain legal systems that perpetuate its existence, domestic violence is rooted in cultural norms that hold up society — and reflected in the institutions that provide order to it. Remember that not all domestic violence is physical abuse: in fact, emotional and psychological abuse are very common and can do damage much harder to identify and equally more difficult to begin to heal. Because it is a systemic issue, it’s difficult to unpack the ways that domestic violence takes shape. One way we all can acknowledge the issue, however, is by evaluating our own role in cultural expression so that we can better challenge previously held assumptions. How can we actively fight domestic violence, whether as a survivor or not, while also learning to better identify the telltale signs of potential abuse?

As someone who volunteers each week at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, I see a small sample of the many faces affected — affirming that domestic violence comes in many shapes and forms. After a training through REACH Massachusetts, I began to reflect on how domestic violence can be prevented — and how community creates allies who offer crucial support to those who need it most. The way I see it, prevention begins with ongoing education about gender roles and healthy relationships. We can all do our part to lean into educating ourselves and others on what this looks like now, how it has evolved in a modern context, and how to empower others to define love — and self love — for themselves.

There’s much to be said about how to redefine contemporary ideals with a foundation of equal partnership in day-to-day romantic relationships. We need to re-write the script of the modern love story, first by understanding where the current stereotypes lead us astray. Consider these hang-ups:

1) Putting love at first sight on a pedestal. The pitter patter in your stomach when you see someone for the first time; a physical reaction to the emotional connection you feel with a near stranger, drawing you in with a new take on life and love and endless possibilities. When the heart pangs and overactive sweat glands neutralize, what’s in your head as much as your heart? Love at first sight is lovely, as long as it doesn’t come with blinders on that ignore signals of controlling behavior. You may not love what you find underneath that desire for a partner to all-too quickly sweep you off your feet. You’ll want to be firmly planted on the ground to assess a relationship, if only to be sure you can still stand on your own.

2) Building our hopes too heavily on the ‘Honeymoon Period.’ When someone seems “too good to be true,” we’re inadvertently putting a lot of emphasis on the reasons why someone is perfect from the start — and pressure for our first impressions to match reality later on. If someone matches the criteria you’ve set aside for a S.O. (read: Significant Other), don’t let the romance of it all keep you from paying attention to their treatment of the ordinary things: like accepting you as you are and respecting your sense of identity.

3) Setting loose boundaries. In abusive relationships, boundaries are slowly modified by the abuser in cycles that restrict the power and autonomy of the victim over time. It’s difficult to express the importance of establishing boundaries at the start of a relationship, something that can be tough because it contradicts the “cool girl” persona or the ever-accommodating mantra of what’s considered “girlfriend material.” This isn’t to say the process of compromise isn’t important — essential, really — to building a strong relationship, but rather that everyone — and women, especially — should think about what they value about themselves and the non-negotiables they want to uphold in the life they lead with their partner. These boundaries should strengthen a budding relationship, not cripple it. Your partner should recognize and respect the things that are sacred to your life apart from your life together; and if these things are infringed upon, it can be a sign of troubled waters from the start. Try to be self aware as you get to know someone, so that you set expectations and communicate boundaries early on.

4) Accepting grand gestures as apologies. It’s easy to be won over by grand gestures that often come in exchange for an adjusted boundary (“I’m sorry, but from here on out”…) or as an outright apology: a dozen roses, a bracelet, a tropical trip, even something as simple as a handwritten note. Tokens of remorse can mean someone realizes they really messed up or they can be a distraction from the root cause of a conflict: the fact that whatever caused the apology shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Manipulation can be espoused in these instances, where apologies are used to evoke guilt and shame from a partner in the disguise of an excuse to right a wrong. If apologies are a way of keeping tabs, the gestures of affection may do more harm than good in trying to show that behaviors can be washed from memory entirely if a big enough token of apology is added to the mix.

5) Seeking ‘the boy next door’, ‘Prince Charming,’ and ‘Mr. Right.’ What are we looking for in the first place when it comes to a lover, significant other, or spouse? If we’re seeking out the ideal, likely we’re also buying into the stereotypes that support it. Can we excuse misogynistic behavior if a man is charismatic, friendly to others, charming and confident? These characteristics may actually be the polished exterior to the frightening inner workings of an abuser. I’m not suggesting we penalize someone with a 1,000-watt smile and quick wit, but rather that we are more consciously aware of how our expectations may cloud our vision around healthy relationships. No amount of initial vetting should discount how deserving you are of someone or of proper treatment, and appearances shouldn’t shape your view of how someone may treat another once a relationship evolves.

I don’t mean to be alarmist, or to rain on your love parade. My hope is that by starting a conversation on the dangers of succumbing to fantastical notions of love, we can combat domestic violence more effectively as a community. The fact is, it takes a village to tackle the issue of partner abuse in this country. And one way we can start is by positively reinforcing the behaviors that lead to sustained support and mutual care between intimate partners and in relationships everywhere. We can commit to just that, today and every day.

It’s ok to struggle with new ideas of romance, chivalry and finding your one true love. Rather than diminishing love, let’s poke holes in the present-day romance narrative so that we can re-evaluate unattainable parameters and celebrate real love stories instead — just as they are.

Let’s approach Domestic Awareness Month with a focus on nurturing healthy relationships. That’s something we all can strive to actively participate in, whether romantic or not. Because real love is multi-faceted, complex, and raw; not black and white, and surely not Fifty Shades of Grey. Let’s hold up supportive relationships as the topic of greater conversation, starting with the ones we have with ourselves.

As I sign off, hear me say: I bid you adieu, archaic and limiting notions of love. You can find me in the Twenty First Century, where I’ll be one of many living out the single life in the pursuit of many things: personal and professional fulfillment, career growth, creative pursuits, companionship, and vulnerable, nurturing, requited love.

Inspired to do more? Donate to REACH here or the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence here.

**Disclaimer: I’m limited here to my personal experience as a heterosexual female, but I do want to take a moment to pause on the heteronormativity of what I’ve written so far. Part of breaking down ignorance and speaking out against domestic violence requires highlighting that all of these ideals depict a man and woman, already laden in gender roles. Be sensitive to how domestic violence rears its head in the LGBQ/T community and in female violence to males. It may look and feel quite different, but the need for control over a partner remains constant.

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