Toxic Romance: Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse or past trauma is a frequent plotline in romance. And while something as serious as abuse shouldn’t be reduced to a plotpoint, it has nonetheless become a staple of the genre. Why? Because by and large, romance is the genre that most commonly addresses the issues real women face in their daily lives, including abuse.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “4 in 10 women and 4 in 10 men have experienced at least one form of coercive control by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” Emotional abuse can greatly damage a victim’s mental health and cause long-term effects such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting others. What is emotional abuse? According to Psychology Today, “Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person. The only difference is that the emotional abuser does not use…physical forms of harm. Rather the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his or her weapon of choice.”

Emotional abuse in romance is all too often used to justify an alpha male character’s possessiveness of their love interest. Here at Three Houses Press, we have addressed Fifty Shades of Grey ad nauseam and we’re still not done. Fifty Shades is public enemy number one when it comes to emotional abuse in romance not only due to Christian Grey’s emotional manipulation of Ana Steele throughout the series, but also because his past trauma is frequently used to excuse his behavior. This rhetoric–that a broken hero’s possessiveness and control toward his significant other due to past trauma–is problematic in the extreme and promotes unhealthy relationship dynamics.

Christian’s childhood abuse leaves him deeply scarred and he grows up to be a broken man who needs control over every aspect of his life, including that of his girlfriend and eventual wife, Ana. Throughout the course of the series, Christian stalks Ana, coerces her into doing his bidding, insults her, and isolates her from friends and family. And let’s not forget that Christian makes choices on Ana’s behalf like that time he sold her car without asking and replaced it with an Audi. Sure Audis are nice, but who does that? 

In chapter 17 when Ana’s roommate Kate asks about the car, Ana says, “I did try not to accept it, but frankly, it’s just not worth the fight.” At this point Ana has known Christian for approximately a *week* and he’s already controlling her mode of transportation. Ana spends the entire series trying to fix Christian and loses herself in the process. She sacrifices her friendships, her independence, and her control multiple times to appease Christian and keep him from growing angry with her. 

The fact that Fifty Shades is a work of fiction does not diminish how it glamorizes a toxic relationship riddled with psychological abuse. And while Fifty Shades is not the first or last book to do this, it’s arguably had the widest reach. According to NBC News, as of December 2019, the Fifty Shades trilogy has sold more than 35 million copies.

Another frequent mention on this blog is Anna Todd’s After. After is a series that chronicles the ups and downs of college student Tessa Young’s fraught relationship with Hardin Scott. Hardin is the British bad boy on campus who lies, manipulates, and belittles Tessa over the course of four novels. Hardin also deceives Tessa into giving him her virginity to win a bet. I’m not a Christian Grey fan by any definition of the word, but at least he spelled out what he was into before he took Ana’s virginity. 

Abuse of any kind isn’t cute and it isn’t romantic. It’s not something to work through together either. I love when romance authors aren’t afraid to shy away from the terrible things people go through, but when an author chooses to make abuse part of their plot or character development, it must be done responsibly. Writing about abuse of any kind is a delicate subject and should only be approached with sensitivity and thorough research. If you are going to make it a part of your plot, don’t use it as a way to keep the characters together or justify one character’s bad behavior towards another. Instead, use it as a way to illustrate your character’s growth, that they are overcoming their past and choosing to take a healthy step forward in life and love with someone who will support them and not diminish them. 

The purpose of this article is not to criticize authors for the creative choices they’ve made, but rather to highlight things that are problematic so that romancelandia can move forward and make better choices in the future. Abuse is difficult to write and for many it’s hard to read about. If you are looking for an author who knows how to craft a wholly authentic character who has experienced past abuse, look no further than Adrianna Herera. In addition to writing kickass romance, Adriana is a trauma therapist who works with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. I can’t recommend her books more. 

Comment below and share examples of authors or books that you think did a good job of addressing emotional abuse.