Toxic Romance: Verbal Abuse

While we here at Three Houses Press enjoy reading books of nearly any genre, we are particularly drawn to romance novels. Getting into a good romance novel is such a great escape from daily life, away from the stresses of work with a cute couple you’re really rooting for. There are so many variations of romance novels that you’re not likely to get bored; from historical, modern, fantasy, and so many in-between. Unfortunately, however, even with so many options in the genre a few harmful tropes have also found a home within the romance novel market. One major trope that we’ll focus on today is verbal abuse. 

Not to sound like your middle school health teacher or anything, but let’s review a few characteristics about verbal abuse: 

  • Name calling/demeaning comments
  • Screaming and excessive anger
  • Making unfounded accusations  
  • Gaslighting
  • Threats
  • Condescension and manipulation
  • Withholding 

Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are often conflated, and while I’m not expert enough to fully detail the differences between the two I will say both verbal and emotional abusers use highly manipulative language to achieve control over their victim. 

When I was growing up my parents let me read whatever I wanted and once when I was in middle school I got a book from the library that was about this girl who was in a verbally abusive relationship. I wish I could remember the name of it because I actually think about it a lot but googling the term “book about a girl being emotionally abused Wyoming purple cover” has so far not been terribly helpful. (As a side note I’m not sure why I put Wyoming in the search, I just feel very sure that it had something to do with Wyoming. Also, I’m only 50% on the purple cover thing. If you have any leads PLEASE email me, thank you!!!) Anyhow, I think she has son with him and he does something that crosses the line in her head and so she finally leaves and ends up in a women’s shelter of some sort where she goes to group therapy and she listens to all these other women talk about the ways they’ve been physically abused and she thinks “Oh no, I’m in the wrong place, I’ve not been abused at all” and she feels so bad about it but then once they get to her and she expresses this, they reassure her that even if her boyfriend had never hit her, that doesn’t mean he never hurt her. I think I was around 12 when I read this book and while a lot of the content probably wasn’t appropriate it really stuck with me for highlighting the different ways abusers are able to manipulate situations in their favor. 

The book I read in middle school (I’m so serious please help me find it, I’d like to link it here and give the author proper credit) was not a romance, that I can remember. But the use of verbal and emotional abuse is widespread through the romance genre. 

Let’s start with the obvious: After, by Anna Todd. Y’all I am so serious I will never stop coming for this series, especially when it’s essentially a handbook for abusers. For more detail on the many abuses featured in this series, read here, and here

The problem with After, of course is that it is so bold and brash—of course the things Hardin does are horrific, there’s no denying it. From nearly the jump everything is going terribly. But what about in your average romance novel when it’s much more hidden, just a subtle background tool? 

I read a lot of Kindle Unlimited romance novels and while they’re not always amazing, there can be a few gems here and there. One series I really enjoyed is the Vancouver Wolves romance series by Odette Stone, and my favorite of the series is the third book, The Penalty Box. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but at one point Mica (our hero) reacts badly to some news that Charlie (our heroine) has and unceremoniously moves out of the house they share, ignoring her completely for weeks. While not portrayed as a particularly great move in the book, it is important to recognize this as withholding, not something done in a healthy relationship. 

Another Kindle Unlimited that I didn’t enjoy quite as much is You Make Me (Blurred Lines Book 1) by Erin McCarthy. The plot is something else and if the series sharing a name with that Robin Thicke song that caught a lot of flack in 2013 doesn’t give it away, what will? Caitlyn, our heroine, is a college student in Maine when she reconnects with her foster brother. There are some major issues with how everyone behaves in this book, starting with the fact that Caitlyn begins the book by getting engaged to a frat bro who she only moderately likes, and then almost immediately falls back in love with a boy who lived at her house growing up. The guy who she’s engaged to of course does not handle this well, acting very suspicious of the situation and attempts to cut off contact between Caitlyn and her former “brother.” Eventually they suffer a messy breakup before Caitlyn ends up back with her former brother/now lover? The whole thing crosses multiple lines, not to mention the fact that Caitlyn is raised by an emotionally unavailable father who only takes in foster children for the money the government offers, so the entire plot is drenched in abuse. The writing however, isn’t half bad. 

We’ve examined issues with older romance novels in the past, especially when it comes to consent. However, many older romance novels also have abusive heroes. For example, a very young Brittany once read Upon a Wicked Time by Karen Ranney and has never forgotten the plot. Essentially, heroine Tess meets the hero Jered, when she’s sixteen and he kisses her in a field before riding off. Three years later they get married and Jered immediately abandons her to go galavant around London with his mistress. When Tessa shows up and refuses to leave him alone, Jered is displeased and spends most of the book pushing her away. He is manipulative, condescending, and frequently uses his age and experience against her. Tessa is a pretty great heroine, but it’s still not a great relationship and she totally deserved a better husband.

Another example is A Pirate’s Love by Johanna Lindsey. In A Pirate’s Love, Bettina Verlaine is an aristocratic French woman whose father arranges her marriage to a stranger and sends her, by ship, to the Caribbean to meet him. While en route, Bettina’s ship is beset by pirates and the pirate captain, Tristan, takes her captive. Throughout the book, Tristan gaslights Bettina and manipulates her into believing their relationship is consensual. It’s not. Tristan rapes her and when Bettina experiences an orgasm, Tristan manipulates her into believing he gave her pleasure. A Pirate’s Love has many layers of abuse, but the emotional and verbal manipulation Bettina experiences from Tristan is particularly damaging.

Not every romance book will represent verbal or emotional abuse, and I think it’s okay to read books that depict it, as long as it’s not in an unhealthy, fetishizing type of way. Reading books that have this kind of abuse in it subtly is a good way to pick up on hints, and recognize them in your everyday life. If you or someone you know is experiencing verbal or emotional abuse, please tell someone you trust or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.