I was raised, taught, and socialized to believe that love is pain. That love is unfair.
Raised a woman, I was taught, socialized — brainwashed — to believe that love means sacrifice. That as a woman I must martyr myself. That as a woman my value comes from martyring myself to the highest bidder, even if he endeavors to own me, even if he never tries to see past my fuckability, or most importantly, how good I make him look, how much my perceived “worth” can reinforce his masculinity.
This means that I did not recognize the toxicity of my own abusive relationship.
I cried almost every other night, I dreaded sex, I policed my own behavior and presentation to best serve his interests, I catered to him, and I scavenged up every scrap of affection he occasionally bothered to throw my way in return, and to me, that was love.
To me, the soft beauty of love was fiction, and I thought myself more adult or worldly to be in a “love” so intense it hurt, because I didn’t recognize that the intensity came from how badly I wanted to actually be loved right.
This is too common.
Although the patriarchy is structured on the disenfranchisement of women, within this patriarchy and our socialized rape culture, we all lose. Love and romance do not need to be structured as painful power struggles. Yet toxic relationship dynamics are literally everywhere. Our culture is saturated with heteronormativity: the rigid and prescriptive constructs that delineate “male” and female” roles, though those roles can and do manifest in queer partnerships as well.
Within popular constructs of love, we romanticize abuse. The deeply disturbing 50 Shades phenomenon attests to this, but it exists in much of our other media – in fact, an overwhelming majority of the Western cultural canon.
Where did it come from? Why is this happening?
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1. Patriarchal and abusive constructions of love have been normalized throughout the Western canon. By portraying love as pain, often with the woman as the maternal/sexual explicitly and exclusively for the service of men, we reinforce these dangerous dynamics.
2. We romanticize stalking and obsession, dismissing the victim’s discomfort by claiming that the perpetrator performed these acts out of the intensity of their love. This typically falls within the constructs of heteronormativity and the intersection of misogyny – women, conversely, are more likely to be derided and ridiculed for “clinginess” or the ableist “craziness,” whereas the same behaviors manifesting in men are romanticized as evidence of their “love.”
We normalize the aggressive male in pursuit of a woman, forgiving harassment and even violence when the male claims she was “asking for it,” due to her clothes, behaviors, or simply because he just found her so “irresistibly” attractive – and he, incensed by her (perfectly valid) rejection, became “possessed” by “love.” This isn’t love, it’s what we’ve been socialized to perceive as emasculation, and his ensuing aggression is the attempt to feel “male” again. We must deconstruct the gender binary, gender roles, and heteronormativity in order to cease and prevent this behavior.
Though most of the structures are borne out of heteronormativity, the truth is that no matter the genders of your relationship, there are few popular examples of love that truly deconstruct the toxicity of the concept.
3. When you are with someone who makes you feel like you are undeserving of anything better even when you’re unhappy, you need to communicate with them. If they don’t listen, or if you don’t feel comfortable or safe communicating, I am sorry, but despite what we’ve been taught, that is not what love looks like.
4. Love is not ownership. You are not a trophy. The complex wholeness of your self does not exist to validate your partner. You belong to you. You have the right to make your own choices about your body, your presentation, your job, your interests, and your life. Love is partnership.
5. Love is not codependence. Forget “I can’t live without you.” Your unique and powerful self existed before your partner, and you will exist no matter what. Real love begins with the self. Your partner should support you – you should be able to be yourself with them, but you should be able to be yourself without them too. You are your own universe, and they are theirs, but you can gaze at the stars together and find new patterns in the constellations that belong to you both. And stars are just echoes, anyway — build something real, here, together. Do not lose yourself in your partner. Find elements of your selves, together. Love is composed of compatible individuals, who embrace their reality and work within it.
6. Love does not dehumanize. If your partner fetishizes you for any reason – your race, your body, your sexuality, etc – they do not love you, they are attracted to how your characteristics make them feel. “Exotic” means at once attractive yet tamable, and this comes down to ownership too.
7. Love does not disrespect. Your partner can disagree with you, certainly, but they must recognize your perspective, and they should try to understand.
8. Love does not abuse. And we must remember that there are many forms of abuse: sexual, physical, emotional.
9. Love does not pressure you into acts you do not want to perform.
10. Love does not gaslight or condescend.
Love listens, works to support both or all parties involved. Love respects.
You are not talking too much. You are not doing too little. You belong. You matter. Your wants and needs and goals are valid, and should be taken seriously. You deserve to be taken seriously; you deserve to be treated with kindness and fairness.
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It’s not easy to tell if your love is not love at all. Especially because media is saturated with painful dynamics that “turn out for the best,” with childish men (who are forgiven) and shrewish women (who never are), or dynamics that simply involve hurting each other. Too much of what we’re told is love is just people who don’t know that partnership can feel good, that you can speak your mind, that you can voice your wants, that you can share your truths. Once we recognize this, there is no reason to settle for less.
It is not always easy to communicate – I know what I’m saying is often easier said than done.
Sometimes, you push your concerns to the back of your mind, because when it’s good it feels good, and you don’t want to ruin it. But having it hang over you is far worse.
Sometimes, you resign yourself, because it feels like this is all that’s out there for you.
There is so much more.
Stay away from people who make you feel like you are hard to love. Stay away from people who conflate love with pain, ownership, or dominance. Surround yourself with positivity, carry yourself with the knowledge that you deserve nothing less than someone who appreciates your wholeness, your intricacies – someone who wants to learn how to love you how you want to be loved, someone who makes you want to learn how to best love them back. People of all races, genders, orientations, classes, and abilities are deserving of love that recognizes and respects our many identities.
You are worthy of radical love, every single day.