Risks of romanticising toxic relationships

July 19, 2022

Collage concept by Nikol with photo of Man in hood by Fetraniaina Antatii Killahr and photo of Women leaning on bars by Meruyert Gonullu at Pexels

Nikol Nikolova explores ways in which our movie culture perpetuates unhealthy messages about relationships

From the classic tale of Romeo & Juliet which ended in their tragic deaths to modern hit movies, such as The Notebook, where the constant fights are portrayed as romantic, toxic relationships in popular culture continue to be idealised. Unfortunately, some of these depictions of romance are not only unhealthy but potentially dangerous to young people’s developing mindset.

A toxic relationship can be defined as one where one or both partners feel unsafe, attacked or demeaned, whether that is emotionally, psychologically or physically. If you feel like this much of the time, chances are you are in a toxic relationship.

Some of the most common experiences include:

  • Feeling like you can’t be yourself and you have to constantly change for the other person
  • Feeling like you have always done something wrong
  • Feeling pressured to engage in behaviour that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Feeling depressed, sad or angry after speaking to the person
  • Feeling emotionally drained after spending time with them
  • Realising that your self-esteem has declined

Nowadays these kinds of relationships have become much more common and harder to spot, and our movie culture plays a significant role in this by normalising toxic behaviour.

Many young people have been brainwashed to believe that struggle and torment equals true love

Many romantic films revolve around the struggles of a couple. One or both partners cheat, lie, or treat the other with disrespect and act immaturely or violently, but by the end, both still end up living happily ever after.

Many young people have been brainwashed to believe that struggle and torment equals true love; that constant hardships in relationships are normal.

The reality is very different. That is not to say that relationships are perfect because they all have their ups and downs. But remaining alongside your partner only works if you are both willing to work with each other. We must have the confidence and learn to let go of relationships that we know have no future.

In Psychology Today, Psychotherapist and life coach, Sherry Gaba, writes, “Positive relationships are not always perfect, but when the couple has disagreements, they are able to work it out in a way that is mutually satisfactory and does not result in one person imposing their will or desires on the other.”

Alas, the representation of this concept in popular movies is not common. Perhaps the unhealthy relationship scenario gives the audience an adrenaline rush before the happy ever after ending, or perhaps we have just been indoctrinated to view villains as attractive characters.

Young people are impressionable, with film, music and social media, shaping their ideas about life every single day

A prime example is the popular show Friends, where Ross and Rachel get all the attention as a couple. In reality, their relationship is problematic, emotionally draining and full of jealousy and bad communication. On the other hand, Monica and Chandler are the real definition of being in a healthy relationship, but they are not nearly as revered by the audience.

Young people, especially teenagers, are incredibly impressionable. The world around them including film, music and social media, shapes their ideas about life every single day. This means that they’re highly vulnerable to unhealthy messages.

Films and books are a form of creative expression which shouldn’t be constricted or curtailed. However, instead of portraying these harmful relationships as normal and romantic, films could be more nuanced. They could celebrate healthy relationships and start to expose toxic relationships for what they are; a constant cycle of struggle and suffering.

If you or a close friend are affected by any of the issues raised here, you can get support from: SafeLives which is operating the Your Best Friend Fund – The #FriendsCanTell campaign – to educate and empower young people to spot abuse in relationships and support their friends.

Many thanks for making this project possible!

Nikol graduated from King’s College London with a first-class degree in Spanish and Portuguese studies. She is of Bulgarian origin, enjoys dancing, travelling and learning about history and culture. Nikol enjoys tackling and investigating difficult and taboo topics in her writing.

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