Open Letter to Young Women Looking for their Happy Ever After
Dearest young women who are poised and ready to pour all of your energy, empathy and passion into one true love. I have once been where you are now, and have since suffered many hardships that have caused me to reexamine many of the ideas and beliefs I once held about romantic love as well as my role as a woman in these relationships. Like many young women I wondered into love engagements with people that despite loving me deeply, did not have the ability to be good to me. I have since come to the strong conclusion that true love is the combination of the feeling of being in love as the presence of safety, support and loving behavior. Thus, I am writing this letter to implore you to take this time to reflect on how we as women have come to understand what love is, as well as our role in romantic relationship.
Many young women do not come to understand what true love should look like and end up in relationships that range from confining and draining at best and abusive and dangerous at worst. On the site called Love is Respect they explain that women between 16 and 24 experience nearly triple the intimate partner violence as the general population with almost half of women in college reporting some type of violence in their relationship. Abuse and violence from our partners towards us is not the only thing that can make a relationship dangerous.
Women often fall for men that are self-destructive or violent towards others which is equally as damaging. In a tragedy documented in The Daily Beast, a pair of teens that were very much in love ended up committing murder and taking their own lives. The girl saw her lover as flawless and the man of her dreams, however in life he was showing signs of being very unstable. They both full heartedly believed that they were going to live happily ever after. Their story ended in tragedy in part because she underestimated how troubled he was and believed that they could create a new life for themselves by running away.
It can be very hard to distinguish between all the complex feelings and actions that can be mixed up in a bad relationship. An organization called The One Love Foundation has launched a campaign called #ThatsNotLove to help young women recognize the signs of an abusive or bad relationship. As they put it, the campaign is to help women tell the difference between a relationship based on love and one based on control. Another way of thinking about this is distinguishing between the feeling of love and loving behavior.
Certainly abuse and fatality are some of the extreme examples of how relationships can fail to meet our needs; however, there are many ways that our partners often don’t show up for us emotionally, and yet so much of the time we fail to recognize this soon enough or leave when it does become clear. Although there are many complex reasons why women hold on to situations that are not good for them, believing that the one they love can change and feeling like an important part of that process is a huge one. As Leslie Morgan Steiner an abuse survivor and activist said in an article on CNN “We victims tend to be hope junkies, open-hearted and optimistic”. In her Ted Talk she explains that even though things got really bad with her husband physically abusing her, she never thought of herself as a victim, rather she saw her husband as a deeply hurt man and she was the only person that had the ability to help him.
Because of this type of belief in the potential of one’s partner, many women are quick to forgive things such as violence or disrespect that should not be forgiven. In an article called Love Science in the Huffington Post Women the author looked at research on the influence of trust on how college students feel about a past wrongdoing by their partner. The researchers had the students rate how much trust they felt for their partners and then measured how their memories of past issues with their partners changed over time. They found that people that trusted their partners more tended to forget their past wrongdoing faster or feel like it was less of a big deal as time went on. By contrast students that reported lack of trust remembered the past clearly and the issue seemed bigger and more problematic as time went on. Although the study insisted that having trust and forgetting wrongdoings was good for a relationship, many young women trust their partners even in situations where this trust has been violated. This blind trust makes it easy to forget and forgive wrongdoings even when they should not be forgiven.
There are so many beautiful and powerful qualities that we can possess as women, including boundless love and compassion, the ability to see the highest potential in others (especially our mates), and to give fully of ourselves without the expectation of return. It is these very qualities that can also leave us especially vulnerable to getting trapped in relationships that do not meet our needs. The solution, however is not to push down or abandon these impulses, intact they are some of our most powerful tools and assets as Shea Fett discusses in her blog What I Wish I had Known about Gaslighting. Instead, she asserts we just need to know how and when is the right time to give of ourselves in this way. This knowledge comes from taking the time to look at what factors have shaped the beliefs we have come to hold about love. One of the areas that we need to re-evaluate as women is the cultural modeling that has taught us to value the feeling of being in love, over experiencing qualities such as trust, kindness, openness and deep understanding from our partners.
Many of these concepts we have about romantic relationship are shaped by our specific cultural context. In the peer reviewed article A Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love the author explains that although passion is a universal phenomenon, “romance is culture-specific and based on historical and cultural traditions”. In her research she found that western societies are preoccupied with romantic love as the idealization of love. This is in contrast to collectivist societies such as India and China “[whose idea of love] is related to the view of love as pragmatic, based on friendship, and having altruistic goals”. She also found that ‘their love is expressed more by what they do than by what they say”. In the West, rather than picking a mate based on compatibility and friendship, we tend to jump into connections based on idealized ideas of the other. We often put an over emphasis on the idealization of love, and we can sometimes undervalue the importance of true compatibility on a day to day basis.
One of the major agents that serve to shape these cultural perspectives on romantic love are the presence of stories and media that focus on concepts such as “happy ever after”, “love at first sight” and “love conquers all”. These shape our collective conscience as women and not only shape our expectations of love, but also influence our willingness to stay in situations that are not healthy for our growth. In a paper by Theresa Tonn from the University of Wisconsin titled Disney’s Influence on Females Perception of Gender and Love, she says that “parents typically do not discuss the topic of romantic love, marriage, or sexuality with young children; hence, for many young children their earliest exposure to these themes likely come from media sources”. The ideas we get from media are dangerous in a number of ways. They limit our perceptions of what is possible for us in terms of love and they also mean that we feel that the first person we happen to fall for is the one we think we have to make it work with regardless of how incompatible we are.
The modeling we get from media can also influence how we perceive our role as women in a partnership, which in turn inflate how we behave when faced with a bad relationship as Theresa Tonn’s research points out. “In children’s programs, women tend to be depicted as being affectionate, submissive, forgiving and fragile, but as having low amounts of self-confidence, ambition, dominance, and individualism”. Many women need to learn that they can be strong, assertive and individualistic in relationships in order to set boundaries and leave situations that are not going anywhere.
All of these ideas of love do not serve in the process of finding a true love with which we can really be happy. By taking the time to unpack all the things that have shaped our understanding of romantic relationship including our cultural context and the influence of media, we can gain a greater awareness of what we are looking for as well as what we are unwilling to tolerate in the name of love. In this way we can truly give of our gifts and get the love and respect that we deserve in return.