We're taught to valorize a lot of behaviors in relationships that shouldn't be acceptable, let alone celebrated. Because intimate partner abuse, particularly directed toward women, is such a normal part of our cultural dating scripts, many behaviors we often view as sweet are actually controlling. Through the media and the advice many of us receive growing up, we learn that jealousy, condescension, and coerced physical contact are cute. But it's long past time we started seeing these things for what they really are: Signs that a person is disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst.
These cultural norms apply especially to heterosexual couples, since our culture's model of the ideal relationship is still largely based on gender roles. We learn that men are supposed to protect women, make decisions for them, and make sure that no other men have their eyes on them. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to let men plan everything and enjoy being the submissive ones. While some couples choose to follow certain gender roles because they happen to work for them, some roles are not healthy for a relationship even when people elect to follow them. Male controllingness is one of these.
Here are a few behaviors we've been taught to consider sweet which are actually examples of controlling a partner.
1. Surprising Someone With A Life-Changing Development
In a recent episode of Girls, Marnie's husband Desi decides to surprise her by building a wall in their apartment that transforms it from a studio into a one-bedroom. The problem? He didn't talk to her about it ahead of time to make sure she was on board with it, and she's not OK with any unwanted alterations to her living space. This is one example of an action you should probably consult with someone about in advance. Surprises can be appreciated, but regardless of your intentions, something like a home improvement which you don't know someone wants, a pet they're not willing to take care of, or a vacation during a time when you don't know they're free could majorly backfire.
2. Planning Dates Without Someone's Input
If someone prefers not to do the work of planning a date and their partner volunteers to take on the bulk of it, that's nice. If someone wants to be surprised, that can also be fun. But a romantic gesture can border on controlling when you tell your partner where to be and when without even asking and confirming if they're up for it. Especially in the beginning, it can seem like it's a man's job to plan everything, but most people will appreciate at least having the chance to veto an idea.
3. "Protecting" Someone From Other People
As is evident in the benevolently sexist note pictured above, violence in the name of "protecting" a woman is often romanticized. The note's author believes it is desirable for a man to "crush the life out of other men that would do you harm," as if a woman is not capable of standing up for herself. The threat to fight other men who might show interest in a woman is also a display of toxic masculinity and of glorified male violence.
4. Keeping A Partner All To Yourself
As you can hear in songs like "Jealous" by Nick Jonas, in which he tells a significant other that he can't help but get jealous because she's just so beautiful, possessive behaviors are also often romanticized as displays of affection. We're supposed to think it's cute when people, particularly men, try to prevent their partners from talking to other people or dressing in a sexy manner. In reality, this behavior shows a disrespectful attempt to control a partner and an unwillingness to distrust them.
5. Giving Unsolicited Advice
One of the things that makes the protagonist Ana's relationship in 50 Shades of Grey abusive (other than, you know, the non-consensual sex acts) is her boyfriend Christian Grey's set of rules for her diet, exercise, and even her birth control. The fact that he provides her with sessions with a personal trainer, appointments with a gynecologist, and a list of foods to eat is supposed to be a little weird but sort of endearing, since he's supposedly looking out for her well-being. But it's actually extremely controlling. In less extreme scenarios, a partner who gives unsolicited advice on another's lifestyle may think they're helping, but they're actually just undermining their partner's ability to make their own decisions.
6. Forcing Physical Affection On Someone
One of the ways people tend to excuse sexual misconduct is to say that someone couldn't help but touch someone or kiss someone because they just like them so much. One post on the blog Consent Crew even describes a little boy's mom excusing his decision to pull a girl's hair, saying he was just doing it because she was "pretty." Even if something seems like a gesture of affection, it's still sexual misconduct if somebody doesn't want it.
7. Practicing "Chivalry"
There are different levels of chivalry. Some acts, like holding a door open, are nice to do for anyone, but are problematic when they're gendered (i.e., men are supposed to do them for women because women are supposedly incapable). Others, like ordering for somebody when you're out to eat, are kind of controlling no matter who does them. Chivalry becomes especially problematic when men believe that because they are such "gentlemen," women owe them something, or when they insist on opening women's doors or covering their restaurant bills even when women decline their help. No matter how kind a gesture seems to one person, it's not helpful unless the other person actually wants it.
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