Writing Tips: How To Tell If Your Romance Is Problematic
Many written relationships are lovely and heartwarming. However, no small number romanticize unhealthy relationships. Here, we have enumerated several popular “true love” tropes that are problematic. If your written relationship contains/romanticizes these, we strongly encourage you to remove those aspects. NOTE: Though nothing is graphic, we do discusses emotional and physical abuse, mental illness, and sexual harassment and assault. Please be careful and take care of yourselves.
- There is a large power imbalance: A romantic relationship should be an equal partnership between all participants. If one of the members has significantly more power than the other, it can not only cause emotional barriers in the relationship, but it could also throw into question whether the relationship is even consensual. As a general rule of thumb, you should not write romantic relationships between an employer and an employee, a jailer and their prisoner, a teacher and a student, and an adult (i.e., anyone over 18) and a minor (anyone under 18)-though exceptions are made on this last one if there is a less-than-two-year age gap between the two (so an 18 year old and a 17 year old is okay, but a 24 year old and a 17 year old is not). These relationships are so imbalanced in nature that one member is deemed unable to consent because there is too much danger in saying “no.” There is no situation where this will not be true (as an aside, all of these types of relationships are frowned upon and most are illegal in real life). Even outside of these highly problematic relationships, power imbalances can add up to the point that a romance is unhealthy. Many factors, such as race, gender, and class, can add power imbalance to a relationship if both members of the couple don’t respect and treat each other as equals.
- There is violence/abuse (physical or emotional): At first this seems obvious (as it should be), but keep in mind that this includes relationships where the “weaker” member hurts the stronger one or both members hit/slap/push/emotionally abuse each other. Having “wimpy” partner abuse the stronger one isn’t a cute display of strength/passion. Having both abuse each other doesn’t make your relationship fresh and edgy. It’s all abuse. Don’t romanticize it.
- The relationship “cures” mental illness: Dealing with mental illness (including addiction) is a personal, difficult, and often life-long situation. Though your characters can (and should) help and support their loved one, it is important that you don’t write the relationship as “curing” the illness. This gives unrealistic expectations for real life readers and undermines all the work and personal strength those who struggle with mental illness show.
- There is a lack of communication (or one-sided communication): Though this entry isn’t as damning as the previous ones, it’s still very problematic and often romanticized (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” anyone?). Communication is one of the central parts of making a relationship work (and it’s also part of the fun!). If both of your characters aren’t communicating with each other with equal and receptive listening, then the relationship isn’t healthy. However, unlike most of these entries (which need to be written out), it is acceptable to use overcoming this as the basis of your romance plot.
To conclude, this is just a reminder that not every character or story needs a relationship. Sometimes, your character is not ready for a relationship or the story needs to focus on their personal growth instead. That’s okay! Don’t force a relationship (especially one with problematic aspects like those above).