For the introduction to this article, see the original #hiphopismychrist blog post.
Cox cites seven thoughts inspired by Mendes' song Treat You Better in her SheKnows piece. To be clear that I appreciate Cox’s voice in this conversation, I will address each of her thoughts noted instead of just areas of disagreement or confusion.
"Toxic relationships are common." - Cailyn COx
This is true, though I do not see anything in the song or video to drive that home. There is no lyric or specific video reference for this. Granted, the article’s title (7 thoughts we had while watching Shawn Mendes' powerful new video) doesn’t limit Cox to thoughts of agreement with anything she saw in the video itself.
I do see a conflation in the article of toxic relationships and incompatibility. This is a problem. Cox asserts, “chances are that most of us have found ourselves in a toxic relationship with someone who is just not right for us.” There is a difference between being incompatible with someone and being in a toxic relationship. I admit, I was shocked when my therapist first told me that.
this means: We Learn Relationship Dynamics
K’La’s version of How to Love addresses this core issue - that relationship dynamics are learned. “No one ever taught me how to love” she sings. “They tell you how to hate but they don’t ever say how to love.” Loving and being loved is so basic to those who had healthy relationships modeled for them that many take it for granted. The fact is that those who grew up with or became involved with manipulators for any significant amount of time often struggle for their lack of understanding here. I was not kidding when I said I was shocked.
More than shocked, I became ashamed that I was so out of touch with the world I wanted to live in, the world of healthy relationships. I remember that therapy session quite vividly. It was soon after my doctor had replaced the furniture in her office. I went into my usual heavy-processing mode, alternating between a far-off stare out the 5th floor window and looking deep into my lap. As my sense of shame grew, tears rolled out my eyes under pressure of the overwhelm.
“I will never get this right.” The thought crushed my heart, and I feared my future all over again. If I was just learning, nearly seven years after last seeing my ex-husband, that the absence of abuse dynamics does not a healthy long-term relationship make, why I wouldn’t make enough progress to have a healthy long-term relationship until. . . no time in the foreseeable future.
I sat on the heather sofa and thought of the curses Dick and a boyfriend I had afterward had hurled at me. Dick had used two main curses: one, that I would finally feel safe one day and then he “would be at [my] back door,” and two, that “every relationship [I] could have would get to the exact same place.” To him, that same place was anywhere I deserved to be hurt.
As far as the next guy went, a partner I lived with for several years, the curse was a little different. In addition to rescinding all the love he had ever bestowed on me and accusing me of having “wasted” over four years of his life by ending our relationship, he cursed me to go on to fall in love with someone who would hurt me. He said that. He said he hoped I would have my heart broken over and over until I gave up to be alone.
And there I thought we had been in love. I thought it was so sad for both of us that we couldn’t continue together. What's more? I wished for any way to make the breakup less painful, particularly for this man with whom I had shared some happy years. Suddenly he wanted to remove that joy and love from reality and block any future joy and love from ever being real for me. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
“We all deserve happiness.” - Cailyn Cox
Cox describes the Treat You Better lyrics, "I know I can treat you better than he can/And any girl like you deserves a gentleman," as “incredibly moving.” I take great issue with the savior complex of being a better partner for an abuse victim. In most cases, people leaving abusive situations are best off taking time to focus on themselves and building a comprehensive network of support rather than put energy into building another romantic relationship.
In no case is a new romance the solution to the problem of abuse. To promulgate that idea is to deny the abuse victim any autonomy as an individual, and that sets up unhealthy dynamics within any relationship. Each person must come as their complete self to a friendship, romance, or family relationship, not as someone searching for completion from the relationship at hand.
Have you dealt with that? I'll use friendships as an example. I've had friends who only interacted with me as they thought they "should" as friends. They would yield activity decisions (where to eat, what to see, etc.), granted favors or assistance to their own detriment, or chose not to reach out when in need because they did not want to "bother" their friend. Those relationships weren't tenable. The person pressuring thierself to fit into a relationship ended up stressed by self-censorship, and I ended up stressed by the burden of making all the decisions for the friendship.
My friends who come to our relationships as themselves and consider their personal boundaries and desires when negotiating our time together provide sustainable relationships. Sure, they may say "no" to me more often than the first group mentioned, but I can feel safe asking them anything because I know they will not overextend themselves if my request doesn't work for them.
Breaking down the language of the lines referenced above, I had my own thought. To the phrase “any girl like you deserves,” I say EVERYONE DERERVES HEALTHY RELATIONHSIPS. All types of girls, all types of boys, all types of gender nonbinary people, ALL, ALL, ALL people deserve healthy relationships.
Sure, sometimes the only person keeping someone from healthy relationships is theirself, but that’s on them. I don’t wish it on them, and I certainly don’t think anyone is eligible to be underserving of healthy interactions with others in the world. (Click here to read my article about distinguishing when violence is abuse. #punchthenazi)
Being deserving comes up in the original How To Love. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics include, “See I just want you to know that you deserve the best.” Lil’ Wayne says this without qualification or reference to the oota as having “earned” good treatment by the type of person they are perceived to be.
Contrast this to Mendes’ use of “a girl like you deserves.” Lil’ Wayne’s oota does not have to be a certain way or be the way Lil’ Wayne might think she is. He says “you deserve the best.” Mendes’ oota may risk losing his appraisal as deserving of a “gentleman” (which he equates with goodness) since the sentiment is expressed as tied to the oota being “like” the girl he thinks she is.
“Take the good with the bad.” -Cailyn Cox
Cox brings up an important point when she says, “there can be moments of calm during a volatile relationship.” This is known in abuse recovery support groups as the mean sweet cycle (see image below). What I find interesting is the heading of this section, "Take the Good with the Bad," because it is confusing. It sounds to me like something my ex-husband would say to get me to appreciate anything he wanted me to see as positive. The heading also ignores differences between difficulties within healthy relationships and hardship of dysfunction. Delivered as a command, and I don’t see anything supportive in this thought for victims or for survivors of abuse.
Cox goes on to note that “Mendes’ youth plays an important role.” I agree with Cox that we cannot ignore young people when thinking about abuse prevention or recovery. In fact, they are primary victims of abuse. As Cox cites, women ages 15 through 24 are at a significantly higher risk of being abused than people of other demographics. (Information on Statistics Canada and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence NCDAV data available.)
Mendes, a male counterpart to this high-risk group, does provide valuable insight into mainstream views of what a healthy relationship is. This perspective, however, lacks accurate understanding. Read a little about healthy relationships here.
"There’s always someone you can speak to. " -Cailyn Cox
Another point of agreement. I second Cox’s recommendation to check feminist.org for available agencies.
I feel it is important, however, to deliver this information in context. Just because there is always someone you can talk to does not mean you can talk to anyone.
Abuse victims deserve to make their own decisions about when and to whom they speak up. Safety is a major concern when speaking out. I understand hesitations to open up about being abused. Victim blaming, invalidation, and deaf ears aside, even well intentioned allies can turn out counter-productive. Someone in the abused person's circles who they turn to about domestic violence may end up endangering the abused through violating confidentiality. I have seen many a mother- and many a sister-in-law think they could fix a situation by talking to the abuser or another party. People don't know how abuse works. People want to be the hero. People want simple fixes to complex problems.
So if you want anyone to talk to, I recommend talking to someone who specifically works with abuse or at least relationships. If you do not have luck using the link above, let me know, and I'll do what I can to point you to helpful resources.
“Know when to walk away.” - Cailyn Cox
Cox’s next thought is “know when to walk away.” I feel that neither the lyrics nor the video “proved that sometimes you need to know when to walk away from a relationship” (Cox). On the contrary, I see the lyrics and video reinforcing the idea that people with romantic interest in an abuse victim are the answer to abuse.
Lil’ Wayne’s How To Love video does not place a romantic prospect as an answer. His video pays homage to the parents, in this case black mothers, who succeed in forging their own healthy relationships. There is no flip-side of blame on parents who struggle and do not model loving, healthy relationships for their children. There is a level of compassion and understanding conveyed in the Lil’ Wayne production for anyone who doesn’t know how to love.
Cox’s choice of language here troubles me. It smacks of victim-blame. “Walk away,” she says, as if during and after a breakup are not the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship. They absolutely are. When an abuser sees their power threatened, that they will need to find another oota, the abuser becomes desperate and escalates their behavior. I know that the two instances in which an abuser pulled guns on me were times I was trying to leave my abuser’s presence.
This casual advice, “know when to walk away,” both invalidates the danger of the situation and implies that anyone in an abusive situation has some desire to be abused (or at least trades off the abuse for something seen as “worth it” in the relationship).
The casual attitude towards ending an abusive relationship and the notion that victims of domestic violence somehow want to be abused pervade the mainstream. Many abuse victims believe it themselves. The isolation and repetitive messaging from the abuser gets into the victim’s head. I know it has been very confusing for me to unwrap my mind from the idea that I “just like the bad boys, so this is the only kind of relationship that [I’ll] ever get.” Those are my ex-husband’s words, but they stuck in my head for a long time. They aren’t true at all, though, and never have been. I liked nice boys, and now I like nice men.
I was not abused because I wanted to be with an abuser. I was abused because someone else, someone strong and skilled and full of malicious intention, chose to hurt me. I did not need to “know when to walk away.” I needed to have a safety plan in place and to keep alert for the safest time to exit. Even this, keeping alert, is almost a joke if you know what it is like to live under the constant threat of abuse. One often exerts all their mental energy staying safe (for themselves and for any children involved) and cannot put as much as they would like into escaping their abuse altogether.
This emergency-reaction dynamic is intentional on the part of the abuser. The abuser knows that when the OOTA is kept at their wit’s end the oota is highly unlikely to have the ability to resist abuse or leave the situation.
The “they want it” mindset has been so virulent that it has inspired campaigns to counter the myth, one of my favorites is #whyistayed.
Though it was not mentioned in Cox’s article, Mendes sings lyrics that fit into the same victim-blaming wheelhouse. The singer says to the oota, “anytime you want it to stop.” This outrages me. Again, the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship are during and shortly after a breakup. An abused person cannot simply leave when they “want” to.
Not only hurtful and stigmatizing, this thinking also contributes to a societal pressure to leave a relationship before one feels ready (as in safe). An abused person may try to hide abuse and therefore stay dangerously isolated from others simply because they cannot navigate both the danger of the situation with their abuser and the untenable “advice” to simply “get out if you really want to” from those they tried to get support from.
Mendes sings next, “I can treat you better than he can.” This adds insult to injury as it poses a romantic interest who judges and victim-blames the oota as the answer to that person’s abusive situation. Gag! My neck and face blood stings the inside of my skin when I think of this song promoted as positive address of domestic abuse.
Call For Action
Cox closes with my favorite of her points, “we need change.” Amen.
Still, emotional abuse is abuse. I do not rank types of abuse as better or worse than each other, and I see Mendes’ song as replacing physical abuse for dynamics of other types of abuse. This does not empower the victim. This does not encourage healing.
I have been working on the publishing process with my own book and development of a companion curriculum on forging healthy relationships. What are your questions about healthy relationships? I would love to hear from you in the comments below. I'll be sure to address them on the blog or in the healthy relationship course.
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