“I just wish she knew that if there were two persons, who were imperfect and they knew it, and they weren’t afraid to admit it – if those two persons cared enough about one another to lean upon one another, they’d be stronger together than they were separately – like a flying buttress and a cathedral wall.”
– Irish Firebrands, Chapter 32
Feminist theory about appropriate sex-roles notwithstanding, I think there’s a strong case for female “fixing” behavior to be mostly a matter of “nature” over “nurture.” By this I mean it’s hardwired in women, as a means to perpetuate the species: it’s the “mothering” instinct. Nurture comes into how that instinct is expressed: bearing or adopting children; teaching or mentoring; interior decorating or supporting a cause; nursing people or growing plants; keeping pets or loving “bad boyfriends.”
In this vein, eliciting possessiveness on the part of a male is also a survival strategy: females lack the upper body strength required to counter some kinds of threats, so a possessive male represents a defense asset (although there are women who train to become martial arts black belts, or who carry guns). It’s all a matter of degree, and at the wrong end of the continuum, male protective possessiveness manifests as abusive behavior.
Domestic abuse is one of the many tragic aspects of “the human condition” with which most fiction attempts to deal (including my own books). To some, this may seem to be pandering to prurience; others who are victims may be re-traumatized by their stumbling upon such works, but it’s to be hoped that survivors who are in therapy are developing effective coping, and on their way to healing.
In no case is truth or justice served by sweeping the issue under the rug. In this context, the best stories about this problem are those which show their characters’ road to enlightenment about their dysfunction (whether as a perpetrator or a victim/enabler), and the struggles (successful or otherwise) of their better nature, to overcome it (take the Bible, for example).
Judges see the tragic results of recidivism in domestic abuse, every day. What’s really sad about repeat offenders is that after a blowup they do experience a form of penitence (the “honeymoon phase”) that traps both the perpetrator and the victim in an enablement cycle that all too often escalates out of control.
I do find it difficult to write about this. I suppose it’s only my past life as a Registered Nurse that makes it possible for me to write about characters that are as flawed as real people. In real life, broken male behavior such as that portrayed in fiction is a manifestation of psychosocial pathology that can cause harm in ways too numerous to count, and sadly, it frequently cannot be fixed.
It’s easy to lose patience with a victim/enabler, whether it’s a fictional character or a real person. That’s why it’s important to remember that the victim of domestic abuse also has a hard time getting fixed. This is because the abusive relationship cycle is based on intermittent reinforcement, which is the most powerful form of operant conditioning: the dark side of “nurture.” Breaking the feedback loop that enables a dysfunctional relationship to continue can be mentally painful, and often requires the assistance of a behavioral psychologist.
In this respect, romantic fiction can be seen as a manifestation of individual coping: the faith that a fix can someday, some way, be effected. The main reinforcement of the faith in fixing is found in what author Moriah Jovan calls “the groveling” on the part of the male character. It can be portrayed in any number of creative ways, literal or figurative, but it must happen.
Important characters in novels must experience change, in their personalities and/or their motivation. The hope of change that’s held out by romantic fiction is that when this guy grovels, he means it. If the author has been honest, the reader will know it’s going to be hard, but that everybody involved will take their medications and work with their psychotherapists.
But for those fortunate not to bear the burden of such baggage, the attraction of reading about obsessive relationships may be merely that of retelling myths (such as the “frog prince” or “beauty and the beast”), or the vicarious experience of how it feels to become the most important person in the world to someone who becomes the most important person in the world to you.
©2012, 2013 Christine Plouvier