Article By Bec Oakes
~ July, 2021 ~ The recent Netflix release Sex/Life shows an unravelling marriage, as stay-at-home mum Billie develops a sexual obsession with her ex-boyfriend, Brad. As the show bounces between her now suburban life and her old, uninhibited days in Manhattan, we quickly learn that Brad was emotionally abusive and their relationship, incredibly toxic. Yet, when Billie looks back on their relationship, she appears to do so through rose-tinted glasses, banishing Brad’s cruelty from her mind in favour of a romanticised view that primarily focuses on the explosive passion that existed between them in the bedroom.
I’m no stranger to that feeling. I have personal experience of romanticising a relationship that was entirely unhealthy. I met Henry during my first year at university and we casually dated for two years. We were never “official”, but the love I had for him was all consuming, and for a long time I thought of him as The One.
Henry was handsome, career-motivated, great in bed, and everything I wanted in a man. But he didn’t want a relationship and he used me, knowing he would never reciprocate the feelings I had for him. One night, he didn’t come home. I later found out he’d met up with his ex and paid for a hotel room so they could sleep together.
In the summer of 2019, we stopped talking. But, as our time together receded in the rear-view mirror, I couldn’t stop thinking about him — and not about the pain he caused me. Instead, I found myself remembering the good times we shared: when we bumped into each other by chance at a festival and he held my hand as we walked through the crowd; when he grabbed me and kissed me as I was about to leave his flat one morning; when he lent me his sweatshirt to wear on my walk home. I conveniently forgot about all the negative aspects of the relationship, and focused instead on a romanticised edit.
But why do we romanticise toxic relationships? Dr Sarah Davies is a counselling psychologist, trauma therapist and the author of Never Again – Moving On from Narcissistic Abuse and Other Toxic Relationships. She explains that toxic relationships usually start with a period of intense romance; of gifts, compliments and romantic gestures. It’s exciting and intoxicating and very easy to get swept away. This “love-bombing” leaves the person on the receiving end with a dangerous – and false – sense of power, and the belief that they can be the one to change an unavailable, unfaithful or otherwise abusive partner.
“As time goes by, you may find that a partner changes for the worse,” Davies says. “But this fantasy thinking focuses on what you’d like your partner to be or what they could be, deterring you away from seeing the cold hard reality. Time-travelling to either the past [the love-bombing] or future [their potential], and focusing on a fantasy stops you from being grounded in the present and you are more likely to justify or excuse abusive behaviour.”
The turbulent romances we see play out on screen also have a role in this. Many of us have grown up idolising the toxic relationships we see on TV – think Chuck and Blair’s ups and downs. Domestic bliss doesn’t exactly lend itself to gripping drama, but the tempestuous nature of the great pop culture love stories of our time perhaps encourages us to overlook the red flags we really shouldn’t.
Dating and relationship expert, Sarah Louise Ryan, explains the problem. “[These shows] not only normalise but also glamorise toxic relationships. This can leave a negative impression on both vulnerable viewers in unhealthy relationships themselves, and the young, impressionable dater navigating an already complex modern dating scene.” We’ve become so used to seeing unhealthy relationships on screen that we consider them normal – even aspirational.
No on-screen relationship exemplifies this so well for me as Sex and the City’s Carrie and Big. Carrie is an independent, sexually liberated woman, but when Big enters the picture, she becomes a cliché, chasing after a man who frequently appears devoid of emotion, and sees her as disposable. He is always in the driving seat, dictating when they spend time together, often uncontactable, and failing to treat her with the respect she deserves. Despite this, many fans hold them up as the ultimate pairing — myself included.
It’s embarrassing to admit how big a role SATC played in how I viewed my own relationship. No matter what he put me through, I always stayed hopeful, even when, after two years of him telling me he didn’t want to be in a relationship, he entered one with someone else. Because, just like Big did after marrying Natasha in season two, I thought he’d come to his senses, and back to me.
Senior therapist Dr Sally Baker told me why. These love stories — no matter how toxic — typically have a happy ending, she says. Both Carrie and Blair got to marry their men. “It gives this message of whatever you have to put up with, and however many times you’ve been let down, frustrated or heartbroken, if you can keep the goal in sight, you’ll get your happy ending.”
But she wonders how things play out after that happy ending. “You’ve fought for someone and you’ve struggled for someone but when you’ve finally won them, what type of prize are they?” The Sex and the City revival And Just Like That might just provide the answer. According to a leaked script, the series will feature a fractured relationship between the couple, positioning Carrie and Big in the midst of a bitter divorce.
Looking back on my relationship with Henry, I think I always knew deep down that it was unhealthy. But I romanticised it anyway because pop culture made me hope that his behaviour was simply something I needed to put up with, in order to eventually have my day in the sun, just like Carrie.
Now I know there’s only so much unbridled passion can do if the rest of the relationship is unfulfilling, and we need to step away from the fantasy of all-consuming screen love in favour of something a little more realistic.