Jo Talks Books: On Unhealthy Relationships in YA

Hi all! I totally did mean to get my August discussion post up way before now, but with my summer job not finishing until last week, I honestly just didn’t have the time to write another lengthy post-which seems to have been the story of my life this summer! Anyway, whilst I was in London for YALC back in July, my friend Hannah and I got onto talking about unhealthy relationships in the media, specifically talking about how cute we thought Ross and Rachel from Friends were as a couple when we were younger and now that we’re older, we realise just how unhealthy their relationship really was. Hannah said she thought it would make a great discussion post and I asked her if she minded if I used it for Jo Talks, to which she agreed. That is all a very lengthy way of saying that today I’m going to be talking about Unhealthy Relationships in YA books, and our tendency to romanticise YA love interests who are in actual fact rather abusive towards their partners.

Take the A Court of Thorns and Roses series for an example. In the first book, Tamlin is unquestionably abusive towards Feyre, he physically hurts her, he is possessive (yes there is a line between protective and possessive) and this goes even further in the second book when he locks her in her room and doesn’t allow her to come out. His behaviour is called out more in the second book, but that doesn’t really excuse the way his behaviour is romanticised in the first book. Even Feyre’s eventual love interest, Rhysand, is abusive towards her, essentially date raping her in the first book and even in the second, is possessive over her to the point of being controlling. Much as I love Sarah J Maas books and I think she does a great job of giving her female characters power and agency, she does have a tendency of writing male characters who are incredibly possessive over their women, to a point where it makes me feel quite uncomfortable. A healthy relationship should not have one person feeling as if they own the other one!

Twilight is obviously another common example given of an unhealthy YA relationship, though I’ll admit, I haven’t read it, so my opinions on it have mostly been formed from what I’ve heard. Still, the entire premise is ripe for an unhealthy relationship given that the main character is 17 (i.e. underage) and the love interest is over a hundred years old, so yeah, it’s more than a little bit gross to start off with. Add to that the fact that Edward is incredibly possessive of Bella, he stalks her, he tries to control her by not allowing her to see Jacob and disabling her car so she can’t drive, and she becomes isolated from her family and friends because of her relationship with him. Bella’s relationship with Edward isn’t just unhealthy, it’s downright abusive. There’s an even more disturbing relationship between Jacob and Bella’s daughter Renesmee, whom Jacob imprints on and describes as his soulmate when she is literally hours old. Pedophilia much?

We also have the classic example of Aria and Ezra from Pretty Little Liars, whose relationship most people will be familiar with through the TV show of the same name, but PLL was originally a novel series and the Aria/Ezra relationship was also featured in the books. I don’t think I really need to explain why a teenager having a relationship with their teacher is supremely unhealthy, not to mention illegal. Granted, their relationship in the TV show is far worse, in the books it is a much more casual thing and doesn’t last for very long, whereas the relationship in the show is much more serious but still: putting a teen/teacher relationship in a YA book is really unhealthy and irresponsible because there is a severe imbalance of power in that kind of relationship.

Snape and Lily in Harry Potter is another example of a relationship that fans romanticise but is really unhealthy. Granted, their relationship never actually becomes romantic, they never date, but I wanted to include it because it is a big sticking point in the fandom and a huge part of Snape’s redemption arc. Snape does not have a healthy attraction to Lily, his love is obsessive and damaging. Snape would lash out at Lily when she did things he didn’t approve of, he joined the Death Eaters because she rejected him and he called her horrible slurs. Just because he agreed to protect Harry, does not mean that his attraction to her was healthy or that anything he did to her was okay.

Also the classic guy is totally obsessed with a girl until she eventually caves and agrees to date him is another annoying trope, both in YA and in other media, because it makes it seem like the girls have no agency and that it is okay for boys to just wear a girl down until she says yes, which it is not at all. The most recent book that I can remember with this in was A Study In Charlotte, which I read back in January of last year, the narrator in that; Jamie Watson, is obsessed with the other main character, Charlotte Holmes and basically seems to hang around with her and wears her down until she agrees to date him. In addition, he was very possessive and had some rather nasty anger issues, which as I have already explored in this post, makes for rather unhealthy relationships.

I realise that a lot of the examples of unhealthy relationships I’ve used have shown men acting badly towards women and whilst this does seem to be the case most of the time, there are also cases of girls in YA acting badly towards boys, for example in Graceling, Katsa is physically abusive towards Po, pushing him so hard it causes bruises. Instead of exploring this, which would have been great, since abuse by women towards men is sorely underexplored in fiction, the author just brushes it off as totally normal.

This is not to say that unhealthy relationships in YA are always a bad thing. When they are romanticised and made to seem like they are the perfect relationship that teens should be striving for? Yes absolutely. But there are YA books that explore unhealthy relationships and show how these are actually really bad things and not what you should be aiming for whatsoever. Take The Exact Opposite of Okay, Danny’s friendship with Izzy is shown to be really toxic, because he thinks he is a Nice Guy, who is entitled to her time, her body and her affections because he is nice to her and gives her gifts. The book totally slams this trope and shows that Danny’s attitude toward Izzy is really unhealthy. You also have books like Dangerous Girls, which explores the unhealthy dynamic between Anna, Elise and her boyfriend Tate, at no point are any of those relationships shown to be particularly healthy nor or they romanticised, but the book does provide a very interesting look into toxic relationships, both friendships and romance wise.

So yeah, YA definitely has a problem in showing unhealthy relationships, most commonly through possessive, entitled male characters, massive age gaps between characters (I mean how many times have we read the teenage protagonist falling in love with the hundreds of years old supernatural creatures) and in some cases both physical and emotional abuse. It’s such a shame because YA writers have the opportunity to really start a dialogue with their teen readers and show them that relationships like this aren’t okay, but they romanticise them to the point that it seems like this is the sort of relationship teenagers should be striving for. That isn’t to say that healthy relationships aren’t seen in YA, I can think of several YA relationships that are kind and loving and supportive, but they don’t seem to be as normal as “bad boy treats girl terribly and she thinks she can change him” and I hope that this is something that changes, because teens deserve to be treated right in relationships and they deserve to see their favourite characters in books in healthy, loving relationships so that they strive for those, rather than the drama filled, toxic relationships that seem to be so prevalent in teen media.

So that’s it, my thoughts on unhealthy relationships in YA! What examples of unhealthy relationships in YA can you think of? What about healthy ones? Any books that you think explore unhealthy relationships well? Let me know in the comments!

I don’t know if I will have another discussion post for you before the end of the month, I don’t have any plans for another August topic, but if I can think of something that inspires me enough to write about it, then I will. In the meantime, I don’t know what I will have for you guys for the rest of the month, maybe a Writing Corner post if I can think of something to write about, but I guess you’ll just have to wait and see!


30 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On Unhealthy Relationships in YA

  1. Bookmark Chronicles 22/08/2018 / 9:49 pm

    YES JO!!! The thing about Twilight (since you said you hadn’t read it) is that for some weird reason everyone seemed okay with finding out that Edward would sneak into Bella’s room and watch her sleep WTF!! Also Jacob forced Bella to make out with him after she became engaged to Edward. He practically said he would let a vampire kill him if he didn’t. Consider yourself lucky for not reading it!

    This is such a good topic. I agree that it’s not bad when these relationships are put in YA because readers might connect with it but show them how to get out of it, how to protect themselves. Don’t make it seem like it’s okay! Ugh stupid YA tropes

    • iloveheartlandx 23/08/2018 / 10:18 am

      Thanks! Oh really? That’s even worse than I thought then! Sheesh that’s awful too, wow I am so glad I never read those books. Yes exactly, it’s not a bad thing to use unhealthy relationships in YA, teenagers need to know what to look out for after all, but when it’s made to seem like something desirable….no, no, no. I know, definitely one of my least favourite YA tropes.

      • Bookmark Chronicles 26/08/2018 / 5:15 pm

        Hahah Thank goodness you didn’t fall into that trap like so many of us. UGH. Have you happened to read any good books that handle this topic properly? That’s something I’m definitely going to start looking out for

      • iloveheartlandx 26/08/2018 / 6:43 pm

        Ha ha I’m so glad! Gone Girl was a really great one that actually explored a toxic relationship without making it seem like it was anything other than twisted. I read a book by Louise O’Neill earlier in the year called Almost Love, that explored an obsessive toxic relationship as well.

      • Bookmark Chronicles 27/08/2018 / 5:48 pm

        Ooh you’re right about Gone Girl I didn’t even realize that. I have not read Almost Love, but I will add it to my list. Thanks!

      • iloveheartlandx 27/08/2018 / 7:41 pm

        Yeah, I would have used it as an example of one done well in my post, but it’s an adult book so it didn’t fit, same with Almost Love! No problem πŸ™‚

  2. kozbisa 22/08/2018 / 10:41 pm

    I am ok with unhealthy relationships as long as they are called out as such. Though, no matter what, I cannot do teacher-student romances in YA. It’s just wrong.

    • iloveheartlandx 23/08/2018 / 10:16 am

      Yes, I don’t mind them being there, my problem is when they are there and we’re meant to see them as romantic, which is something YA authors do way too often. Oh me too, it grosses me out and is just plain wrong.

  3. Jared_dabook (@JDabook) 22/08/2018 / 11:20 pm

    Great post! I’ve been waiting for FOREVER for someone to bring this up! I think this subject is very imporant, and should be discussed more in the book world in general!

  4. Urg some of these relationships sound so bad, what was the author thinking?!

    It’s hard to gage Snape and Lilly’s relationship from the small flashback we got in the books but it didn’t seem great and he really should have got over her once she married and had a kid with someone else πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚ really liked your examples!!

    • iloveheartlandx 23/08/2018 / 10:09 am

      I have no idea! Yeah, I don’t think they were ever involved romantically, but he definitely had an unhealthy obsession with her, so I figured it counted just enough to use it! Thanks πŸ™‚

  5. Shelving This 23/08/2018 / 10:00 am

    Wow, this is a really good post Jo!

    I think we have unhealthy relationships in pretty much all YA books. Shatter Me, The Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Grisha trilogy, all have unhealthy relationships. Apparently over possessiveness and the controlling nature of guys is β€œromantic” and okay according to the writers.

    • iloveheartlandx 23/08/2018 / 10:07 am

      Thanks! It does seem to be a common theme, though I have read some YA books with some lovely, healthy, supportive relationships, so they are out there. Ugh I know, it is far too prevalent. I think they think it’s being protective, but it really isn’t.

  6. Jess @ Jessticulates 23/08/2018 / 1:04 pm

    Great discussion! I can’t help wondering how much of this is down to women writing down experiences in which they are ultimately in control, because the majority of the authors writing these relationships appear to be women. With the rise of the Time’s Up campaign and #MeToo movement, more and more people are talking about how sexism and sexual harassment are things every woman has had to deal with at some point in her life – even if it’s brushed off as just ‘boys will be boys’ at the time, which is definitely how it was in my experience.

    For the longest time in media these controlling relationships have been portrayed as healthy relationships because the men are the ones in power. They’re the ones who get to be the funny one, they’re the ones who get to be the one who experiments with several different partners until they realise ‘the right girl was right in front of me the whole time’. Another trope that makes me uncomfortable, that’s often used in fantasy, is of the young trainee eventually falling in love with the much older man who has become her mentor – this is especially uncomfortable for me if the characters first meet when the woman is still a child.

    The very long-winded point I’m trying to make is that if these are the kind of relationships we’re taught to romanticise from a very young age, it makes sense that when we start writing stories of our own which include these ‘bad boys’, the women ultimately ‘tame’ them. Is it healthy? No, not at all, but it’s a way of writing an ending we often don’t get in real life if we end up in a relationship with an actual bad person.

    This year I read Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us duology, and that handled an unhealthy relationship wonderfully. It’s an LGBT+ romance between two women, but one woman is part of a crew of pirates and the other woman is someone these pirates have kidnapped. Even though they develop feelings for another, they’re both very firm that nothing can happen between them until they’re on equal footing, and one of them isn’t in a higher position of power, and it was handled really, really well. So I definitely recommend those to anyone who hasn’t read them! πŸ™‚

    • iloveheartlandx 26/08/2018 / 6:58 pm

      Wow, thanks for the lengthy response! I totally get that, you’re right, it does make sense that women want to write the kinds of relationships that they have experienced but with them turning out better, I just think that especially YA writers have a responsibility to show teens what relationships should be and that they deserve to be treated well. Oh that sounds really good, I have actually heard of those books but I didn’t really know what they were about, I may need to check them out now πŸ™‚

  7. Kay Wisteria 24/08/2018 / 12:05 am

    This is SUCH a great post!! I read Twilight when I was 12 and thought it was so cute and romantic, but now it’s pretty much the worst, most abusive relationship I’ve ever read!! Why are we showing tween girls this is romantic??

    • iloveheartlandx 26/08/2018 / 6:51 pm

      Thank you! I have no idea, and it’s definitely dangerous because like you said, tween girls can’t really tell the difference and they need to know that being treated like that is NOT okay.

  8. Kimberly 23/10/2018 / 4:02 am

    You’re absolutely right. The romanticization of these unhealthy relationships is a major issue, and it’s not just in YA lit. I enjoy the Outlander series, but it takes me ignoring a lot of huge relational issues in order to read it because there’s a huge power differential between them.

    • iloveheartlandx 23/10/2018 / 10:01 am

      Oh yeah, I mean I only focused on YA books in my post, but it’s clearly a much more widespread issue, not just in books but in film and TV. I haven’t actually read the Outlander books, but I have to admit there are moments in the TV series that I have made me uncomfortable.

  9. Hester @ bookswithben 17/08/2020 / 11:07 am

    I absolutely fully agree with everything on here! This is a huge issue and not talked about enough. A really great discussion post!

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