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!