To fight harassment, we must learn how to break up

Read the original article at Feministing.

“We are taught how to fall in love, but we are never taught how to deal with love ending.”

A young man said this recently during a community discussion on sexual harassment and violence. It struck a chord in me. Intimate partner violence, after all, tends to escalate when the victim is about to leave. We hear our friends’ stories and we know our own. They often have the same structure:

I said I wanted to end it and he called me a cunt.

The first time she hit me I was leaving.

He won’t let me break up with him.

This is about control: the victim, by leaving, is asserting agency, which threatens the control of the perpetrator. But this is also about loss: losing control, losing a partner, losing love, companionship,  or meaning. Our lives and literatures are full of lovers who cannot let go. Often, these figures are considered romantic. The boyfriend you dump who just won’t stop calling. In a “romantic” gesture, to “win you back” he shows up at her house. His “determination” is a euphemism for stalking. You, and the woman you keep going back to: every time she says it’s better for both of you if you let it go. But after every brutal fight you feel you can’t stop yourself from calling. Or the representation of a woman stalker in Crazy Ex Girlfriend, a show all about how women’s socialization to “lose ourselves” in love becomes violence.

As Bruno Mars sings in his idealized description of a great partner/friend, “I’ll never let go, never say goodbye.” I have the song on a playlist, and whenever I listen to it, I think: “I get it, Bruno. But sometimes you’ve just got to.”

I think more of us than would like to admit have become undone by the loss of love, to the point where we have done things we regret. I’ve been there: breakups suck, and losing love can feel like the next worst thing to dying. But love is also, fundamentally, about respecting and celebrating the fullness of someone else’s personhood. That means respecting our partners’ agency—including, and particularly, their right to leave us.

We are taught how to fall in love, but we are never taught how to deal with love ending.

Not all of us deal with loss by becoming abusive. The choice to abuse is, like most things, deeply gendered and often conditioned by past experiences of violence. An inability to deal with rejection plus murderous masculine entitlement can be literally deadly. But like so many cultural assumptions that underlie abuse, the inability to deal with rejection or loss, and the willingness to violate someone’s agency in order to coerce them into accepting you, is not confined to people who become violent. It’s a script underlying our societal notion of love as a whole. At some point we are taught that someone else’s lack of desire to touch our bodies is something we can convince them to change. At some point we learn that the loss of love is a loss of our own selves.

If at first you don’t succeed, we teach in affirmative consent, stop trying. Which is true, but it’s perhaps easier said than done: respecting other people’s agency, including their right to leave us, and our own task of healing after they do, requires a whole course of cultural reprogramming. It requires respecting our own deeply human desire to be loved and accepted, but understanding that this desire can’t be fulfilled through coercion.

We are taught how to fall in love, but we are never taught how to deal with love ending.

We cannot hurt our lovers to make them stay. We cannot make anyone want us. Heartbreak is normal and inevitable, and there are also circumstances — depending on social context, economic and family situation, vulnerability and exploitation—in which one partner leaving another truly is unjust and our wounded rage truly is righteous. Being left without material support, or without a primary caretaker, or alone with children are not situations we can change with our attitude — they are the result of material conditions. But we can at the very least revise our emotional and cultural script of love to unwind the knots of loss and control that often underlie toxic or abusive relationships. We can learn that love needn’t be an emotional emergency whose sirens wail through our days.

As feminists, we have already committed ourselves to fighting patriarchal entitlement: No one owes you their time, body, or affection. You cannot compel anyone to have sex with you. But in addition to teaching people that they cannot coerce love from one another, we should also collectively learn healthier ways to process loss: the loss of control, the loss of a relationship, the loss of sex or companionship. We can learn that the loss of love does not have to trigger the loss of self, respect, and boundaries. That loss is something we can survive.

This piece is part of a series exploring issues of violencepower, and love stemming from #MeToo.

Cover photo: You asked once, she said no; get over it. (Shout out to Mallory Ortberg.)

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