Fail? On Changing Relationships.

Relationships changing, or ending, is often perceived as a failure. Typically, an intrinsically higher value is placed on the romantic or sexual relationships we have with other people, and when those things change to be not sexual or romantic, it is usually considered a downgrade in significance. That “demotion” is often perceived as bad, or as something broken. I am skeptical of this because whenever I have felt inclined to extract myself from a connection, or change it, things have gotten better. Sometimes this happens immediately, and sometimes it takes a little while for the improvement to set in, but there is always something that makes the whole process a net-positive. So, what failed?

When the end of the agreed-upon terms of a relationship comes, I am quick to apply a light switch metaphor: we are on, right up until we are off. Or, we are off until we’re on. The more I have experienced this switch, the weaker that comparison is for me. It feels more like hitting empty on a gas tank: an emotional vat that fuels the ability to keep going in the reality around you as it is. My brain has traditionally recorded the moments things change, I suppose, I can call to mind these transitional points very clearly. They are seared in my mind’s eye, easily accessed. The impact of them is probably something to do with their clarity in my remembrance. Strong feelings, good or bad, seem to be what we hold on to. Moments of change also seem to stick. So, when a relationship is at a point of major shift, there are ripples in the mind and the memory.

It starts in my fingertips, kind of tingling. It works its way up my arms and forms a tightness around my chest, in my lungs, around my heart. In an attempt to relieve the constriction, I will probably take a deep intake of breath. As I exhale, there’s a sort of release that occurs. It feels like the blood coursing through me is cold, suddenly, and draining away. It is as if I have suddenly realized that the well from which I draw resilience is empty save for a drop of energy reserved for whatever exit strategy is deployed. If I close my eyes for a moment, the blackness is comfortable and familiar because there’s nothing inside me anyway. I can see the edges of my shell, bare, exposed and a bit scarred from the strain of trying to keep the connection from breaking. I feel hollow and devoid of care. This is usually past the point at which it would have been a comfortable thing to leave, because if I had done this sooner I would have the energy to deal with the fallout of the separation. I am usually kicking myself later as I struggle to put one foot in front of the other, or complete simple tasks such as making myself something to eat, or being punctual.

I’m always early except when I am surviving on fumes, if anything. The level of strain is indicative in how late I am.

I could have ended it when there was something left in me, and this would all be easier. Since I kept on until I was completely done, there’s nothing to help me cope with self-preservation after. I’ve probably lost weight, and I’ve probably been sleeping a lot more, or a lot less, for a while. My skin probably has less colour than usual, which is laughable. I am pretty pale already.

I know this feeling well enough that I can recognize the onset, now. I used to be surprised by it as words escape my lips and I hear my own voice echo out of me, foreign. I would hear myself speak and think, did I just say that?

Oh.

The words are in language that represents termination, and usually served very deadpan, or cold. When I reach this point, I haven’t got any time for warming them up anymore.

“I can’t keep doing this.”

“I need you to get your things out of my house.”

“I haven’t been happy in ages. I have to go.”

“Wow. You should probably go.”

“Um, I’m leaving.”

“Get off me.”

“I’m not happy and this relationship needs to end.”

“Get out.”

“I don’t want to be with you anymore in this capacity.”

“I am not going to marry you.”

“I need you to stop.”

“I need to stop.”

“This isn’t working.”

“Really? Okay. I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“We’re done.”

Sometimes I say nothing. I just turn on my heel and walk away, or I hang up the phone. In particularly avoidant moments, I’m walking down the street on a (preferably) overcast day with a coffee in my hand, and I just stop walking in the middle of the sidewalk, and think. Hm. I then will pull out my phone and delete some contact information from it, check social media, and continue on my way.

Sometimes I just cry. There aren’t any words, just sobbing and tears streaming and mascara running lines downward over my face to the corners of my mouth, until I try to wipe away the stains and leave streaks across my cheeks. I’ll find them later when I next meet a mirror. The sudden crying is typically alarming if I’m in the presence of the other party, which is indicative that they have not noticed as the relationship they have with me has become untenable for me to continue as it is. They don’t see me. I’m invisible. Salty tears and smeared makeup under my red eyes, and suddenly I appear to them and we sometimes don’t know how we got here, and where all this salt water is coming from.

I thought we were happy together. Did they think we were happy together? Do we remember?

I thought this eyeliner was waterproof. It says it is on the packaging.

Sometimes that feeling isn’t represented outward by anything at all. Things are just different between me and the other person now. That is strange, when there’s nothing to say or do but just keep on in this alternate way, unexplained differences in speech, contact, familiarity. A slow, silent withdrawal that is barely noticeable until i’m just not around anymore and the other person is wondering when that began. I have been on the other end of that, too. The text message sits unanswered, and they’re just not there anymore.

Maybe they don’t even notice we’re gone; I for them, or them for me.

There is sometimes something left. Pieces of why we were connected don’t get sloughed off with the tears and I have to figure out what can be salvaged. I usually want to remember why I love someone and hold onto that, somehow nurse it back to something positive and functional, even if the connection doesn’t look the same. Usually. I don’t believe that people are inherently good or bad, it is just that sometimes the things they want and do and the things I want or am doing myself no longer align. That’s okay. I want them to be happy.

But, sometimes the withdrawal and need to remove the self is so absolute that everything goes.

He was yelling through the phone at me.

I pace my living room, the carpet soft under my bare feet. I hadn’t put on the stockings he liked yet, and I was supposed to be leaving to catch the train in about 5 minutes if I was going to be punctual. I can feel the garter clips brush against my legs as I move, hanging unattached. My hair is up off my neck temporarily in pins so when I take it down, the curls will be softer. He prefers it down. My makeup is half done: I had been lining my eyes with charcoal in the mirror of my bathroom when my phone lit up. I had seen it out of the corner of my eye on the kitchen counter, only because the rest of the lights in the house were out. I keep my phone on silent, most of the time, and he hates that. He doesn’t understand why I don’t want to be able to answer whenever he calls.

I am late.

I was nervous about this as I answered the phone because he will know I have not left for the train yet. He always wants me to be where we meet first, because I should wait for him for a little while, to show I am committed, and because he should never have to wait for me. Unacceptable. It was really warm out, even in the evening, which he liked because there wasn’t any reason for me to cover up. He would probably prefer I walk around naked, actually, with nothing between me and the world, or him. Exposed and vulnerable.

He had called to give me shit about the date I had been on the night before. He wants to know why I hadn’t answered when he had called before, because didn’t I want to make sure he was doing alright, and why wasn’t I checking in during the date more? Did I have fun with this new guy (what was his fucking name again? right. fuck, what a dumb name)? Was I going to see him again? He didn’t say that was okay. He should make me ask permission to go on dates, and then maybe I would behave better. I was lucky he even let me go. Why did I even want to go on dates with other men when all I needed was available to me from him? Wasn’t I happy with him, wasn’t I grateful? He thought I was going to get over this whole non-monogamy idea once I had a taste of submitting to him, he said. I listened to him go on for a few minutes, and then listened to him talk himself into the reasons why what he wants from me, and for me, was more important than what I want for myself, and how he knew better what I needed.

He thought he knew best what it was that I needed.

That was the moment.

I heard the alarms in my brain. I heard them, finally. They had been going off for months, and I finally heard the frequency that had before been untraceable. It was like tuning a radio. I had been mentally turning dials and then the sirens were sounding and they were just at a wavelength I could not hear before, until suddenly there they were. I wondered how long I had been ignoring them. I stopped pacing and went out onto my balcony, shutting the door. There was a pack of cigarettes out there, and I took one out of its cardboard enclosure, lighting it with a book of matches that was sitting with it. I had left them out here earlier, and would have forgotten them when I left the house. I wasn’t going out, now, so that was fine. I could sit out here and smoke all night, now, if I wanted. I took a drag and allowed the smoke to fall out of my mouth as I spoke, my eyes trailing the horizon and the outline of trees. I heard trains in the distance.

“I’m not coming.”

“What?!”

“I said I’m not coming. I don’t want to see you tonight.”

“Yes you are. We’re meeting in an hour. Why haven’t you left yet?”

“I said, I’m not coming. I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“Wait, what? Hold on, honey, this has gotten out of hand.”

“That is correct. It has. I have to go.”

“But, wait a minute, I didn’t say..”

After I hung up the phone, he called me twenty-six times and left six voicemails. He also texted incessantly almost all night. He begged and pleaded with me to respond, giving reasons related to the dynamic we were in as well as how I owed him that response. He deserved my engagement and attention. It was ridiculously unfair that I was not calling him. What the fuck did I think this was, anyway? I am lucky he cares so much because this is not how these things work.

I responded to nothing.

We talked a few days later after he texted asking if I had gotten my period, and I informed him I was terminating the pregnancy. I found out the day after I hung up the phone on him.

I saw him one other time after that. I ran into him at a bar and he told me he had orchestrated our entire relationship with the intent to push me into telling him no. I felt like a toy that had been batted around by a very malicious animal.

It took me several years to figure out that a lot of what he had told me simply wasn’t true.

I had a friend over for dinner a little while ago, well after this all had occurred. They said they had run into him and asked about me, and he had said I was doing very well and taking good care of myself. They told me this, and I stared at them blankly for a minute before smiling and replying, “yeah, that’s true, but he doesn’t know that. We haven’t spoken in years.” My friend was quite puzzled.

I was not.

The further away from him I am, the better I am doing, and I think that is what constitutes progress and growth.

Success, even.

Violent Relationship Portrayal: An Analysis of Beauty and Grey

More than 50 different shades of relationship abuse are depicted in the best selling trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, and none of them have to do with bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism or masochism (the interchangeable words that make up the catch-all acronym BDSM). The two series of books have made a significant mark on current popular literature, and continue to be a hot topic with the release of the film adaptation of the first book this year. Published originally in 2012, nearly two decades after The Beauty Trilogy by A. N. Roquelaure (a pen name for Anne Rice), the general public now has something sexy to talk about. What is the opposite of sexy, however, is the casual attitude with which Fifty Shades depicts violence and consent transgression within relationships. Rice produced a set of erotic fantasy novels that, while having their own set of problems around consent, are otherworldly enough in nature to mitigate the reader’s tendency to draw real-life parallels. She achieves escapism and portrays racy subject matter without setting negative examples for kink dynamics in the real world. Thankfully, we are not all princes, princesses, or anything in between on the gender spectrum, susceptible to curses that induce a century of slumber, living in kingdoms in which we are taken into captivity to serve the court as sexual slaves. Although parallels can be drawn and differences highlighted within several aspects of the two trilogies, the distinctions between them are significant. In this essay, I will explore how each trilogy portrays male-dominated power exchange, marriage, sex-negativity, and levels of realism to demonstrate the problematic elements of Fifty Shades, and how Beauty has managed to circumnavigate them, lacking the “beast” of social norms around relationship abuse.

The development of a singular power dynamic, of Christian Grey and his control of Ana Steele, drives the storyline in James’s books. Grey is a rich, powerful and privileged man who uses his wealth and influence to steer Steele first into his bed and later into a committed relationship. He exerts his privilege over her with the purchases he makes for her (a car and a laptop), by seizing control of the company she works for, and by tracking her location through the cellular phone he gives her. He wants her to submit to him completely and allow him to dictate what she eats, the birth control she takes, and what she wears. As Downing emphasizes, “The idea of the woman who is initiated into BDSM by a more experienced, often older man is a long-standing and somewhat ubiquitous trope in both fiction and first-person confessional accounts.” (96) In The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist — Beauty — has many trials and tribulations, and endures oppressive systems of control exerted over her from the start. We get a clear sense of her experience in the beginning, and later we are introduced to the perspectives of others, namely Alexi, Tristan, and finally Laurent, which provide us with a myriad of different power dynamics amongst several gender configurations and sexualities. Beauty is under the control of first the Prince and later Mistress Lockley, prior to her kidnapping by the Sultan. We witness snippets throughout the three books of the experiences of the three men Beauty encounters intimately in a slave setting, experiencing a variety of submissive roles amongst themselves and with others, and some dominant ones, eventually. Ziv writes, “In particular, the work does not problematize gender relations: its main erotic force does not hinge on the power differential between women and men.” (68) This array of power exchange levels the playing field and normalizes alternative relationship styles in a more sexually egalitarian manner.

One example of sharp contrast between the two sets of books is in their treatment of kink within the parameters of marriage. When Christian proposes to Ana in 50 Shades Darker abruptly to prevent her from leaving him again, he is blatantly motivated by controlling her and the situation. Ana requests time to think about it, and by the end of the book they are engaged. 50 Shades Freed begins with them having a long honeymoon in Europe. The marriage depicted is one of compromise; Christian has moved past his tendencies towards kink in exchange for a long-term relationship with Ana. Yet, all of the language used around their marriage depicts ownership and possession, suggesting a imbalanced power exchange in Grey’s favour. At the wedding altar, Christian whispers “Finally, you’re mine,” as they kiss. (20) Beauty and Laurent are the perfect match in Beauty’s Release, “and a good deal happier, I think, than anyone else could ever guess”, Beauty claims at the conclusion of the text. (238) Laurent rides a horse to her upon discovering she has not accepted the proposal of any suitor since she left the possession of Queen Eleanor, returning to her own kingdom at her parents’ demand. There is a strong possessive element in the way these two interact as well, and Beauty craves that possession as much as Laurent does. “I never dared dream of this moment” (235) Beauty says upon discovering Laurent is there to whisk her away as his wife. Leading to this point, every indication is given that Beauty wants to be dominated and controlled. She had been rescued from the possession of a Sultan, and was to be sent back to her family when she arrived at the Queen’s kingdom. But she raged against this — against the clothes she was given to wear, and against being released from her captivity. Her marriage with Laurent was for her a true release from what she would not accept: her freedom. In contrast, Christian Grey inflicts control and possession on Ana throughout the 50 Shades trilogy to her dismay and discontent.

Sex-criticism is making its way into mainstream media as consent becomes a widely discussed point of advocacy, and more and more, equality is being sought out in the bedroom by all genders. In North America, at least, there seems to be an outcry for freedom, and a space to choose to participate enthusiastically in sexual activity with the uprising of consent culture. On college campuses, students are once again campaigning that “no means no” and that people should be able to safely move through their environments without risking assault. Heterosexual women are increasingly empowered to seek pleasure as they see fit — autonomously, not as objects meant to please men.  Dana Goldstein writes, “asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act.”  In Fifty Shades, Ana is introduced to us as a virginal college graduate; she is portrayed as young, inexperienced, and powerless. Since the books are from her point of view, we are privy to her stream of consciousness which reveals her apprehension around Christian’s domination of her: “I shake my head to gather my wits. My heart is pounding a frantic tattoo, and for some reason I’m blushing furiously under his steady scrutiny. I am utterly thrown by the sight of him standing before me.” (46) For her part, while Beauty is stripped of her autonomy within the first chapter, the inner dialogue we hear suggests that even though she expresses fear of her situation, she embraces the Prince as her love and her role as absolute. In that fantasy world, sexual awakening runs parallel with enhancement and changing for the better (Rice. 16).

We slip easily into a tale eloquently told, and end up down the metaphorical rabbit hole with escapist literature. In fact, we often disappear into stories, rely on them for the fantasy that they offer, even, as a break from the real world. When the real world is perceived in literature, it is that much easier to escape into its romanticism, to lose ourselves in the fantasy. That is the danger in Fifty Shades. The trilogy was written as Twilight fan fiction: a sexy, risqué adaptation geared towards entertaining those with a more normal life. Escapism is wonderful when potentially dangerous scenarios are evident to the reader. However, James has taken a typical romantic trope and spun it in a very unhealthy direction. There are real men in the world who are powerfully wealthy, own companies, and destructively exert their influence on those around them. There are real Christian Greys prowling our cities. The problem with the example set by James is the normalization of violent behaviour towards women. If stripped of his kink and his money, Grey’s behaviour would land him in jail (assuming an effective justice system). Instead, they are married and live happily ever after, we are led to believe. The tone set by a narrative in which everything works out in the end — even after all of Grey’s reprehensible behaviour — is permissive of violence towards women, of class-based power, and of patriarchy. These are very real problems in our world; to spin a yarn that affirms such behaviour to the general public is dangerous and harmful. In contrast, Beauty’s tale of adventures through castles, villages and palaces of sexually charged debasement is clearly fantastic and other-worldly, and subsequently difficult to draw likeness to real life and permissions for behaviour from.

The hold on society that popular culture has is formidable. The wide availability of information via social media and click-bait style advertisement means that people are influenced by what they see most. When something “goes viral”, it is accessed by the masses and amplified to popularity without much critical thought. Ana Steele represents an archetype that many individuals identifying as women can embrace without much reflection. Indeed, her character is hardly unique. Popular culture frequently shoves the trope in our face: boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy convinces girl to submit. While it has perhaps seemed harmless for decades — in books, movies, and other media — it reinforces cultural norms that condone violent relationship dynamics and silence the voices of victims. A hypothetical woman could confide in her friend that she is stalked day and night, her phone is tapped to track her whereabouts, or someone comes to her house unannounced after an argument and forces themselves on her. Any good friend would call the police for her if she would not do it herself. This is precisely what Christian Grey does with Ana Steele, and it is touted as romantic, as a love story, and as her good fortune for being swept up by a wealthy, powerful, passionate suitor. In order to move past such damaging norms toward a society that readily accepts the healthy portrayal of relationships, there must be accountability and acceptance of what is not okay. The Christian Greys of the world must be held accountable, so that the Ana Steeles can realize their own power.

Works Cited

Downing, Lisa. “Safewording! Kinkphobia And Gender Normativity In Fifty Shades Of Grey.” Psychology & Sexuality 4.1 (2013): 92-102.

Goldstein, Dana. On Feminism and Sadomasochistic Sex. The Nation, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

James, E. L. 50 Shades of Grey ; 50 Shades Darker ; 50 Shades Freed.  New York. Vintage, 2012. Print.

Roquelaure, A. N. (Rice, Anne) The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty ; Beauty’s Punishment ; Beauty’s Release. New York: Penguin, 1983. Print.

Ziv, Amalia. “The Pervert’s Progress: An Analysis of ‘Story of O’ and ‘The Beauty Trilogy’ Feminist Review.” Sexualities: Challenge & Change. 1994, 46. pp. 61-75 Palgrave Macmillan Journals.