‘What is love?’ is arguably one of the most profound and meaningful questions that people ask themselves. We are all familiar with love in one way or the other – we all see, know and acknowledge its existence. Still, the process of determining what this mysterious concept really means can only be restricted by a vague count of its characteristics, like ‘caring’, ‘warm’ and even ‘selfless’ or ‘sacrifice’. And it is precisely the latter which is subject to such differences in interpretation that it often leads to conflict, doubts and even feelings of failure and low self esteem. Is this really that special, deep and joyful experience we call ‘love’?

Everyone has ‘issues’, yet not everyone has them at the cost of others. Still, carrying the weight of others in a relationship may be a familiar phenomenon. When helping a loved one in need, even when it doesn’t feel beneficial to our own well-being, we do it often with a thought that boils down to: “I have to help them! I mean, I love them, so that’s just what you do, right?” And, indeed – don’t get us wrong – balanced and reciprocated compromise in relationships is certainly fair and healthy. But where do we draw the line between compassion,  which lifts others up, and pity, which takes us down with the other person? We seem scared to set our own boundaries in challenging relationships, and even more intriguingly, we often expect others around us to struggle with the same. Why is protecting yourself so frowned upon in a society that widely promotes liberation, tolerance and individual freedom?

A current example of this debate in popular culture is seen after the recent death of rapper Mac Miller. Mac, only 26 years old, passed away on Friday September 7th, which was the result of a cardiac arrest caused by a drug overdose. Understandably, his massive following was shocked and turned to social media to express their grief. Still, a tragic story apparently needed another dark lining. Mourning fans are now pointing fingers to his ex-girlfriend, Ariana Grande, who had been dating Mac for two years before they broke up in May earlier this year. The relationship, which Ariana later described as “toxic”, received much attention from the media, especially when fans blamed her on social media for a car crash that Mac found himself in some weeks after they split. Fans argued that because Ariana broke his heart – she entered a new relationship not too long after – he started to suffer from alcohol abuse. After they kept harassing her on social media, Ariana replied to a tweet about the situation, stating it was unfair to expect of her to stay in an unhealthy relationship. “I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be.”

“Mac Miller totalling his G wagon and getting a DUI after Ariana Grande dumped him for another dude after he poured his heart out on a ten song album to her called the divine feminine is just the most heartbreaking thing happening in Hollywood”

That was then. Now, clearly, the story has taken a turn for the worst, and people find it hard to reconcile that they lost their idol. And, again, Ariana has become the scapegoat: a group of fans started the hashtag #ArianaKilledMac. They flooded the posts on her Instagram feed with comments like “this is your fault!”, “you could have saved him” and fired accusations claiming that she “killed him”. Apart from the fact that the gendered slurs and vicious claims thrown at her are quite disproportional and certainly wrong, this situation is intriguing to look at. Being one of countless women suffering from toxic relationships and its consequences, Ariana is not the first to carry the demons of someone she loved dearly on her shoulders. Why are these expectations we have of others – especially women – so prevalent that they often just amplify the tragedy they revolve themselves around?

Needless to say, there surely are tons of men who are in this position. Still, studies show that women are more prone to negative external judgment in this setting. The expectation that they sould overstep their boundaries by staying in toxic relationships shows to be highly common, even among women themselves. In relationships that are toxic for reasons ranging from substance abuse to physical abuse, they often feel responsible for their partner’s unhealthy state of mind. Research by Jane Ellington and Linda Marshall (1997) questioned female-identifying people from various ethnic backgrounds who had experienced abuse, emotional or physical, about their self-perception. They questioned three different groups of women that were divided according to the nature of the abuse they had experienced, and the women were also questioned about whether they found themselves as egalitarian or traditional regarding their views on gender roles. “Their self-descriptions weren’t only positive, but also quite traditionally feminine (i.e., warm, understanding, sympathetic, and the like). Along this line, they viewed themselves as the socioemotional supporters of their relationships.” Their ideal self, meaning traits they consider ideal but may or may not possess, were similarly traditionally feminine. Interestingly, all women questioned scored rather high on egalitarianism. This suggests that feminine people are still strongly socialized to behave in a certain way and value those “traditionally feminine” qualities in themselves, “even as attitudes change in an egalitarian direction.”

This evidence relates to the effect of this stigma reinforced by the people around us. In her 2000 book All About Love, Bell Hooks points out that modern romance is characterized by a shift in our thinking about the female role in heterosexual relationships: “ideas about love that emphasized a soul mate, reciprocal care and devotion were supplanted by an emphasis on sacrificial care and nurturance.” Evidently, the hashtag #ArianaKilledMac was created by people who found it Grande’s duty to ‘save’ Miller from his addiction and blamed her for leaving their relationship at a time where he was severely struggling. They did not consider that Mac’s addiction is an internal problem that can really only be solved – you guessed it – internally. This is why the idea that it is selfish to choose for your own happiness is short-sighted. When you think about it, the idea of sacrificing yourself to such an extent actually acts as a catalyst for the helplessness to prevail. When a partner identifies so strongly with the issues of their loved one, those problems (which we can call ‘the dark’) often completely take over their mind, decreasing the space with which they would normally focus on their own development, health and needs. Over time, as these key elements for self-conservation are abandoned, the person who initially intended to help out now simply doesn’t have the energy, freedom or capacity for doing so. In turn, this fully annihilates the genuine and loving intention that this person had. The dark now overshadows the light, and no one can see where or with whom the problem really took form. The ‘nurturing’ women that people wanted them to be, should have nurtured themselves first.

Image by Isabel Sijbrandij

Essentially, this lets the infamous cliche come around: you must love yourself first before really being able to healthily love anyone else. It’s probably a cliche for a reason. This doesn’t mean that people suffering from addiction or mental health issues aren’t worthy of love – it just means your partner is not responsible for your mental health or your addiction. Being helpful, empathetic and caring is absolutely essential in any relationship, and we wouldn’t suggest otherwise in any way, shape or form. But we do find it hard to believe that being constantly worried, fearful and full of pity for someone really is the love we want and seek every day. A relationship, without any exception, isn’t always easy and carefree. Still, it can only sustain if both partners stay in their own freedom – an individual and light freedom that gets a chance when we stop expecting ourselves to stay in toxic environments despite already having tried our best. Even more so, if we are the ones asking for such sacrifices, perhaps we should look closer at what we are really asking and where our cry for help comes from. It may just be the case that we would so strongly want to help ourselves. When we allow ourselves to see that, we realise that more often than not, what we are looking for on the outside is actually something that lacks – but can also be found – on the inside.

All in all, we should simply acknowledge that it takes a lot of courage to distinguish between selfish love and self love. The line between compassion and pity is thin and often relative. And as we grow into the people we aim to be each day, every relationship should first be seen as a personal effort – a personal endeavour. Are we able to trust ourselves to let go when we sense that boundaries are transcended? Can we let go of external judgment rooted in a stereotype of a ‘nurturing’ female that ironically eliminates this same nurturing capacity over time? We all have issues, which we should identify, embrace and own. Only then we will stop having them at the cost of others – only then, we can start experiencing the free, compassionate and loving relationship that we have always wanted to enjoy.

Text: Anette Moolenaar & Tessel ten Zweege
Image: Isabel Sijbrandij


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