The immediate problems with 50 Shades of Gray are obvious. As a Catholic Psychologist, I wholeheartedly agree with everything being said regarding pornography and BDSM and unhealthy relationships. There are also some interesting points I’ve read regarding why women are so drawn to the books and movie relating to their unsatisfying sex lives. There’s a lot there to comment on and draw out, especially about the true meaning of sexuality and how to find fulfillment in a marriage’s conjugal life.
But there is an insidious lie specific to 50 Shades that I’d like to speak about from a psychological perspective. This post is geared more towards the supporters of the books and movie. I haven’t read the books or plan to see the movie, but I have read a very frightening defense of the trilogy. Some have pointed to the change of heart in the main character by the end of the trilogy as a justification for the violence and abuse that occurred from the start. If you’ve ever known someone in an abusive relationship, this idea will sound all-too-familiar. “If I just love him enough, he’ll change.” It happens just as much with women as it does with men. “If I just let it go this time, she’ll figure it out and won’t do it again.” If this trilogy proposes that such thinking is logical, there is nothing more destructive to understanding healthy boundaries in relationships than reading or watching it.
50 Shades is slipping a lie into the cultural understanding of abuse, hiding it behind the controversy of its pornography. We are so caught up with the surface level conversation that people who don’t care about the porn are drinking in the lie. Getting out of an abusive relationship is so difficult precisely because there is some truth to that lie. For most relationships, loving someone despite their weaknesses is actually a good thing! It shouldn’t be surprising if this point is confusing for Catholics, as St. John Paul II taught us very clearly to choose and love the whole person, “complete with his virtues and vices, in a sense independently of the virtues and despite the vices” (Love and Responsibility, p. 116). How is a person to know when to love “despite the vices” and when to set boundaries or get out of the relationship all together? This movie destroys the subtlety that needs to be taught and understood to discern correctly when a relationship is abusive or not.
First of all, what happens in this trilogy does not happen in real life. Whatever deep psychological scars affect the main character, acting them out violently and treating someone with manipulation only enables and reinforces the wounds. The only way to actually heal is to have someone set boundaries against that kind of manipulation so that the perpetrator realizes he or she needs to fix something. Second of all, the manipulations are sometimes more difficult to understand than the physical abuse. Manipulation is a part of the emotional abuse, and is just as real as physical abuse.
Here are some signs of an emotionally abusive relationship:
1. Extreme Moodiness: Some moodiness is normal, being on an emotional rollercoaster is not.
2. Verbal Abuse: Humiliating you, putting you down, being hypercritical, extreme sarcasm with you as the victim, mean jokes, excessive anger.
3. Isolation: Isolating you from friends or family, unreasonable jealousy, or constantly calling or texting when you are doing your own thing. Blaming you if you don’t “check in” enough or share enough about your private life.
4. No Privacy: Requiring that you share all of your private information like cell phone, Facebook account, email passwords, etc.
5. Walking on Eggshells: You feel nervous around him or her. You become an expert at empathy and learn how to see the world from his or her point of view to avoid further conflicts (without empathy in return).
6. You feel trapped: You feel like you can’t get out of the relationship, or sometimes imagine that you just don’t want to when in reality you can’t.
7. All of these things are happening and you feel like you are the problem. You feel like if you could just change, everything would be ok.
There are more, but these are the most common. If you find yourself in a relationship where these characteristics are the norm, it’s time for a reality check. This is not love. This is not a healthy relationship, and happiness will only be possible for you if you learn to set appropriate boundaries (which may include ending the relationship).
St. John Paul II taught that making ourselves a gift to another will make us the best version of ourselves possible. If you are trying to give yourself in a relationship, but you are more anxious, depressed, or feeling that your life is worse off instead of better, you are not in a healthy relationship. Something needs to change, and while it might be you, if any of the above characteristics are in your relationship, it’s probably not.