How to avoid a bad relationship 101

Is it really possible to avoid bad relationships? Are the romantic movies wrong – aren’t we doomed to simply fall in love with another person whether it makes sense or not? Or can we really decide how far to let ourselves get into a relationship based on a more objective look at our partner’s current and past behavior?

My answer to the last question is an emphatic YES! Jerk Radar is designed to help you look at what are often called “red flags” – signs that someone may have less than honorable intentions despite their attempts to convince you otherwise.

I researched this question in depth with a large number of domestic abuse survivors, who were themselves very interested in figuring out how they got into these dangerous relationships and how they might avoid such relationships in the future. Their recollections of their Jerky partners’ early behavior fell fairly easily into categories, and those 11 categories form the basis of Jerk Radar. These categories include somewhat subjective assessments, such as being excessively charming, egotistical, and sexually aggressive, to more concrete measures such as criminal history, substance abusing behavior, and prior violence toward partners and children. This assessment comes together with the Jerk Radar Quiz, a quasi-mathematical way to put a partner’s “red flags” into a broader perspective.

It’s important to note that almost all of us engage in some kind of Jerky behavior some of the time, and so everyone will score some points on the quiz. It’s also clear that not all abusive partners are the same, and some will score high in several areas while scoring low in others. So it’s not each individual area we want to look at, it’s the big picture of all these areas considered together.

For instance, a woman might be dating a man who has traditional views on sex roles. He may be very competitive and also exert some over-the-top efforts to charm her on early dates. Is this enough to say he’s a risk for a bad relationship? Not necessarily. It’s possible that he’s a kindly person who needs a little education in the sex role area (or perhaps that’s OK with you), and he may be very safe and respectful as long as his team isn’t playing a game tonight. Jerk Radar can provide some very specific ways to “test out” his Jerky tendencies, mostly without him even noticing that you’re checking at all.

However, if you find that the same person above also says he loves you after the second date (quick involvement), has a spotty work history (irresponsibility), drinks a lot and thinks nothing of driving a car drunk (substance abuse) and talks trash about all his prior girlfriends (poor attitude toward women), he’s probably going to be trouble, and Jerk Radar will let you know this. And if he’s got prior history of restraining orders or assault charges or child welfare involvement, it’s time to call a cab and get the heck out of there!

This is where the Jerk Radar Quiz comes in very handy. You can go ahead and score your current beau on the 11 areas of the quiz and add up the score. He may have wonderful explanations for each and every one of his/her ‘red flags,’ but a high score on the JR quiz almost certainly means you will want to make this relationship a short one. When the domestic abuse survivors I interviewed tested out the quiz on their former abusive partners and compared to more healthy relationships they’d had, we found that the average score for a domestic abuser was near 30 (out of 50), whereas the average for healthy relationships was around 8. It’s a pretty accurate took to predict what’s coming.

So if you really want to avoid bad relationships, run every potential partner through the Jerk Radar quiz. If s/he scores high, read Jerk Radar cover to cover and try out some of the tests I outline at the end of each chapter. If you do, you can screen out 98% of bad relationships right at the start.

So yes, with Jerk Radar in your toolkit, it IS possible to stop a bad relationship before it starts!

More songs that romanticize and support Jerky behavior

There are lots of songs that support and even romanticize abusive behavior. Remember, I’m not criticizing these songs musically – I’m simply pointing out that our culture allows the romanticizing of dangerous behavior, and this is sometimes celebrated in song. I won’t go into details, just listing them out with a comment or two.

“Run for your Life” by The Beatles (1965): Cheery song about threatening a girlfriend with death if she leaves him for someone else.

“She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones (1967): Lyrics are loaded with references to “taking” what the man “dishes out” and being properly subservient being the key qualities of being “a lady.”

“Vehicle,” by The Ides of March (1970): “I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan/ won’t you hop inside my car?” Need I say more? “Because I love you… need you… want you… got to have you” – he falls “in love” with someone he just picked up on the street and conned into getting into his car with candy????

“Build Me Up, Buttercup” by The Foundations (1968): Song about how an abused partner recognizes being set up over and over but “can’t leave” because he loves her so much. Says he’ll “make her happy” if she’ll just give him some time.

“Kim” and “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” by Eminem (2000): Simply revolting lyrics. Songs (based on his actual relationship with Kim Mathers, which Kim reports as very abusive) fantasize about killing his partner and telling his young child about it or having the child watch.

“Ultraviolence” by Lana Del Ray (2014): “He hit me and it felt like a kiss/ Violins Violins/ Give me all that ultraviolence.” The lyrics speak for themselves.

“He Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss” by The Crystals (1962): You get the idea.

“Under My Thumb” by The Rolling Stones (1966): I can hardly read the lyrics – the whole song is about him getting control of his girlfriend and making her do as he pleases.

“Animals” by Maroon 5 (2014): Song romanticizes rape. Makes “Under My Thumb” look like easy reading.

“Tonight’s the Night” by Rod Stewart (1976): More subtle, but read the second verse:
“Come on angel my hearts on fire
Don’t deny your man’s desire
You’d be a fool to stop this tide
Spread your wings and let me come inside”

Kinda creepy…

“Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel (1977): Now I love me some Billy Joel, but in this one, he sings a light and chipper song about pressuring a “good Catholic girl” into having sex before she’s ready. “You Catholic girls start much too late…”

The list could go on and on. Again, I’m not necessarily critiquing the songs (with a couple exceptions as noted) but want folks to think about the pictures they have been given about what is romantic. From 1962 and long before, right up to the present, being pressured to be sexually active and to accept violence from a man is romanticized, and male violence and control toward partners is justified and excused in hundreds of popular songs. I encourage all of us to listen carefully to the lyrics of songs we like and see what the real message is. You can still enjoy the song, but don’t let it sell you on the idea that “no means yes” or that violence “feels like a kiss!”

Songs about Jerks: “Every Step You Take”

There are a lot of songs on the air that refer to Jerks and Jerky behavior. Some continue to romanticize Jerky behavior, some bemoan being in an abusive relationship, some celebrate getting out. I plan to write several blogs about this, but I’ll start with a song that you might not realize is about a big-time, potentially dangerous Jerk.

The first one that comes to mind is “Every Step You Take” by The Police. I want to say up front that this is an amazing song – there is something about the haunting background rhythms and the pacing and selection of instruments that is simply brilliant. I enjoy listening to it for the musical skill and creativity alone. But many people see this as a “love song” and don’t realize this song is about an abusive partner essentially stalking his ex. I will fully acknowledge that it was many years after I first heard this song before I realized what the song is about.

Police lead songwriter Sting, who wrote this song, has been very clear in interviews that the song is about “something sinister.” As he himself said, “…he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it is about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.'”[12]

Looking closer at the lyrics, the themes are pretty clear. The singer is watching every move his ex-lover makes, including “every vow you break, every smile you fake, etc.” It becomes even clearer in the bridge, where he says “Since you’ve been gone, I’ve been lost without a trace,” and ends with the singer pitifully begging, “… baby, baby, please…” This connects strongly with the “Dependent Jerk” theme, where a partner makes it seem that s/he cannot possibly survive without you. This is often portrayed as “romantic” in films and books and songs, but is one of the most dangerous signs an abuser can give off.

It also seems to bypass us when the chorus rings out, “Oh, can’t you see? You belong to me!” This is a very controlling and possessive attitude, especially toward an ex who has departed, and suggests a kind of obsessiveness that is highly associated with stalking and indeed with potentially dangerous and violent behavior on the part of the “abandoned” partner.

To stress again, I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong or bad about this song – it is a brilliant and haunting depiction of an obsessive person stalking his/her ex-lover. What is so interesting is how many people (including me initially as well) sing along with this “love song” and accept these lyrics as representative of someone who is simply in love and pining away for his lost love. I think this lack of awareness reflects how deeply ingrained the theme of the stalker is in the romantic memes of our time. We really need to wake up and be aware of these themes if we want to change the culture that makes it so difficult for us to see the difference between love and dangerous obsession.

December 2017

Positive Movie Roles: “Leap Year”

While I spend a lot of time talking about common themes in movies and stories where Jerky behavior like stalking, emotional manipulation, insincere charm, jealousy, substance abuse, and aggressive sexual behavior are made to seem romantic, there are some movies that manage to be quite romantic while showing the male hero of the tale to be gentlemanly and respectful, and the heroine to show good judgment and self-respect. I was fortunate to watch such a movie just yesterday: “Leap Year”.

Our heroine. Anna Brady (Amy Adams), is a Bostonian who has plans for everything in her life. She has a well-to-do cardiologist, Jeremy (Adam Scott) as a boyfriend, and fully intends to marry him. Despite being together for four years, he does not seem to have any intention of proposing. So while he is attending a conference in Dublin, Ireland, she decides for once to be spontaneous, and takes the bold step of traveling to Dublin to ask him to marry her, taking advantage of the Irish tradition that women are allowed to propose to men on the 29th of February in a “leap year.”

As one might expect, Anna encounters one disaster after another on her way there, and after being dropped off by a boat captain on a deserted beach during a torrential rainstorm, she is forced to hire a seemingly cynical pub owner, Declan O’Callahan (Matthew Goode), to drive her from rural Ireland to her planned meeting in Dublin in time for the 29th of February. They encounter several more predictable yet amusing disasters on the way, and as they are forced to cope together with adversity, they understandably begin to bond with each other.

At this point in the movie, I start to get worried. This is usually where the new guy uses various kinds of charm and pressure tactics to manipulate the heroine into understanding that she needs to throw over her current beau in favor of him. But nothing of the kind ensues. Declan continues to behave respectfully, if gruffly, toward Anna, despite his obviously growing affection for her. He does tell her an old Irish legend that she correctly interprets to express suspicions that her relationship with Jeremy is not meant to be, but he does not try to charm her or convince her to connect with him romantically. That night, they are forced by the locals’ rigid mores to pretend they are a married couple so they can get a room at a rural B&B, and are pressured by the landlady into kising each other at the dinner table, and even end up sleeping in the same bed! But despite the temptation, Declan remains a gentleman and Anna remains true to her promise to propose to Jeremy in Dublin.

The next day, after being forced to take refuge from a hailstorm at a local wedding reception, Anna gets extremely drunk and for the first time begins to realize that she’s falling in love with Declan. As she is about to kiss him, she vomits on his shoes. Rather than taking advantage of her vulnerability, he takes her to a park bench and she sleeps with her head on his lap all night, and he never mentions the almost-kiss to her again.

How many movies involve a woman “losing control” while drunk and engaging in sex with a person she hardly knows? How often does the male character choose not to take advantage of such a situation? Most romantic movies would show the man as much more aggressive in pursuing his “quarry”, rather than taking the honorable road and protecting her from potential harm while continuing to respect her pre-existing relationship.

The next day, they finally arrive in Dublin, where surprisingly, Jeremy himself proposes to Anna in front of a big crowd at the hotel, while Declan respectfully makes himself scarce. Despite a look of longing in Delcan’s direction as he leaves the hotel lobby, Anna accepts the proposal and returns to Boston for the engagement party.

At the party, Anna overhears Jeremy explaining to a friend how he had to lie to the proprietor of their new penthouse apartment about the two of them being married in order to get the lease, and that he afterwards decided, “What the hell – we’re probably going to get married some day, why not now?” This not-so-romantic tale is enough for Anna to decide to test him out and see what he values. Without going into details, it’s fair to say he fails the test miserably, and she is done with him.

We are all relieved when she returns to Ireland and seeks out Declan, and despite a little twist, it’s a very romantic happy ending indeed. The writers do a great job of showing the building romantic tension between the two protagonists without resorting to any kind of intense jealousy, overwhelming “need” to consummate the relationship, nor manipulative tactics designed to “win” the heroine to the hero’s arms. It simply showed two normal but very different people tossed together by unexpected circumstances, struggling to figure out what they are supposed to do. It left me with a good feeling that maybe there is hope that Hollywood may yet stop promoting stalking and write love stories that involve healthy people who actually care about each other. And of course, it was refreshing to see that this time, the Jerk didn’t get the girl!

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and The Beast, a Love Story?

Anyone who has watched an hour of TV or Hulu in the last couple weeks has seen the ads: Beauty and the Beast! The biggest movie in the world! The beloved classic story! The romance! Disney's new live action Beauty and the Beast is a worldwide phenomenon!

In the first two weeks, the new Emma Watson version of Beauty and the Beast grossed $766 million in box office sales. It is an ancient story that speaks to many common themes in human experience - cruelty and kindness, love and violence, punishment and redemption - and for this reason, it has always been popular and well received in its many re-tellings over the years. However, from a Jerk Radar perspective, Beauty and the Beast sends some very disturbing messages about the roles of men and women in adult relationships.

(Read no further if you really want to believe in Belle's ability to magically reform the Beast with love, because I might just permanently ruin this story for you!)

Let's be clear about this: the Beast is an excellent example of an abusive partner. He imprison's Belle's father for taking a rose from his garden. He holds Belle prisoner in exchange for her father for months on end. He insists that Belle eat dinner with him every night and asks her to marry him, despite barely knowing her and despite her repeated refusals. He yells at the servants (and at Belle) and breaks things, and expects everyone to do his bidding and even read his mind, and feels justified in having a raging tantrum when things don't go his way. The servants are all terrified of his rages but make excuses and try their best not to upset him for fear of setting him off yet again. Yet in the end, he magically becomes a kind and handsome Prince due to Beauty's decision to love him despite his abusive behavior toward her and pretty much everyone else around.

Of course, we all know that Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale, and that fairy tales are not real. However, it is very easy to underestimate the impact such stories have on our beliefs about life and love. Years of experience in domestic abuse relationships have shown me that the themes in this movie very deeply contribute to women's vulnerability to abusive partners.

Here is a look at a short synopsis of the plot of the 1991 animated version:

"An arrogant young prince and his castle's servants fall under the spell of a wicked enchantress, who turns him into the hideous Beast until he learns to love and be loved in return. The spirited, headstrong village girl Belle enters the Beast's castle after he imprisons her father Maurice. With the help of his enchanted servants... Belle begins to draw the cold-hearted Beast out of his isolation."

Notice a few things here. First, the Beast did not become abusive because he was put under a spell - he was put under a spell BECAUSE HE WAS ABUSIVE! The enchantress in question was posing as a poor old woman begging for food and shelter, and he scorned her and thereby earned her wrath.

(New rule: treat everyone nicely. The person you just disrespected just might be a magician with an anger control problem!)

Second, he needs to "learn to love and be loved," but it doesn't seem he's made much progress despite his punishment, as he KIDNAPS the person he is trying to learn to love! Despite over 10 years of suffering as "The Beast," he has not learned an ounce of humility or compassion, and all his servants, and at first Belle, are appropriately terrified of him.

Third, Belle, HIS PRISONER, is somehow responsible for "drawing the cold-hearted beast out of his isolation!" How did she manage to earn this enviable job?

This is a very disturbing message of this fairy tale - that a woman who is beautiful and kind enough can (and apparently should) take a person who has kidnapped her father for picking a flower, and then held her prisoner in exchange, a person who has infantile rages and breaks things when upset and has no apparent concern for anyone's feelings but his own, and "draw him out of his isolation!"

According to Fandango's summary of the tale, "Belle learns to see the good man hiding behind the Beast's monstrous exterior."

But in what universe is there a good man in there behind the monstrous body? He is in this whole predicament specifically BECAUSE he was a heartless jerk, and everything about his behavior suggests he continues to be a selfish jackass until Belle somehow magically (and unrealistically) transforms him into something different.

Worse yet, toward the end of the story, Belle manages to get a furlough from the Beast to tend to her dying father. She is able to see the Beast in the magic mirror and promises to return in a given time. When she fails to keep her promise (for various reasons, depending on the version you're reading/seeing), she sees in the mirror that the Beast is "dying of grief." And she, instead of being relieved to have escaped and letting the Beast suffer the consequences of his own abusive behavior, somehow feels like it's HER fault he is sad and miserable and she has to go back and make him feel better! In real life, this is not romantic at all, but could only be understood as a manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome (think Patty Hurst), where the victim of a kidnapping becomes unhealthily attached to the kidnapper as a way of surviving the abuse.

The real kicker is that she goes back and kisses him, and he turns into a handsome prince, who is somehow NO LONGER A JERK, despite there being zero evidence of his having reached square one in the "loving others" department before she arrived! So the ultimate message is this: if you meet an angry, hostile, controlling jerkwad, if you're a good (and beautiful) enough woman, you can magically transform him into the "good man hiding behind the Beast's monstrous exterior."

How many women have continued for years to try and encourage their partners to get into drug/alcohol treatment, to go to some kind of counseling, or otherwise change their abusive ways? How many women have continued to put up with violence and abuse and believed that it was their job to somehow "solve" the problem when the problem lies almost completely in the abuser's hands?

Of course, we can all watch such a movie just for the fun of it and suspend our disbelief. But in terms of having one's Jerk Radar tuned up, it's very important for you to take a good look inside yourself and see if you've ever felt the push to "take care" of someone who has not treated you well, and/or made excused for bad behavior by saying "he had a rough upbringing and just needs to learn to love." It may work in fairy tales, but in real life, giant assholes don't magically turn into loving, handsome princes just because you're good looking and are nice to them.

There is nothing romantic about falling in love with someone who holds you hostage!