Toxic Love: The Problematic Messaging in So Much Mainstream Romance


Quick, what’s the difference between Edward Cullen and a stalker?
Bella loves one but not the other.

The cover of Twilight, which features two pale hands cupping a red apple, imposed on a black background.

This isn’t even really a joke. It’s kind of a hard-and-fast truth we have to acknowledge when we start talking about the romance genre. So many romances feature guys who are lovingly referred to as “alpha males.”

Yet, all too often, these men veer into the realm of what would be better termed “toxic masculinity.” With their poisonous machismo, their relationships often become toxic too.

Let’s take a closer look at how the alpha male and toxic masculinity often go hand and hand—and what we can do to keep our alphas “alphaing,” without poisoning the romance genre.

The Allure of the Alpha Male Romance

Although the Victorians died out long ago, their attitudes are still alive and well in discourse today. In fact, a lot of discussions about “trad wives” and a woman’s place in this world hark back to the Victorian age. The 1950s was the last big resurgence of this discourse before now.

Basically, the Victorian world is split into public and private spheres. The private sphere is that of the home, insulated from the “world out there.” This is a feminine space, and thus it is the natural domain of women. Men, on the other hand, belong to the “public” sphere.

The woman’s job in this is to ensure the private sphere is a safe haven for her man. She keeps the house tidy and clean, and she rears the children and cooks food. When her husband leaves in the morning, she goes about her tasks. When he returns, she’s there with the evening paper, his slippers, and a home-cooked meal for him.

A vintage 1950s ad shows a woman taking a casserole out of the oven, while her children and her husband look on. The 1950s promoted a particular arrangement of the nuclear family that often leads to toxic relationships.

In this way, the private sphere becomes a place of “respite,” where the man can return from the cruelty of the world. In turn, he protects his wife and children from that cold, cruel world. He is the one to venture out in public and endure the difficulties of “real life.”

Women at Risk in the Public Sphere

Venturing into public puts a woman at risk. She may encounter rough people or people who wish to do her harm. By allowing her to stay at home and mind the house, her husband “protects” her.

This idea that women need protection comes from ideas about masculinity and femininity. Femininity, in particular, is thought to be immature. Not only are they unable to regulate their emotions, they’re also thought to be innocent and naive. That’s one reason women can’t go out in the world alone: if they do, they might be taken advantage of.

Thus, a woman always needs a man to protect her and keep her safe from the big, scary world.

What’s So Bad about That?

To read those descriptions, you might not think there’s really an underlying problem. After all, it divides household and family duties in a way that might seem more balanced than our hectic pace.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll start uncovering the problems. One of the most obvious is that, for most of history, this simply isn’t the way most families have operated. Most women have had to have jobs outside the home. That means the public/private divide idealized by the Victorians is less of a reality and more of a fairy tale.

Even a lot of families that do this today are forced there by necessity. Before the feds and the province struck a deal, for example, the cost to have a toddler in an Ontario daycare was nearly $20,000 a year. Unless the wife is making really good moolah, it might actually make more financial sense for her to stay home. That doesn’t mean it’s easy; many of families struggle on tight budgets due to having only one income. And for many, many families, it is simply not possible. Both parents have to work, even if it means a good portion of their income goes to childcare.

But there are even bigger problems, and the more we drill down, the more they’re illuminated. Perhaps the biggest issue in the ideal Victorian public/private divide is the lack of agency given to women.

Women Lack Agency

In essence, women aren’t treated as fully functional adults in their own right. As I noted, women and femininity are “immature,” unable to regulate emotions and naive. The phrase “women and children” is a bit redundant in this worldview. Women are just adult-sized children, incapable of thinking and reasoning like a man would.

This is also the reason they need to be “protected” from the big, bad world. Their fragile psyches simply can’t handle it. Much like children, unsupervised women will get themselves into all kinds of scrapes and sticky situations.

All of this becomes an excuse to deny women agency.

Father Knows Best

This wraps us back around to ideals that put men in charge of the household, even over women. If we look to the 1950s, the ideal was that women didn’t earn their own income after they were married. They simply relied on their husbands. Women weren’t able to take out credit cards or bank accounts in their own names. They had to get cards or accounts under their husbands.
Thus, men controlled the finances. Women, again, were treated much like children. Husbands would give their wives “allowances” or budgets, which they were expected to run the household on. Women could ask for more or less, but getting something hinged on how their husbands viewed the request.

Many husbands did not provide adequate “allowances,” which forced women to be more creative or to go without. A lot of men simply spent their paychecks—or a good portion of it—on their own vices, often alcohol or gambling. Women were simply expected to “make do.”

This whole situation echoes the adage “Father Knows Best.” That’s the idea that children should always defer to their father. In many cases, mothers were supposed to reinforce this. This is why we often hear phrases like “just wait until your father hears about this!” “Wait until your father gets home!”

Yet the wife was in a similar position of subordination. She had to ask her husband for permission for just about everything. If he disagreed with how she was approaching childrearing, he could simply overrule her. Thus women were in a sort of limbo. They were the adults in the room when “Father” was out, but the instant he came home, they were in the same position as their own children.

The Alpha Male and Toxic Masculinity

It’s already been hinted at how the “alpha male” role can become toxic. The alpha male is a provider and protector. At his most benign, he rescues a damsel in distress, and he ensures that his lady love is clothed, fed, housed, and loved.

However, the alpha male can quickly become toxic because of the control he exerts. If he doesn’t like something his lady love is doing? He can simply stop her from doing it and call it “protection.” If he doesn’t want her “disobeying” him? He can cut off her agency—such as making her financially reliant on him—and call it an act of love.

Even the “well-meaning” alpha male can become toxic as he steamrolls his lady love’s agency in the name of “protecting” her. He comes to embody “father knows best.” As a woman, you have no idea what you want or need, but your alpha male love sure does.

“I’m a Nice Guy!”

Perhaps the most obvious modern incarnation of this is the self-proclaimed nice guy. This guy bitches and chews about how all the women in his life date these “toxic” alphahole jackasses. They leave “nice” guys like him in the dust. If only these women could see what he sees! He knows what they want and what they need! If only they would listen to him!

The “nice guy” never really realizes what he’s doing is … the exact opposite of nice. He’s actually asking all the women in his life to yield their agency to him. Their choices, he thinks, are bad, and he knows he’d be a better fit for them. If they’d just stop making bad choices and let him have a chance, he could prove it.

What he fails to see is that he wants the woman in question to turn over her agency. Instead of making a choice, she should simply yield to him—because he knows better than she does.
While this can and often does feel true when you’re outside looking in on someone else’s relationship, what the toxic alpha male fails to realize is that he’s not treating women as fully functional adults. He’s infantilized them and belittling their intelligence. He’s basically saying, “You don’t know what’s good for you, let me tell you what’s good for you.”

Why Some People Find That Appealing

Let’s face it: being an adult is difficult. When it comes to love and romance, it can feel like we’re fighting a losing battle. That’s why so many of us fantasize about having someone swoop in and say, “Don’t worry your silly little head about it, I’ve got it handled.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could do that for us and solve all our relationship woes or figure out our money troubles or even tell us exactly what job we should do for a living?

A teenager wearing a plaid shirt and glasses sits at a table, surrounded by books, and rakes their hands through their blond, curly hair. They seem stressed.
“Do I even want to be a historian?!” (Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com)

It often sounds very nice in theory—and, in practice, some people do like having this. But for most of us, it becomes grating. We were once children, when someone else made all the decisions for us, even if that wasn’t what we wanted or thought was good for us. We may have been forced to do things we didn’t like or even hated. Being an adult represents some degree of freedom. Yes, we still have to suck it up and do a lot of shit we don’t want to—like filing our taxes or paying our bills, lest we get in big trouble—but we can choose whether we eat Brussels sprouts or ice cream for dinner—at least every once in a while.

With the toxic alpha male, we’re relegated to being children again, living at the whims of an adult—who can be fickle and whimsical.

The Potential for Abuse Is High

Perhaps worst of all, the alpha male is at risk of become abusive. The more he’s interested in being “benign,” the more abusive he can become, as he seeks more and more control.

At the core, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect someone or provide for them. The problem originates when the alpha male partner becomes overbearing, stripping agency from his partner.

That is, of course, something we all need to be wary of. Our partners are also adults—with their own wants, thoughts, feelings, and points of view. We need to understand that, and we need to treat each other as equals—no matter how much we might think we “know best” what the other person needs or wants.

About the author

By Cherry

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