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“Like there’s a difference between love and respect”: The romanticization of abuse and unhealthy relationship dynamics

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Behaviors that occur during romantic courtship have been implicated in intimate partner violence (IPV) against women, suggesting a fine line between romance and IPV. This dissertation explores the phenomenon of romanticized abuse to examine under which contexts relationship abuse and unhealthy relationship dynamics are likely to be perceived as normal, desirable, and romantic by heterosexual women. Across 12 focus groups, 53 women responded to hypothetical vignettes depicting two characters, Lucas and Maya, to explore their general perceptions of abuse and unhealthy relationship dynamics. Specific dynamics that were explored were Lucas’ use of surveillance, cybersurveillance, jealousy, isolation, possessive/controlling behavior, and persistent pursuit to pursue Maya and establish a relationship with her. Throughout the discussion, participants were presented with alternate scenarios that asked them to consider how their perceptions would change were Lucas engaging in these tactics when he and Maya were in a committed relationship or were not dating (no date had been established, or they had broken up). Participants were also asked to consider how their perceptions would change if Maya were pursuing Lucas through these tactics instead. The results suggest that the relationship phase during which unhealthy and abusive behaviors occur, as well as the gender of the pursuer, shapes identification of and understandings of these dynamics in critical ways. While overall participants perceived the scenarios negatively, they were most likely to romanticize these dynamics during courtship, and they indicated that Lucas was engaging in these behaviors due to internalized gender stereotypes, having sincere feelings for Maya, media socialization of gender roles and romance, and due to being shy and lacking dating experience. When Lucas continued to engage in these behaviors when in a committed relationship with Maya, participants perceived his actions as being driven by his insecurity and lack of trust in Maya. When he continued to pursue Maya through the same tactics when he and Maya were not dating, participants expressed the most safety concerns and advocated for safety planning, including reporting Lucas and seeking support from others. Across all phases, participants described Conflicts and Contradictions, in which they romanticized and problematized different parts of Lucas and Maya’s relationship and simultaneously expressed a desire to date Lucas, while also having extreme concerns around safety and potential harm. Finally, when considering a gender role reversal where Maya pursued Lucas through these various tactics, participants emphasized how gender stereotypes minimized abuse perpetrated by women, serving as a barrier to support seeking for male victims. This study reveals the unique ways in which the phase of the relationship when the pursuit is occurring, and the gender of the pursuer, shapes women’s perceptions. These factors facilitate the recognition and minimization of abuse differently and can inform prevention and intervention efforts by highlighting how the relationship context and gender of the pursuer and target influence when women are more likely to identify, romanticize, problematize, and seek support for psychological/emotional abuse.

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This item is under embargo until April 12, 2024.