I want to address the, “emotionally unavailable man with a tragic past meets woman who falls in love with him, and then after suffering through great lengths of the consequent emotional abuse, finally helps the man find his breakthrough and they have perfect sex and live happily ever after” trope.
Popular media and societal norms tell girls that it’s normal for dating to be a struggle. They learn that it’s normal to expend copious and consistent efforts of emotional labor without receiving anything in return because men are so emotionally lacking or otherwise “hyper masculine.” On tv and in movies girls are shown that if they truly love a man they should never give up on him because behind his emotional unavailability is a dark past that only she can heal. So they hold out for the moment when he—and only because she finally breaks through his strong exterior with the perfect words—speaks from an emotionally vulnerable place for one short monologue and tells her everything that she has wanted to hear. Then they have perfect sex and that is what young girls grow up romanticizing.
On the flip side, boys grow up learning that they are not supposed to be emotional beings. They are told not to cry when they are hurt, they are taught that emotional impenetrability is “strong” and admirable. They are mocked for expressing love and are made to feel embarrassed for receiving it in front of others. And for boys who feel this pressure to deny emotion, any traumatic events in their past go unaddressed, and the toxic behaviors just keep repeating. Then they’re warned to mistrust women, told that they’ll deceive him and trap him and steal from him, but are reassured that “the right woman will come along” and she will create the perfect environment of understanding and support in which he can finally let his guard down.
Women have romanticized emotionally unavailable, broken, and unhealthy men all their lives, they are attracted to these types of men in real life and become deeply emotionally attached (because this is who the girl always ends up with in the movies, right? This is going to be the happily ever after). But for the men who are like this in real life, their pain isn’t just part of a script, it (whatever it is) actually happened to them and they don’t know how to deal with it. It has instead created a defensive foundation of distrust and emotional detachment. So they hold out for their “perfect woman.” A woman who will adjust her actions and words and efforts to gently break down his walls. And these real-life women will desperately try everything to be that for him but the catch is that there is NO SUCH THING as this elusive “perfect woman.” Perfection is unattainable, first of all, but more importantly there is no secret code or big-screen-worthy speech that can instantly disintegrate the years of unaddressed pain, one incident after another, like bricks in this proverbial wall.
Men and women must both be held responsible for dealing with their pasts and any residual unhealthy behaviors. Men and women are both responsible for taking themselves out of abusive or toxic relationships. And we all as a collective must hold ourselves, our actions, words, and the media we create, accountable for what kind of messages we are sending to others, and especially impressionable youth. Because while it makes for dramatic story lines and happy endings in hollywood, all it does in real life is teach men and women that stunted emotional development and emotional abuse are both fine and it’s all a normal part of heterosexual relationships.