The toxic lyrics of ‘Stand By Your Man’ rang in my ears long after the lilting country melody and angelic wailing of Tammy Wynette lapsed into a thankful silence. The thinly veiled sentiment made my teeth clench. On the surface, it is a love song like any other. ‘Stand by your man’, Tammy implores, her words painting her as the ever-loyal lover to the portrait of her less than perfect man. But her message is dark. Her words insidiously construct a damaging rhetoric, punctuated with implication, to which women should submit, in order to be the perfect woman. She spins a male fantasy of an unwavering female submission through a woman’s voice, a false ally to women and an agent of the patriarchy.
As women, we are sold a dangerous idea of love. It is demonstrated time and time again that love is a test of endurance, that unconditional love is measured by how much you are willing to take. We are taught to tolerate this from childhood: boys will pull your hair, they’ll call you names and push you in the playground – but it’s because they like you! Should we really be teaching young girls that this is how boys express affection? Because it is not a dynamic that exists only in childhood, but one which continues to grow, twisted and corrupted, from the rotten seed planted in youth. It rings true years after childhood, permeating real adult relationships.
‘Stand By Your Man’ embodies the ritual of self sacrifice and pain that women are not only expected to endure, but praised for. It is riddled with unrealistic and cruel expectations of what a woman should be subjected to in the name of love.
‘You’ll have bad times, and he’ll have good times….but if you love him you’ll forgive him.’
At the age of 19, I have already seen many of my girl friends in highly toxic or abusive relationships – and no, I am not using that phrase lightly. Emotional blackmail, psychological warfare, name calling, ignoring, manipulating, enforcing rules, controlling. The things these girls all have in common? They all stayed, for years. I’ve seen a friend shaking with fear when her boyfriend’s name flashed up on her phone, in the same breath telling me she wants to leave him and ‘I love him’. It’s hard to hear when I know he screamed at her just yesterday, calling her a bitch. ‘But he loves me’, is all she would say.
Love, or their approximation of it, is often the reason why women don’t seek help, why they put up with emotional, verbal and physical abuse. Women internalise the issues their partners project on to them and cultivate them as their own. It is a mothering, a nurturing reflex women are expected to have, which in turn is self-destructive. Jennie Willoughby, ex-wife of Rob Porter (Trump’s former political aide), spoke out against years of abuse in a blog post titled ‘Why I stayed.’, and demonstrates how one’s instinct for self-protection is sacrificed for the protection of their partner, the consequence of an unhealthy relationship defined by misery and abuse.
‘If he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would have been easier to leave. But he could be kind and sensitive. And so I stayed. He cried and apologized. And so I stayed. He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling sessions and therapy groups. And so I stayed. He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence. And so I stayed. I felt ashamed and trapped. And so I stayed. Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed. I was pregnant. And so I stayed. I lost the pregnancy and became depressed. And so I stayed.’
But if you love him, you’ll forgive him….