A Discussion of the Portrayal of Domestic Violence in Bad Romance

Guess who has a lot of feelings about a book?

Grab yourself a tea or hot chocolate because we’re about to have a deep dive into the world of intimate partner violence. This book is so important and everyone, especially teens, need to read it. Actually, also adults. Honestly, I’m still not over the man in this Title IX training who said, “High school kids don’t have real relationships.” Um, okay, dude. WRONG. Okay, enough exposition, let’s start with the synopsis.

Synopsis: This book is Grace reflecting back on her relationship with Gavin, directed toward Gavin. Grace grew up in a fairly abusive household. Her mom and stepfather have absurd rules and standards that no one could possibly live up to. Grace hypothesizes that her mom has OCD, which I do think seems likely, and at one point she misses her SAT because of her mom. Unfortunately for Grace, her relationship with Gavin is far from healthy. It’s full of red flags of emotional abuse and the nice part is that since it’s written as though Grace is reflecting back, she does a great job pinpointing the flags she should have seen.

If you read my August wrap-up, you would have seen a quote I pulled to demonstrate how this book is written. I’m going to pull a few other quotes in this review to demonstrate how she reflects back on the problematic aspects of their relationship to discuss why I feel like this book is both realistic and important. I will preface this by saying that I do think this book is an extreme case of emotional abuse and that often, people will not experience every aspect of this, but a lack of one or two or five does not make an abusive relationship not abusive. I do think it’s vital and imperative that so many red flags were included in this though because when I was in high school, I had no idea how to identify toxic behaviors. Every now and again, I would be like, “Man, it feels really weird that my best friend’s boyfriend hates when she spends the night with me and makes her talk to him for hours even though they aren’t saying anything,” but I never would have used the words dating violence or intimate partner violence. It is my hope, and I think the hope of the author, that this book will give teen readers a signal that behaviors that can look cute (like jealousy — media portrays jealousy as a sign that your partner cares) can be problematic and abusive.

Creating a Sense of Dependency

“You say I’m the only person who understands you. The only person who doesn’t judge you. We can talk to each other about anything. And yet we’re not together.”

I struggled to put a name to what I would classify this behavior as, but it’s something that occurs throughout the book. This particular passage comes toward the very beginning of their relationship, but is something that Gavin builds on throughout the book. He is constantly telling Grace that she’s the only one who understands, that she’s the most important person in his life, etc. and then using that against her. I think one of the things people forget about partner violence is that the abuser doesn’t start out abusive. The abuser starts out charming. It would be easy to avoid partner violence if in your first meeting the partner called you a slut for hugging your friend of the opposite sex or if they slapped you in the face for some imagined slight. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. And I felt like Bad Romance did an excellent job portraying that.

Having “The Talk” About Past Relationships

First of all, why do people insist on doing this? Does it really matter how many partners your partner has had prior to you? The specific number? Sure, there are elements of past relationships that are bound to be relevant, but context matters as well, and I think (again), this book does a great job showing that.

“Now that we’re together, I think we should share, like, what we’ve done with other people.”

It takes me a minute to figure out what you’re saying.

“You mean . . . physical stuff?”

You nod. “We should just get it out of the way, you know?”

“I mean, it’s not like you’ve done that much . . . right?”

I can hear the slight tinge of panic in your voice. I shake my head.

I suddenly feel guilty, like I cheated on you. You won’t look at me and you feel miles away, like what I’d done with those guys has put up a wall between us. I feel dirty, ruined. I wonder if you think I’m a slut. Without warning, I burst into tears.

I cut out a few of the back and forth moments of this in an attempt to hit the highlights as relevant here, but this part broke my heart. First of all, everything Grace had done with boys was irrelevant to her relationship with Gavin. This wasn’t a question of, “Have you had an STD/STI test recently?” It was very much a question designed for Gavin to make sure he could have the most amount of control of Grace possible. And Gavin is furious because he “hates the thought of anyone but me touching you like that.” Well, guess what, Gavin? Grace owns her body. It’s hers and hers alone.

Insults Spun as Compliments Intended to Demean or Belittle You

At one point, Gavin tells Grace she isn’t deep. First of all, what? Secondly, how dare you? Third, why is this such a real thing? Gavin spins it (somehow) as Grace is just dependable.

For one of my best friends, it was that she wasn’t funny. To this day, nearly ten years later, every time someone calls her funny, the reaction is like you’ve given her a million bucks because for so long, he made her think she wasn’t funny. And she is, for the record. She’s hilarious and witty and the best friend a girl could have.

Jealousy: It’s Not Cute

“It drives me crazy when I see other guys touching you,” you say.

I love how possessive you are. You want me all to yourself. At home, I think they’d get down on their knees and praise Jesus if I disappeared.

“I just … Can we have a rule? Like, no touching someone of the opposite sex?”

“You don’t trust me,” I say, my voice flat.

“I do. It’s them I don’t trust, okay? I know they think you’re hot. You have no idea what a turn-on you are.”

I think this passage is illustrative of a thousand elements of abusive relationships. You can see Grace realize, hey this is a problem, and then Gavin says “exactly the right thing” and suddenly it sounds reasonable and not at all problematic. This felt very realistic to me. It also marked the beginning of Gavin really beginning to drive wedges between Grace and the people who cared about her.

You’re building a wall around us, keeping out everyone I know and love. Soon, that wall will be too hard to climb back over.

But You Aren’t Hiding Anything!

This is relevant to so many things, including things like the PATRIOT Act. If you’re not a bad guy, why does it matter if the CIA is reading all of your emails? (Hi, CIA Agent stuck reading the Internet. Hope you’re having a lovely day!)

When Gavin demands to see Grace’s diary, she’s like:

And then Gavin is all, “I mean, if you’re not hiding anything, what does it matter?”

And Grace knows it matters, but she can’t figure out why. IT’S AN INVASION OF PRIVACY, GRACE, THAT’S WHY IT MATTERS, I shout into the void at fictional characters that cannot hear me. I also shout it at defendants in the case law I read for work who are like, “Well, you know, I figured if I just let the officer search my car, it’d be fine.” Of course, in their case there’s usually drugs in the car, which means the harm is OBVIOUS, but whatever, I digress.

And then, AND THEN, Gavin turns it into a trust issue. “I trust you–why don’t you trust me?”

Oh dear Reader, I’ve had this used on me for equally nefarious purposes and I was too young and blinded by “love” to see what this really was. So I am beyond thrilled to have read this in this book. Like, jumping up and down screaming YAS because if this book could save even one person that experience, I will be ecstatic. Also, just knowing that it wasn’t just me who succumbed to something that in hindsight is so obviously problematic due to this fine tool of manipulation is a blessing.

On Ignoring the Warning Signs

A siren goes off in the back of my mind, but I ignore it. (Oh god, Gavin, why did I ignore it? Why couldn’t I see through you?)

Ah, yes. That moment when you’re like, wait a minute… And then the love you feel for this person just sweeps over you, or they do something adorable, or they say something so lovely that the sirens just die down without you ever making that connection. I really appreciated this being in the book. It’s mentioned in various ways a few different times and I really appreciate it.

When you’re a stupid girl in love, it’s almost impossible to see the red flags. It’s so easy to pretend they’re not there, to pretend that everything is perfect.

Sexual Coercion

Sexual coercion is an unfortunately common aspect of teen dating violence and this book showed it as well. It’s interesting too because it’s something that I’m fairly certain isn’t limited in any way to teens or even to relationships that are clearly abusive. It’s a subtle kind of thing, this feeling that you “owe” someone sex because of x, y, or z. For Grace, the first time she felt that way, it was a mixture of pressure from Gavin, but the guilt she felt was internal. Or rather, it seemed internal. She didn’t recognize that her guilt had been building because of how resentful Gavin was of things that were outside of her control. In fact, her guilt should not have belonged to her alone, because Gavin was partially responsible for the circumstances.


You’ve admitted that sometimes you “keep an eye out for me” when I go places with my friends, but you don’t tell me you’re there. Once, you slept outside my house in your car late at night, just to make sure I’d be okay. You didn’t want to wake me up because I had a big test the next day, but you’d had this horrible dream about me dying in a fire and so you’d gotten into your car, just in case. We got doughnuts and coffee for breakfast before you dropped me off at school. I thought it was sweet, but when I told Nat and Lys, they just rolled their eyes and said crazy in several languages.

Stalking is a serious aspect of intimate partner violence and one that I really appreciated being included in this book. Wow, I’ve said that so many times. But I thought this paragraph was such a great way to show how stalking can be spun into something adorable. It’s cute that a dream freaked Gavin out so much that he came to Grace’s house and just made sure that her house didn’t burn, right? Except, it’s really not. Not when you fit it into the overall pattern of his behavior. And not when you consider that the reasonable thing to do, if you’re that concerned, is either pick up the phone or just do a drive by. Not sit in your car outside someone’s house “just in case.”

The Exaggerated Connection Between IPV and Depression

My one qualm with this book was the connection made between Gavin’s depression and his emotional abuse/his threats of suicide as a control mechanism. This isn’t unrealistic, of course. There are certainly times that someone’s depression leads to them being emotionally abusive, but there are also people who are just manipulative, who abuse solely because of their desire for power and control. What I appreciated about this narrative is that despite the fact that Gavin was depressed and suicidal at various points in the book, Grace eventually came to realize that his depression was not an excuse.

Also, even after Gavin went on medication for his depression, he still put the responsibility for his mental health on Grace. He claimed he went on the medication for you. He tried to use that to make her stay. He threatened suicide, it seemed, every time she tried to pull away.

However, the use of the word “crazy” to describe Gavin bothered me because you should not use the word crazy like that. Is it excusable? Yes, to me, but I could understand if it bothered someone else more than me.

I still have so much more I could talk about, but I highly encourage you to either read this yourself or donate a copy to your local high school or library because I think this book is so important and could save a lot of people the emotional pain too many of us have suffered. It could even save some people from physically abusive relationships, as those tend to have emotionally abusive aspects as well.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book because it just spoke to me so poignantly.

What am I sorry for, exactly? Existing? I don’t know. But these are the words that always jump out of my mouth whenever you’re upset, because I assume it’s my fault.


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