There’s only one unfunny episode of Friends, only one I won’t watch upwards of 45 times. Rachel has finally managed to land the job of her dreams, is loving every minute, but on-off boyfriend Ross can’t be happy for her because her male colleague is too handsome and charming for comfort. Pathetic, jealous and needy, Ross sends flowers to her office, visits and embarrasses her during work hours, recklessly jeopardising her job. He sends a barbershop quartet to serenade her deskside.
The message is he loves her too much. It’s romantic, just a little misguided – OK, maybe a bit much – but goofy and sweet, not creepy, controlling and wholly without respect. Rachel is angry and humiliated, she asks Ross to stop, but he just can’t help himself. Riddled by his own groundless insecurity, he ultimately shags someone else, Rachel dumps him and yet we still root for them to get back together for the next few years until we get our Hallmark finale.
This episode – a simplistic 24-minute look at a fictional relationship potted for laughs – sprang immediately to my mind last week, when singer and rapper Cardi B, after no doubt considerable tough rehearsal and much excitement, played a huge gig at a high-profile festival and found herself faced on stage by her estranged husband, Offset, who, in what appears to be collusion with the festival’s organisers, was there, roses in hand, to publicly beg her to come back. Never mind that the pair had been, by Cardi B’s assertion, in a dysfunctional relationship that she had ended. Here was the adoring husband, sabotaging his wife’s huge and happy career moment, seeking sympathy and reconciliation under the auspices of a romantic grand gesture (a woman doing the same thing would be a tragic, bunny-boiling stalker, of course).
Before someone cries “snowflake”, I’m not triggered by Friends or roses or by anything else I can think of. I don’t want to see anything banned, de-platformed or censored. But I loathe this implicit notion that we should forgive and root for a man who is wilfully crossing entirely reasonable boundaries laid down by a woman (if you want to see a snowflake avalanche, see the proud bros of Twitter losing their shit when women and men dare to say the male voice in Baby, It’s Cold Outside is clearly a creepy, persistent, boundary-leaping sex-pest). “Loving” or desiring a woman does not mean she owes you anything in return. She does not need to cheer up, make contact, be moved to tears by your stunts. She is not responsible for your mental health, your happiness, your life.
And yet a man’s love should conquer all is the prevailing message – however unhealthy and unwanted. Ariana Grande’s troubled and talented ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, is another case in point. When Grande broke up with him after two years of what she described as “a toxic relationship”, she saw a deluge of tweets demanding that she take the poor boy back. Days later, he was arrested after a crash while driving under the influence of alcohol and, again, this was her fault because she would no longer accept his love. Some months later, Miller sadly died of an accidental overdose and Grande saw herself blamed again for his tragic downward course, because she had rejected him, however much he pleaded, and apparently expressed his love for her in his songs. Prior to Miller’s death, Grande, who had tried fruitlessly to help her partner into sobriety, said, “Shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem.” And yet here we are, still doing just that – and not only with men ejected from love affairs.
This sappy notion that strangers should somehow maintain contact at all costs, surrendering their happiness to a person with whom they happen to share either blood or history, is absurd
Famous family relationships also follow this topsy-turvy trajectory. Only this week, Thomas Markle appeared via satellite on ITV’s GMB, to complain that his daughter, the Duchess of Sussex, was still not in contact with him. Speaking to Piers Morgan (who claimed Meghan was his friend until it became perfectly clear to all that she wasn’t) and Susanna Reid, the father acknowledged nothing has changed between him and Meghan since they last spoke in the month following the royal wedding. "I'm very disappointed by it,” he said, accepting no responsibility for their estrangement. “I'm not sure why it's happening. I've been trying to reach out for several weeks. Every day, I text her but I haven't received anything back.” He admitted he’d also been sending letters and made an on-air request for a Christmas card. “She knows I love her,” he said, as though this justified his harassment and rendered the whole thing some terrible error on her part. Morgan tweeted his support for Markle Snr after the interview, “Come on Meghan – do the right thing & call him. He’s your dad”, while journalist Kevin Maguire described Meghan’s rejection of the man who repeatedly sells stories about the personal dynamics of their relationship as “inexplicable”. Meghan is the heartless villain, not the dude who fakes heart attacks and gets into bed with TMZ.
The point is that all three adult, real-life women made a decision about their own unknowable lives and, instead of leaving them to it, the media – social and traditional – has vilified them for making such a hard and deeply personal choice in circumstances we can never claim to understand. Meghan is being a bad mother in denying her child such a grandfather. A bad daughter in making him feel so sad. Cardi B is a bad girlfriend in not taking her ex back after such a grand gesture.
We need willing men to feel happy, sane and loved at whatever cost to our happiness and mental wellbeing. They are entitled not to take no for an answer, because they need us. Most unseemly of all is the sight of men and women casting aspersions and doubt on Meghan, as though the narrative – one, incidentally, she has never volunteered – doesn’t quite add up. “Why did she say nice things about her dad in the past?” a woman said to me this week, as though she’d busted her on some huge lie that discredits her entitlement to end the relationship. Desperate to prove the woman heartless and wrong, people wilfully ignore that familial relationships can change dramatically (though this is not the first time Thomas Markle and his children have been estranged) and that it is textbook behaviour for some people – especially women – in dysfunctional relationships to periodically praise, and overcompensate for, men who treat them badly.
People, whether our relatives, friends or lovers, are always flawed, sometimes even cruel, negligent, abusive or unreliable – occasionally to an ultimately intolerable extent. This sappy notion that strangers should somehow maintain contact at all costs, surrendering their happiness and harmony to a person with whom they happen to share either blood or history, is absurd, tone-deaf, imperceptive and tactless. These grown women, for whatever reason known only to them, laid down some boundaries and, for the sake of self-preservation, said, “I don’t want you in my life any more.” That should be more than enough for you to accept their choice, and mind your own damn business.