A dysfunctional relationship is a relationship that does not perform its proper function. Meaning the people in the relationship do not emotionally support one another, communicate well, or trust one another. People in dysfunctional relationships are manipulated and taken advantage of. There are many causes of dysfunctional relationships. The main cause of a dysfunctional relationship is manipulation. In the short stories “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman, the play Trifles, by Susan Glaspell, and the poems “You fit into me” by Margarette Atwood, and “Marks” by Linda Pastan, all have a dysfunctional relationship caused by manipulation.
One form of manipulation in a dysfunctional relationship is social isolation. Social isolation is an almost complete separation between an individual and society which is destructive to a person's mental state. In a dysfunctional relationship the dominant partner in the relationship manipulates the other into an isolated state, effectively trapping them into the unhealthy relationship. This is shown in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The narrator’s husband, a well respected doctor, dismisses his wife’s postpartum depression and diagnoses her with “temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 380). Which he treated with the “rest cure”, a common treatment for nineteenth century women who suffered from depression and anxiety. “During the ‘cure’,the patient was subjected to forced bed rest, excessive feeding, and massage. For six weeks the patient was isolated from her family and friends, confined to bed, forbidden to sit up, sew, read, write, or to do any intellectual work. The patient was kept under constant surveillance and divested of agency over her own body, sometimes forbidden even to turn over in bed.” (Gregory 114). The point of the cure was to remove the women from a potentially harmful household and toxic social atmosphere, yet the isolation led to insanity in some instances. The narrator’s husband, using his power as a man and as a physician prescribed the cure in an attempt to help his wife and completely cut off his wife from her friends and family, as well as the rest of society, unintentionally driving his wife mad.
In the play, Trifles, John Wright, an abusive and controlling husband, intentionally isolates his wife from her friends and family. He exercises his power over his wife over and over. He leaves Minnie alone all day within the house with no social life, refuses to put a telephone in the house, and kills her songbird, forcing complete silence in the home. Mr. Hale tells the County Attorney, “I spoke to Wright about it [sharing a telephone] once before and he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet--I guess you about how much he talked himself. . .” (Glaspell 1605). Refusing to share a telephone line with the neighbors indicates that he prefers silence, while simultaneously restricting Minnie’s contact with the world outside their secluded farm house. This also offers an explanation as to why he killed his wife’s pet canary. Mrs. Hale reminisces about her past friendship with Minnie, before her marriage. “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir.” (1609). This shows that her isolation from society is directly caused by her manipulative husband. Mrs. Hale stayed away from the Wright’s house because she felt it “never seemed a cheerful place” and she didn’t think “a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright being in it.” (1608). This shows that John’s demeanor towards others was a factor in keeping his wife in seclusion from her friends and family.
In the short story by Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”, the girl is traveling with an American in Spain. The couple stops for a drink and it becomes clear that she does not speak the language. The two of them are obviously tense and argue openly in the bar. This situation is isolating because it is unclear if the couple will reach an agreement and she is in a country where she doesn’t understand the language and the man she is traveling with does. She becomes dependent on him to translate what the waitress is saying, what the words on the curtains means, when the trains come. If the argument were to end negatively, she could potentially be left alone, isolated, in a foreign country with no way to speak the language.
In instances where a person is socially isolated, there are often negative effects that occur because of it, such as increased risk of depression, anxiety, paranoia or panic attacks. This is proven to be true in the short stories “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “Hills Like White Elephants” as well as the play Trifles. In Gilman’s story the narrator who is suffering from postpartum depression is isolated from society as part of her treatment prescribed by her husband for her “hysterical tendencies”. As a result of the isolation the narrator’s depression gradually gets worse as the story progresses. As part of the “rest cure” the narrator is “absolutely forbidden” to write (Gilman 380). She keeps a secret journal where she documents her obsession with the yellow wallpaper.
Social isolation can drive one to more than just madness. In the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell, Minnie Wright is driven to murder. When her manipulative and psychologically abusive husband kills her pet songbird, she snaps. Mrs. Wright is a depressed housewife who is left alone all day in a quiet and empty home. She has been successfully separated from the rest of the world by her husband. Minnie is described as “real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and--fluttery. How--she--did--change” by her old friend, Mrs. Hale (Glaspell 1612). Minnie used to be a lively choir girl “when she was Minnie Foster” (1608). Her husband changed her when he forced his secluded, silent lifestyle upon her. When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find the dead bird they realize what must’ve happened. “No [Mr.] Wright wouldn’t like the bird--a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too” (1613). When John Wright took away the one thing left that Minnie loved, she took away his life.
In the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” the girl travelling with the American feels emotionally isolated. The two of them argue about whether or not the girl should have an abortion. She doesn’t want the abortion but she also loves her partner and wants to be with him. While the American says “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to” (Hemingway 121), he continues to try to persuade her into the operation. The American shows no signs of wanting to be a part of fatherhood, leaving her alone as a parent if she chooses not to have an abortion. When she says “We could get along”, talking about them having the baby, he replies with “But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else” (122). She is frustrated that her partner is pressuring her into a procedure that she clearly doesn’t want to go through with and scared that if she doesn’t do it, he will stop loving her. This is shown when she asks “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” (121). The man is manipulating the girl’s decision using her affection for him to influence her into getting the abortion.
Communication is part of what makes a relationship functional and healthy. Not all communication is healthy though. When the communication becomes manipulative, the relationship becomes toxic and dysfunctional. In the poem “Marks” by Linda Pastan, the author uses school grades to describe how her family critiques her as a wife and mother. The speaker’s family constantly assesses and judges how she performs her tasks instead of praising all she does for them. Her list of responsibilities are listed throughout the poem, “My husband gives me an A / for last night’s supper, / an incomplete for my ironing” (Pastan 1-3). Each member of the family uses different grading methods to evaluate the speaker. This manipulates the mother into having to work harder to achieve the standards set by her children and husband. The way her family communicates with her irritates the mother and the poem ends with “I’m dropping out” (line 12). This line indicates that the mother has had enough of the judgement and is choosing to leave her seemingly ungrateful, manipulative family.
Another form of manipulation is persuasion. The American man in “Hills Like White Elephants” attempts to persuade the girl he is travelling with to have an abortion. He trivializes their predicament by calling the procedure “awfully simple” and that “it’s not really anything” (121). “When he says he will stay with her all the time the operation is being performed, he no doubt means it. Although he tells her “it’s not really an operation at all” (121), his anxiety is evident. At one point he says, rather incongruously considering that he has constantly downplayed the seriousness of the procedure, “You know how I get when I worry” (121)” (Hashmi). The girl is reluctant to consider the abortion and feels pressured by the American to have one. He plays with her head and manipulates her thought process when he says “It think it’s the best thing to do” and then contradicts himself when he tells her “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to” (121). He uses her love for him as a way to get her to go through with the operation. When Jig says “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me” (121). This shows her devotion to the man and how she seeks to make him happy.
If communication is key to a proper, healthy relationship, than a lack of communication is a recipe for a dysfunctional relationship. Between Minnie Wright in Trifles, and the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants”, there is a serious shortage of communication in both stories. In the play by Susan Glaspell, Minnie has little to no communication with anyone other than her husband. This isolation results in her depression and the murder of her husband. Mrs. Hale makes it clear she regrets not going to see Minnie when she says “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime!” (1613). Perhaps if Minnie had a friend to talk to, she would’ve been happier. Mr. Wright is known throughout the play to enjoy silence. The lack of communication between him and his wife is what led to her depression and anger towards him.
While the couple in Hemingway’s story don’t initially appear to struggle with communication, it becomes evident that the two of them dance around what really needs to be said. This communication issue between them threatens their entire relationship. The issue of their unplanned pregnancy is only implied throughout the story, never directly spoken about. The American man and the girl have strong, different opinions about abortion and argue about it while waiting for a train. The man attempts to persuade her by telling her “it’s all perfectly natural” and that “It’s the best thing to do” (121). From the beginning of the story it is clear that neither one of them actually listens to what the other person is saying and this poor attempt at communication worsens an already bad situation. The girl, Jig, is frightened by the circumstances and frustrated that the American continues to push for an abortion. She eventually begs him to “please please please please please please please stop talking” (122). At the end of the story it is unclear what happens with the pregnancy but it is clear that their relationship will never be the same after this conversation.
Deception in a relationship, whether intentional or unintentional is never good. In the poem “You Fit Into Me” by Margaret Atwood the first stanza has a positive connotation. “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye” (lines 1-2). It conjures images of a clasp fitting perfectly into an eye. A match that was meant to be. A comparison between a relationship that must be as well put together as a hook goes together with an eye. The second stanza, “a fish hook / into an open eye” (lines 3-4), clarify that the speaker doesn’t think the relationship is meant to be at all. The image of a fish hook into an eyeball is horrendous and brings forth images of pain. This deceptive poem is an excellent example of how relationships can be. In the beginning, it feels perfect. A match that is flawless. Once you get to know more though, things change and the relationship can turn toxic. It is not always intentional though. People in a new relationship don’t always reveal their true selves right away, and when the whole truth comes out, the match may not be as compatible as originally thought to be.
Another example of unintentional deception in a relationship is the family from the poem “Marks”. While they didn’t treat their mother and wife as good as they should have, they didn’t intend to drive her away. The son calls his mother “average” but also feels that if she “puts her mind to it” (line 7), she could improve. While this statement sounds harsh and no mother would want to hear it, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be perceived as a negative judgement. Parents and teachers say similar statements to students and it is a positive comment, as one can always improve themselves. Her daughter “believes / in Pass/Fail and tells me / I pass” (lines 9-10). For a child, or for students, passing is the goal. She feels that her mother passed as a parent. That could be a compliment of the highest regards coming from her daughter.
Unlike the previously mentioned deceptions in a relationship, other forms of deception are intentional. Purposely deceiving the other in the relationship in one way or another. Intentional deception is found in both the play Trifles and the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In Trifles, by Susan Glaspell, the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters deceive their own husbands to protect Minnie Wright. While the men are upstairs looking for evidence, the two women discover Mrs. Wright’s dead songbird. Mrs. Hale tells Mrs. Peters “She liked the bird. She was gonna bury it in that pretty box” (1613). They deduce that Mr. Wright murdered the canary and as the two of them talk, they find themselves just like Minnie Wright. “We all go through the same things--it’s all just different kinds of the same things” (1614). This line shows that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters realize that all women are oppressed in similar ways. The two women manipulate the crime scene and deceive their husbands when “Mrs. Hale snatches the box [containing the bird] and puts it in the pocket of her big coat” (1615). The men are so unassuming of their wives that they don’t even bother to check what the ladies have decided to bring Minnie Wright.
Another example of intentional deception in a dysfunctional relationship between the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and her husband. The narrator’s husband, a doctor, treats his wife with the well known “rest cure”. The narrator vehemently disagrees with her husband’s ideas and pleads for family visits, to work, for some excitement and change, but to no avail. In silent protest, she keeps a journal against her husband’s wishes and hides her writings from him. Her journal offers a creative outlet and a documented account of her depression and paranoia getting worse. She writes “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal--having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (Gilman 380). This shows how she deceives her husband and how much power he has over her. Her husband says that if she doesn’t recover quickly, he would send her away to a facility for the “rest cure”. As the narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and the woman she feels is trapped behind it, her seems husband picks up on some of her oddities. He begins to make her lie down for an hour after each meal. The narrator writes “It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don’t sleep. And that cultivates deceit, for I don’t tell them I am awake (387). Not only is she hiding her journal, she begins to lie about when she is and isn’t awake. She sleeps all day and watches the paper all night until one day, she has a mental breakdown.
All of these literary works have helped to teach our society about what a dysfunctional relationship looks like and what manipulation through our relationships look like. By knowing what these toxic relationships consist of, our society can learn how to avoid or handle situations that these characters have experienced.