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Everyone has a story about someone else's psycho girlfriend. She's usually a woman we don't know personally, but we've heard stories about her from her boyfriend or ex, or even second-hand through friends of his. We can recount anecdotes about her wild behavior -- her jealousy, her outbursts, how impossibly high-maintenance she is -- but we tend to know less about her background or motivations, except a vague acknowledgement that she is "crazy" and probably comes from a messed-up family. The more you talk about her, the more monstrous she becomes; a cartoonish villain incapable of reason who has trapped her poor partner in a living hell.
Well, it's time to acknowledge that the psycho girlfriend is, by and large, a myth.
Don't get us wrong: there are definitely some irrational, demanding women out there, and some of them might even be dating your friends. However, the Psycho Girlfriend™ has become a looming stereotype far removed from reality -- one that contains a sexist double standard and has retrograde ideas about women and mental illness at its root.
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Before we can dispel the stereotype, though, we need to be able to know it when we see it, understand what's wrong with it, and have a sense of what we should be thinking about it instead. So, without further ado, here is the Psycho Girlfriend™ myth unpacked:
What Is The Psycho Girlfriend Myth?
Type "psycho girlfriend" into Google and you'll be met with pages of listicles helping you identify this difficult beast, with titles like "12 Signs Your Girlfriend Is Psycho". These articles are almost always authored by men and tend to start with general, unflattering statements about all women being "a little crazy", before detailing the ways in which Psycho Girlfriends™ are extra insane.
According to these lists, the first hallmark of the Psycho Girlfriend™ is jealousy. She'll be blowing up your phone with 25 missed calls if you don't text her every half hour on your boys' night out, see, and she's probably rifling through your text messages while you're in the shower. You can give up on the idea of keeping in touch with your ex or having female friends, and, if you've landed a Level 10 Psycho Girlfriend™, you might not even be able to hang out with your female family members without it becoming a fight.
The next key characteristic of the Psycho Girlfriend™ is that she will try to lock you down too quickly. She'll mistake your small gestures of affection for large signs of commitment and over-analyze your compatibility ("he's a Scorpio rising and he likes his mother! WE'RE GOING TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER!!!") She acts sweet and normal until you're locked into a relationship with her, at which point she lets her demonic side loose. Now that you're officially together, her every waking minute is spent stalking you on Facebook and screeching at you to throw out your yearbook because it's got your high school crush's photo in it.
No analysis of the Psycho Girlfriend™ is complete without some armchair psychology about her family dynamic, especially her relationship with her father. You're pretty much guaranteed to see the daddy issues trope rolled out here, as well as a diagnosis that she "obviously" came from a "dysfunctional family".
What's Wrong With It?
Again, we're not trying to pretend that some women aren't genuinely difficult partners. The problem with the Psycho Girlfriend™ stereotype, though, is that it claims this stuff is unique to, or even inherent in, women. In reality, men are equally capable of being jealous, irrational, damaged and unreasonable, but there is no corresponding Psycho Boyfriend™ stereotype. This shows that there's a sexist double standard at play: women who are hard work in relationships are Psycho Girlfriends™, but men who are difficult to be with are just flawed humans.
Another thing that's troublesome about the Psycho Girlfriend™ myth is that it often serves to reframe reasonable or normal behavior as "crazy". It's not unreasonable for a woman to expect open communication from her partner or to be angry if he's been out later than he said he would be, for example, and some degree of jealousy is to be expected within relationships. Perhaps the Psycho Girlfriend™ who has left a string of voicemails for her boyfriend while he's out with his friends has just been made redundant, and wants her partner to be present after hearing such bad news. Or maybe her boyfriend has a habit of going out without telling her and leaving her with all the housework, and she's understandably pissed off. None of this matters once you've been branded a Psycho Girlfriend™ though: all the nuance and empathy goes out the window, leaving you cast as a two-dimensional villain.
Finally, the Psycho Girlfriend™ trope is objectionable because it's often bundled up with some really retrograde ideas about mental illness. "Crazy", "bipolar" and "schizophrenic" are thrown around as synonyms for "bad person", and reading someone's call log is equated with psychosis; a terrifying, serious experience that is trivialized and diminished by this comparison.
Overall, the Psycho Girlfriend™ is an ugly, regressive stereotype that treats women and people suffering from mental illness with contempt, and it needs to go.
What Should We Be Doing Instead?
Killing the Psycho Girlfriend™myth is actually pretty simple. The first step is that we all need to acknowledge that unreasonable behavior in a relationship isn't determined by that person's gender, and everyone -- male, female or otherwise -- is capable of being difficult. We also need to stop using terms relating to mental illness as synonyms for being a difficult, unreasonable person, otherwise we contribute to the stigma faced by people who actually experience psychosis and for whom "bipolar" and "schizophrenic" aren't just glib synonyms for being in a bit of a bad mood. What's more, we should leave the psychoanalysis to the experts and stop diagnosing women with daddy issues because they went back six weeks on their boyfriend's Instagram page.
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Finally, we need to look deeper at the Psycho Girlfriend™ behavior being described, and decide whether it's actually something we're in any place to be judgmental about. Perhaps there's more information we don't know, or maybe our male friends aren't the innocent angels they're making themselves out to be. Or maybe the woman behind the Psycho Girlfriend™ stereotype is just an everyday, flawed human being: occasionally unreasonable and prone to displays of high emotion, but generally motivated by a good-faith desire for connection, honest communication and loyalty within her relationships. Who among us couldn't say the same?