Of all the ways I’ve heard consent weaponized and twisted to excuse bad behavior, I think the most upsetting is when someone claims they “did not consent” to being present with the struggles someone in their life is experiencing, especially when that someone is a romantic partner.
This is not to say I believe a relationship – even a romantic relationship – obligates you to support someone through their struggles. It’s reasonable, even kind, to opt out of trying to provide support to someone when you know you aren’t in a position to do so well.
But when you opt out, it’s important to own what you’re doing. Saying “I didn’t consent to you having a breakdown” or even “I didn’t consent to you making choices that led to health issues” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how consent works.
The definition of consent is “to give permission,” so when someone claims a consent violation they are implicitly saying they expected whatever happened to have been reasonably within their span of control. But that’s not how much of life works. You don’t get to choose how other people think or talk about you, because you don’t have a reasonable expectation of control there. In a similar way, there is no reasonable expectation that you get to control people’s health. If I get mean when I’m sleep deprived, people can absolutely choose to not be around me. But saying my insomnia has violated their consent is problematic.
This is a nuance of language, of course. The end result is that people get to choose not to be around me for being mean, even if there’s a medical reason behind my behavior. There are two reasons I think it’s important to explore this nuance even when the end result looks the same.
First, the framing of “I never consented to date someone who couldn’t sleep” accuses the insomniac of being sleepless at the other person. It assumes the exiting partner is being maliciously attacked by the insomniac’s struggle. This comes up a lot in cases where mental illness is a factor. It’s enough of a struggle to handle mental illness without being accused of wielding it maliciously at those you love. Adding stigma to the situation isn’t helpful.
Second, the idea that you are supposed to be a position to give or withhold your permission over anything done or experienced by anyone in your life casts everyone else in the world as a pawn in a game you expect to control completely. Not only is that a nasty way to treat other people, it’s a recipe for personal misery as well. If you believe you are supposed to have that sort of control of the world and the people in it, you are bound to be regularly disappointed. When you blame other people for all of your disappointment, that blame is likely to turn to anger.
The experience of sitting with and holding space for someone in their struggle can be one of the greatest joys in life. When you choose instead to assume everyone else’s struggle is aimed at you, not only do you miss out on that joy, you also rob yourself of the deep connection that shared struggle can bring.
Ultimately, people who are struggling are more likely to hurt the people around them. Since the 50s there’s been an idea that turning away from people in struggle is a virtue, that tough love is ultimately kind. We know now that approach really does not work. Again, this doesn’t make it your job to support a struggling person – no matter what relationship you have with them. But it is important to understand that walking away when they struggle is something that you’re doing for you (which is valid) and not for them. Blaming them, saying they’ve violated your consent in their struggle is not a magic key to helping them heal.
What works – for them and for you – is to find a way to embrace forgiveness. That’s not for them – it’s for you. As Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies: Further Thoughts on Faith; “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” And Lewis B. Smedes, in Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve puts it this way: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”