A few years back I read “New Moon” for the first time and thought that Edward’s leaving of Bella was the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing EVER. It still can be viewed that way, although not for the same reasons as before.
Whether or not Edward’s motivation is genuine concern for Bella’s wellbeing or just selfishly covering his (and his family’s) asses, it’s important that this is the one time in the series he’s willing to really let her go and live her own life. What she does afterwards is on her – if she moves on, fine, if she doesn’t and throws herself in the ocean, then hey, it was her call (well, not really, but let’s go with the assumption that Bella is a being capable of agency and taking responsibility for her own actions).
It’s beautiful, not because it will heighten the drama of the reunion (which I knew would happen because I’d thoroughly spoiled myself with Wikipedia beforehand), but because it was the one moment where their relationship seemed equal(ish).
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was witnessing a classic case of The Superhero Dilemma, in which a powerful being isolates him/her self from the people he/she loves for their protection. I didn’t even know it was called that until I read Ana Mardoll’s deconstruction posts on the anime Claymore and had it described for me.
It’s an interesting trope, one that gets its fair share of exposure in YA. When it is used, it’s either to create dramatic tension or to insert the third wheel for the love triangle, sometimes both, but I can’t help but think it doesn’t reach its full potential.
Think about it – putting someone else’s needs before your own is a sign of love. But when you think you’re responsible for someone else’s wellbeing – that your proximity to them might actually be harmful – is when you’re getting some real conflict. Because this is where two essential needs collide – your need for human contact and the other person’s right to lead a (relatively) safe life.
Here’s the thing though – the Superhero Dilemma obviously excludes the other person from the equation. Take “New Moon” for example again – Edward doesn’t go out and tell Bella “I am leaving you for your own safety”, because that would imply that he considers her a sentient being with a capability of making her own decisions. Instead, he lies to her, presumably because he loves her more, and also because it would mean she wouldn’t follow his family wherever they might head out next.
And while we can say that “Twilight” is the encyclopedic example of bad romance, Bella and Edward share a common flaw with most relationships in the real world – a lack of communication. You could say a superhero (or any supernatural being) is right to create a false identity to protect their loved ones, or else stay away from all human contact no matter the cost – but the families and loved ones of those superheroes are people too, presumably ones who can take decisions and be responsible for them.
However, how is one supposed to take a decision regarding their own lives if they are not aware a dilemma exists?
This is where the Romantic Split comes in. This, I believe, is when the two (or more) persons recognize a danger to their lives and wellbeing, or an insurmountable obstacle to their relationship, and decide to split up. Please note, for this to happen, both partners must have the knowledge and the capacity to take that decision.
It is also why the Romantic Split is such a rare thing in YA, because not knowing is generally what authors depend on to add tension and drive their plot. Peeta and Katniss’ relationship from “The Hunger Games” hinges greatly on maintaining a performance, yet only one party knows that. A book I read recently, “Small Blue Thing”, also depends on one partner withholding valuable information from the other.
Does that mean relationships fail only because of a lack of communication? Perhaps – that, at least, is what I notice in a lot of paranormal YA’s. Then again, a strong selling point for those books is the element of fantasy, so it’s natural that authors will want to give us the best ending conceivable. Both books I quoted had the protagonists getting together eventually, although in Peeta and Katniss’ case, that happened after a lot of developments and revelations, some of which were hardly fairy-tale like.
But sometimes it isn’t just lack of communication that fails a couple – if you look at books like “Teeth” and “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”, you realize there’s more things that could doom a relationship, and coming to terms with that is what makes the Romantic Split a trope worth exploring more.