Strolling arm-in-arm through Soho on an almost-warm June night, a woman selling roses exhorted my Straight Best Friend to "buy flowers for your beautiful woman!". His response was, "She's not that fit."
We went for dinner at Koya, which I would highly recommend if you're after trendy-yet-cheap Japanese food. After a quick glance at the menu I chucked it across the table at him and asked him to order for me. There was one dish which I liked the sound of (noodle soup with tofu and spring onion) and he okayed that, ordering a couple of sides (veg tempura and pickled cucumber and aubergine salad) for us to share.
And it's just occurred to me that anyone watching could well have thought that this dynamic was borderline abusive. Asking permission to order a meal? Both of us assuming that he knew better than me what I wanted for tea? Red flags, and not the good kind.
But it isn't, in the least. I tend to leave culinary decisions to him for a variety of reasons: the guy is obsessed with food, and is very knowledgeable about it, so when picking from a cuisine I'm unfamiliar with he's got a better idea of my options than I do. He knows what I like, takes my non-negotiable food hates into account, and knows what I would love but wouldn't order for myself - and he knows that I need prodding to leave my food comfort zone. Short version: I trust him.
He's also the only person with whom I have proper flaming shout-out-loud rows. Which is partly because I'm neither very confrontational nor very articulate (SURPRISE, unlike every other person who started a blog to talk about the things which piss them off!), partly because we disagree a lot, but mostly? It's because I trust him. By virtue of the fact that he's been around for a decade and has been the recipient of the worst things I have ever done, I genuinely believe that if I shout at him, he will not leave.
So again, the aspects of our relationship which probably look quite fucked up to the outside world are exactly the signs that it's working really well. We'll sometimes reminisce about Our First (Shouty) Fight - "Aww, remember that time I shouted at you for being a dick and you shouted back and then admitted you were being a dick? That was the BEST" - because, ye gods, our relationship hasn't always been this healthy, and that fight was a major breakthrough.
So! My dining habits and personal insecurities aside, The Point: only the people inside a relationship know whether it's working. Whether it's happy. Healthy. Or abusive. To the untrained eye, our friendship might look fucked up, but it's great, it works for us, and no one's getting screwed over.
But conversely, relationships which look lovely from the outside? Might not be. Relationships which don't contain x/y/z Hallmarks of Abuse - might still be abusive. If it feels gross or uncomfortable or controlling sometimes, even if it doesn't fall neatly into a set of tick boxes, it's okay to trust those instincts. In fact, it's essential.
Contrary to anti-feminist belief, people don't skip around feeling completely happy about that relationship with some guy who was kind of controlling until feminism comes along and calls it abuse. You don't cherish fond memories about that time you had the sex that you didn't actually want to have until feminism rolls into town with its definition of rape. It felt awful all the time; social justice just gave us the words to describe it and the confidence to call it what it is.
Because unless you have a gigantic, unarguable example of why this person is making you feel uncomfortable it can be almost impossible to make other people accept that a relationship is abusive. (And usually not even then: "He hit me." "Why?") Which comes back to the idea that relationships are something which women want and which men tolerate to get sex, so just put up with it, you should be grateful. We're taught not to trust our instincts, not to set boundaries, not to complain. So the most important thing - the indispensable first step - is trusting our own instincts. If it feels gross, it feels gross for a reason, and you're allowed to do whatever you need to get out of that situation.
Which doesn't change a lifetime's worth of conditioning that it isn't okay to do this. But putting out a different message - drops in the ocean - is the only way I know how.