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I am writing a story that revolves around a number of characters that have superhuman abilities living amongst normal people, akin to they myriad superhero comics or many urban fantasies out there (e.g., The Mortal Instruments, many shonen manga). The main romantic relationship in this story focuses on two people with powers: one of whom is abnormally powerful due to being the protagonist and the other having powers that are dramatically less combat-oriented. The thing is, the very nature of superpowers in this universe destabilizes people's minds and often results in various mental disorders. As if super strength came with a side order of the autism spectrum, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder. The protagonist in particular is extremely emotionally repressed but has problems with impulse control and PTSD from their traumatic experiences dealing with the supernatural. Think the Hulk.

The two are supposed to have a loving, supportive, emotionally healthy relationship. The problem is that I realized there is a huge issue with the unequal nature of their pairing, and their relationship reeks of potential physical or emotional abuse. The protagonist can tear a car in half with their bare hands, and their partner...can't. What does this mean in their relationship when they want something and their partner says "no"? What happens when they get angry or get in a fight with their partner, is it safe for their partner to be around them? And because the characters are not morally perfect and are shown to have real flaws and psychological issues makes that threat rather than just a mere hypothetical.

Larry Niven's Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex goes into the aspects of the inequality when it comes to the physically intimate aspects of a relationship, but in this case I'm more concerned about the psychological ones. Unequal pairings are hugely frowned upon in real life (examples such as teacher-student or boss-employee relationships), and as a result a relationship like this is not seen as cutesy by modern audiences and they will not root for it. It waves so many red flags the characters might as well be talking in semaphore. It's true this kind of relationship is very common in fantasy fiction: Superman and Lois Lane, Spider-Man and Mary Jane, etc. The thing about Superman is that he is such a big blue boy scout that it seems completely inconceivable that he would ever abuse the massive physical advantage he has over Lois Lane. And even then numerous Elseworlds have pointed out the potential problems in their relationship if Superman wasn't morally perfect. Homelander in The Boys is another good example of the potential horrors in these kinds of relationships, but in that case Homelander is explicitly framed as a villainous character rather than someone the audience is meant to root for. The Hulk and Betty Ross might be a more apt example, but in this case the potential issues...just never come up (which is weird given that Bruce Banner grew up in an explicitly abusive household where his father murdered his mother). Another good example in a setting with lower power scaling might be Bella and Edward from Twilight. Edward is horribly abusive, and Bella is so weak compared to him that she can't do anything to stop his abusive behavior.

The other character is the emotionally dominant one who "wears the pants" in the relationship, but in turn this makes the main character look like a doormat who can't stand up for themselves and paints their lack of assertiveness and independence as a good thing, rather than the two having a mutually healthy partnership.

The bluntest, simplest answer to this question I can think of is "people with powers should not have romantic relationships because of this inherently unequal power dynamic, or they should be restricted to having romantic relationships with those with similar powersets where there is no inequality". The problem with this is that it sends a message that people with psychological problems do not deserve love and support which is...a pretty bad message to send. It's made even worse in that the other character has powers of their own, so it sends the message that the character cannot even have a relationship with other superhumans, they have to be restricted to the few hyper-powerful superhumans that are on their level. And that, at best, sends numerous messages of ubermenschen or being "the lonely god-like elite" which is...also not good.

Given these issues, how do I write a romantic relationship between two characters where both are flawed individuals and one is significantly more physically powerful than the other?

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    Try to leave the "super" component out of the equation and think about this as a "regular" relationship. One does not need Superman's strength to hurt or even kill the partner. Also, one does not need to be in the "upper caste" to do the same. The main (and perhaps the only) problem here is psychological issues that one of the characters have. – Alexander Dec 23 '20 at 23:34
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    @Alexander Right, the potential real world coding was what made me aware of the potential issues. The difficulty is it can rapidly devolve into the logic of "Everyone can hurt you, everyone is a threat to you, kill anyone who looks different or has a physical advantage over you so you will never be hurt again". Which is an overly reductionist and most importantly bad message to send. – user2352714 Dec 24 '20 at 5:20
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    Superman, Spider-man, Cap. America and several other supers had relationships with non-super people without issues for literally decades now, and nobody really seems to mind as long as it is written properly. I mean, your protagonist will be only as abusive as you write it to be, no? – T. Sar Dec 24 '20 at 17:47
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    @user2352714 My point is that the abuse only need to appear if you want it to appear. It isn't a "natural consequence" of the setting, it is an arbitrary choice of the writer. Having your characters having a loving relationship despite the issues is equally plausible as an horrible relationship in which everyone suffers. It is you, as a writer, that chooses how the story will develop. What you can't do is to evade responsibility for the writing - I had to describe this relationship as abusing because setting says so is never, and I repeat, never an excuse. It is always your choice. – T. Sar Dec 25 '20 at 9:54
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    "The protagonist can tear a car in half with their bare hands, and their partner...can't." - so what? In the real world many Olympic athletes, martial artists, boxer champions, ex-marines etc, have spouses who are not professional fighters, so in an eventual fight one side would have a decisive advantage. And even outside that, men on average tend to be physically stronger than women. Still, physical abuse is the exception rather than the norm. In most real world relationships one of them is physically stronger than the other, yet it doesn't automatically lead to violence. – vsz Dec 25 '20 at 14:00
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Power corrupts, but it doesn't have to:

For an interesting reference, you might want to check out THIS question. What you are describing is ANY power dynamic. The relationship is no different to one where one spouse earns a lot more than the other, where one has family influence and connections and the other doesn't, or where one spouse is a police officer or soldier and the other isn't. It's not about the degree of difference, but rather about the mere fact of a difference existing. Physical differences sufficient to lead to physical abuse already exist in many perfectly human relationships. Even with these (relatively modest) differences, people manage to both abuse others AND constrain their behavior and exhibit good behavior. So look to either examples of abusive or functional relationships in any of a myriad of sources. It's perfectly human (and tragic, but that's a different issue).

As to living with people with mental health issues, there are plenty of stories of THAT as well. That is incredibly complex, and in those stories the healthier person is often either a saint or a victim depending on your perspective. In even a good relationship, mental illness can put a huge strain on things. The person is literally not in full control of their actions or feelings, so what DO you do with that? Forgiveness goes a long way, but you also need to protect yourself from harm. I have a story where many of the characters are psychic (which drives them often mad) and the whole culture conforms around them to coddle them from the consequences of their actions but also shield people from the insane but powerful. One couple divorced but were still close friends. Another person (arguably victimized) forgave their spouse endlessly because that was what society said she should. Ultimately, good people will act with good intentions, bad ones will act with malice, and the rest of us muddle through.

The good news is, IT'S AMAZING DRAMA!!!! I had to hold myself back for sheer literary joy! Great writing is conflict and suffering. Your superheroes should look forward to battling foes since there is no ambiguity. Begging for forgiveness is much more literary than begging for mercy (and begging for forgiveness for making someone beg for mercy is AWESOME!).

These are completely human emotions and problems, and they translate well because everyone understands and relates to them. So while I can't tell you what to write, I can tell you power dynamics and dealing with mentally ill family (and mental illness in yourself) are everywhere, and in as many forms as there are people. The mentally ill can't stop living (unless they are SO dangerous they need to be locked up like Hannibal Lecter) and neither can those who love them. The powerful AREN'T going to deny themselves because they are powerful, and it's unfair to demand it. We're all crazy, some just more than others.

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    I agree! I think the question kind of equates a cause with a result. In modern society, we mostly are concerned about unequal romantic pairings because they are a risk factor for abuse, but it is still the abuse that is the problem. Not too many people would look at a relationship between a super-ripped bodybuilder and a couch potato, or a world class special forces operative and a desk worker, or a billionaire and a workaday average Joe/Jane, where they personally knew there was no abuse, and declare it immoral (and if they did, frankly, it wouldn't be any of their business). – Obie 2.0 Dec 25 '20 at 2:33
  • With respect to the ethics that they mention about relationships between (e.g.) bosses and employees, they exist for a mess of interlocking reasons, including that it's a risk factor for abuse, but also to allow easily sanctioning abusers without having to prove their abuse; to avoid a hostile work environment; to prevent favoritism, extortion or the perception of any or all of the above. Not because most people would consider a provably mutual relationship of that sort intrinsically wrong. For those who doubt, just look at the popularity of romantic comedies with the first sort of pairing. – Obie 2.0 Dec 25 '20 at 2:43
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In our world domestic violence is a real problem. However there are also a lot of tall, muscular, 90 kg men who never harm their small, petite, 60 kg wives/girlfriends in any way. Don't see why (the majority of) your super-powered humans couldn't behave the same way.

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    I come from a family of very large people. People in general are absolutely terrified of us and think we're going to hurt them (especially if we assert ourselves) even when we're doing nothing more than just existing. It's absolutely a real fear people have. – user2352714 Dec 24 '20 at 5:22
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    And occasional examples of the opposite, even. – Obie 2.0 Dec 25 '20 at 2:23
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    @user2352714: That can be a fruitful source of drama, but if you really want this to work (as you have described in the question), you are going to need to emphasize the space between reality and people's expectations. – Kevin Dec 26 '20 at 6:07
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Unequal pairings are hugely frowned upon in real life (examples such as teacher-student or boss-employee relationships), and as a result a relationship like this is not seen as cutesy by modern audiences and they will not root for it

  • This isn't necessarily true, power imbalance was a central theme in Fifty Shades of Grey (if there's money involved the audience will overlook anything).

  • Age gap, true in modern times there's prejudice about it. (Lost in Translation was successful despite it.)

  • Teacher-student, boss-employee, this is a modern day tabu not without reason, there are laws against it (although in practice frequently not enforced, depending.)

It should be stressed (and this is a constant in your post) you are mixing very different issues although they can have some overlap.

The thing is, the very nature of superpowers in this universe destabilizes people's minds and often results in various mental disorders

This is also a modern theme since the early days of the Marvel universe. Notice that psychology was an emergent field in those days. Today you have entire sites dedicated to fans trying to reverse-analyze the psychology of fictional characters. The disorders you mention are also the most commonly cited of our day, PTSD, autism, etc...A couple of decades ago the choices would probably have been different.

How do I handle an unequal romantic pairing

The first part of the title is, by itself, misleading. Romanticism as we know it is a literary and artistic movement. Without adequately addressing a relationship without superpowers, adding an additional factor only gives more room to turn the relationship into a false dilemma. (The recent X-Men movies had no substance in that regard and only the element of loss was represented.)

people with powers should not have romantic relationships because of this inherently unequal power dynamic

This gives up on the difficulties of portraying any relationship. Because every one has power over their own choices. And that is what you are avoiding to address in your writing.

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I think, that the partner of "Hulk" may be "mundane" with "superpower" of totally different kind - say higher than usual empathy and insight to (and undertanding for ) the protagonists hidden weak points (childhood abuse, sources of insure, why they are overcompenzating by Hulkiness ... ). Not superhuman empathy/understanding, just high enought to this could happen.

The "Hulk" will probably not have any close friends/souls, just competitors over power and alies in current fight. So finding someone, who can uderstand him deeply, not be (potential) competitor of him but also not be scared of his superpower (and exterior) may be total miracle for him. Yes, old scheme Beauty and Beast.

(I will use HE for protagonist and SHE for partner, but it could be other way as well (or any other way) - it is just easier for me (with my poor english) to write with he/she shortcuts, than carefully avoid using them and stay clear at the same time - so Beast and Princess roles whatever they really are)

It would not be so strange to have love between them. Beast would protect his "Princess" from everybody (including himself), totally aware abour her (physical) vulnerabilty and scared to lose her (the only friendly soul in world). Just thinking, that she may be sad may hurt him worse than open wound.

The Princess may even occasionally abuse him just by disapponted looks, or cold tone of voice. Being so much weaker than him would work as shield of kind - Beast can tear car in half easily, but cannot seriously hit her physically, just because of that - he would tear her in half too - and so he would lose everything dear in one moment. While she can hit him with fists full strenght ahead in anger, while not being it effectivelly different from hitting him with feathers. The real pain would came from her tears and anger which Beast simply cannot fight by his abnormal strength.

Depends on you, wheather the Princess will be manipulative or even abusive or too wise to push too hard to eventually break him.

Also Princess may be even most famoust than the Beast, just on different field, in different community - she may have totally wonderfull voice, be famous singer or just sing for her (and Beast) pleasure. May be she is very respected writer, or photographer, dancer, any kind of artist. Or scientist, pilot, car racer, just anything, where strength does not play role.

She can have her life and Beast can have his and just meet occasionally, or live together, how better fits your story.

How those two can meet? Maybe they did know each other before Beast became superpowered? Or Beast saved her as "collateral action" and she was not scared of him, but thankfull? They just spend enough long time together for any reason to have time to talk and get friendly and later they meet again? There is lot of possibilities, even superheroes may have some free time, when they do not save/destroy world(s) ...


Just for record - I am 1.5x heavier than my wife, able to overpower her with just left hand, skilled in few martial arts and with wide range of weapons (and on lot of competitions was said when I am present, the competition is just about 2. and 3. place - and it was true). I never ever forced her (or tried it) by strenght or by threat to anything (I won some discussion by arguments, she won more often. When we jokingly "fight" I was extra carefull to not hurt her - so she usually won.) But I would kill to protect her. (Like really kill to death.)

Yes, I went few times furious with her, I went ARGHH, clenched my fists - and turn my back to her - I would not dare to even touch her in such state of mind.

There are communities, where we are "ME+somebody", there are communities, where we are "HER+somebody" and there are comunities, where it is "ME+HER" both well recognized. But totally, she is way more known and famous than me. I do not have problem with that. None of us is perfect. We both are far from that. But we love each other, with all those bad sides known. And we live together like that for more than 25 years and will stay so till death separate us.

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Simple, don’t write the story where the more powerful turns the other into a disposable object. Because that’s the logical end of that line of thinking. Use them, turn them into mush or dust, get a replacement.

Being able to physically kill the other person isn’t, in the real world, a factor, nor is it a factor if they can’t. In most relationships both are able to physically kill the other, when they aren’t (say Christopher Reeves/Dana) the more common concern isn’t murder, it’s emotional abuse, and that abuse can go both ways.

On a related note, if they are “heroes” then they are unlikely to take the mere ability to cause damage as a threat. So, the more powerful one turning away and destroying half the house with a flick of a finger isn’t going to be bullying behavior. The weaker partner will deal on a regular basis with people that are actually trying to kill them. Even intentional intimidation short of that isn’t going to be so impressive.

This doesn’t mean they can’t argue, cheat on or browbeat the other. Just that the relationship doesn’t resolve down to who can kill the other more easily.

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Preface

"Why?!" shout Sam and turned Alex around. There was no resistance. Probably. Probably was not, judging from the body posture. But it had no meaning anyway.

The question echoed through the dark road and no answer followed. Just a cold moon shined high on the sky and blue neon reflected on tears flowing over Alex face. Each drop was a blue, cold dagger piercing Sam's heart and silently exploding inside. And the most beautiful eyes in the world, the only eyes that matter, stared on Sam without fear. There was never fear in those eyes, not even today. But they were full of disappointment. And sadness. The lips were just a tightly closed line.

Sam stepped backward, then turned and his clenched fist hit the wall of a skyscraper. Reinforced concrete cracked and opened view to some room. Large debris disappeared in the opposite wall, leaving a big, gaping hole and rumbled away. Then fell on knees and let fists powerlessly hit the pavement, leaving two deep cracks.

Sam could turn the whole building in a pile of trash in just a few minutes and maybe even in a heap of sand, but there was no power in the world, which could stop even one tear from running down on Alex face.

After an infinity, or a two, gently steps from behind broke the silence and something light dropped on Sam's back. Two tender hands laid down around Sam's neck. A Supernova of hope exploded inside Sam's chest, filling the full body with warm feeling. The gentle voice whispered sadly to Sam's ear just one word: "Why?"

Black despair of galactic weight filled Sam again, but this time there was a little seed of hope. Maybe, maybe there is still a chance ...

< insert rest of the book here ... >

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There are a lot of people who fetishize power imbalance.

There's an awful lot of kinky people in the world. I remember reading about a psychology survey run by some feminists that found that 60% of women admitted to having rape fantasies - IIRC something like 40% of women responded "yes" to "Do you have rape fantasies", and another 20% of women said "yes" to "do you have fantasies about being physically forced to have sex". While there are also quite a few kinky men who find powerful women sexy, I'm pretty sure it's at least one or two orders of magnitude smaller than that figure.

In short, in a world where there are superheroes, you'll get an awful lot of people who find superheroes super-sexy specifically because of the power imbalance. Yeah, he can effortlessly overpower her and take her whenever she wants - and that's what she fantasizes about.

How do you stop it from becoming abusive? The same way the kink community does in general. The typical standard for ethical play in the kink community is Safe, Sane, and Consensual. "Safe" refers to safe sex practices in general, and would generally be regarded as less important for couples who only play with each other. "Sane" refers to avoiding play that can do permanent harm or injury to one of the partners, though beyond that where to draw the line is something of heated debate within the kink community. "Consensual" refers to informed consent by both partners regarding the contents of the play in question, as well as mechanisms for that consent to be revoked at any time. Usually this involves safe words (words that are agreed upon beforehand to signal a revocation of consent instead of or in addition to "No" or "Stop"), but if one partner is unable to talk during a scene, they might be given a bell to drop to signal a revocation of consent.

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    Reminds me of the movies "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" and "Hancock". – John David Dec 25 '20 at 19:37
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Why do relationships work? How many equal-pairings do you know? They are blessed few. I think there's an old proverb about the value of a matched pair of oxen.

You could revel in the contrast, great fodder for drama, or you could look for the balance of imbalance.
A great example, the Incredible (TM Disney/Pixar) He was much stronger than her. No question. She was more flexible. No question. Strong in their own ways. Appreciating the other's strengths, maybe resenting either their own or the other's perceived weakness.

Regardless, sounds like an intriguing story as is!

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    That's an interesting example to use, because The Incredibles is a case where the authors were very aware of the potential for this issue, which is one of the reasons they gave Elastigirl stretching powers. The writers say in the director's commentary they did this so Mr. Incredible wouldn't have a physical advantage over her and the two were be more evenly matched so he couldn't bully her with his physical strength or make it seem like he was threatening her when he wanted something. – user2352714 Jan 2 at 7:56
  • Yeah, and they did so very well by giving a different kind of strength. Still a super power, admittedly, but not 'she-hulk' esque so I hope the point is still holds. – Starscream Jan 2 at 13:08

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