You know that 'psycho chick' in a relationship - the one who yells and freaks guys out? We've all been her, and that's OK. The judgement stops now.
Rachel and Ben* weren't official official - they worked together, which made any sort of label difficult - but they definitely had a 'relationship'. They'd been hooking up for months, hung out every weekend, and he kept his cupboards stocked with her favourite foods. It was more than just a casual hook-up situation. So when they made plans to meet up with friends one Friday, she didn't expect him to just... disappear.
"We were all at the bar, and when I turned around, he'd gone," says Rachel, 28. "At first, I thought he was in the loo, but then I realised he'd left." She was worried, so she called him - again and again, a total of 20 times. So far, so reasonable. She was, understandably, pissed off and wanted to tell him so. When he didn't answer, "I got really angry and started yelling at his friends. As I got more and more upset, they started physically backing away from me, like, 'Who is this girl?'"
Ben resurfaced a few days later and told Rachel she'd overreacted. Then he pulled the disappearing act again on Valentine's Day, when he bailed on their dinner plans. He started ghosting for days at a time. Rachel would get angry, and Ben would dismiss her feelings as crazy nonsense. Ben's friends started avoiding her, Rachel says. "I could tell they were like, 'That woman is nuts.'"
Rachel is not nuts. The fights with Ben were, she admits, not her proudest moments; even at the time, "I remember being so embarrassed about how I acted," she says. But you can draw a clear line from Ben's disrespectful behaviour to the way Rachel responded. She was upset. Sometimes you lose it, especially when a romantic situation is murky and ill-defined. So why, when a woman expresses understandable human emotions in a relationship, do we often call her crazy? How, in 2016, is the "psycho chick" stereotype still so prevalent, from the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme to songs like, yes, Crazy Bitch? And isn't it time we put an end to the judgement - right now?
What do you really mean by 'crazy'? Often, the C-word is code for a more common emotion: anger. When Vera, 27, graduated, her family wanted to meet her boyfriend, Mac. "My parents organised a big dinner," she says. He didn't turn up. Irate, Vera started a phone blitz, calling and texting him dozens of times. "I left angry voicemails, which in retrospect were regrettable. But what the fuck?" When he resurfaced, Mac told Vera that the voicemails indicated she wasn't 'mature' enough for a relationship. "No apology whatsoever," she says.
Mac's response is all too familiar. "There's a long history of using words such as 'crazy' to dismiss the legitimate concerns of women," says Dr Christine Mallinson, who studies language and gender issues at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. (Hysteria, after all, comes from the Greek word hystera, which means uterus.) The labels also help lessen society's general discomfort with female anger. "Our reaction to an angry woman is really quite primal," says Dr Peter Pearson, a therapist and the co-founder of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California. "It's embedded in our DNA that women are supposed to be nurturing and supportive, so we don't really give them a space to be angry." Instead, we vilify their feelings. "When we use 'crazy' in this way, we're dismissing the concern and saying it's just in the woman's head." Which brings us to another point...
Or to put it another way: these feelings don't usually appear out of nowhere. Public relations assistant Sara, 30, kept seeing kissy-face texts pop up on her boyfriend's phone from his best (male) mate. Fishy! So she went through his phone and worked out he'd entered a girl's number under his friend's name - and was having an affair with her. When she confronted him, "he called me crazy and told me I should apologise for snooping."
Let's be frank, the only 'insane' person here is the man who thought he could cheat, blame his girlfriend and get away with it. But experts say 'crazy' is often used as a tool for shifting responsibility. "I see it a lot," says Bea Arthur, a therapist and founder of online counselling service In Your Corner (inyourcorneronline.com). "Women get called crazy for getting upset, when a lot of the time he's sending mixed signals or refusing to discuss the relationship." Or worse: cheating. "The terminology often gets used to justify the man's behaviour," she adds.
Those labels can also cloud our own judgement. Post-grad student Laura, 27, had a month-long 'thing' with a guy who said he didn't want a girlfriend but mostly treated her like one. Still, Laura wanted a more official relationship. So one night at his house, when he refused to turn off the Xbox and talk to her, she decided she'd had enough. "I left," she says. "Then I called him as soon as I got outside and told him he needed to 'come and get me.'" He did, but once they went back into the house, he fired up the Xbox again, so she left him a second time. "I felt at my craziest that night. I was desperate for him to acknowledge me, but he was completely indifferent towards me." (They've since called it quits.)
It's hard enough to calmly discuss emotions with a partner you trust, but relationship uncertainty like Laura's makes it even more difficult. According to Arthur, "Probably 80% of what we call 'crazy' is just a reaction to a very normal feeling, like doubt or fear," - two feelings that are "incredibly natural in a no-labels relationship. That's when it gets messy."
So how do you confront those underlying feelings and the circumstances that create them? "It's not unreasonable to want to talk to your partner if you're feeling scared or lonely," argues Arthur. If you find yourself in a relationship that doesn't meet your needs, speak up - ideally before you lose it, says Dr Pearson. "Most angry people just want to tell their partner to shape up. But that can set you up to be attacked right back." Instead, try writing down all the things you'd like to say. "It helps us think more carefully," Dr Pearson explains. "You start to notice the pain underneath the explosive emotion." If you do explode - and let's face it, we've all been there - find a calmer time to apologise for your behaviour, but not your anger. "Start with your feelings," says Dr Pearson. "Say, 'I felt that you were insensitive, and when I feel that way, I behave in a way I'm not proud of.' Then move on to the root cause." If your partner isn't on the defensive, they're more likely to be willing to address what's bothering you.
And while you're sticking up for yourself, cut your fellow 'crazy bitches' some slack. Tina, 32, admits that at first she judged her sister-in-law, Lisa, for her public marital meltdown. (Lisa suspected her husband was having an affair, so she turned up at his office and stole his phone for proof. She got it.) "I didn't stand up for her because my husband thought she was being nuts," Tina says. "But in the end, I realised that, faced with the same situation, I might do something similar. I pointed out that Lisa was, understandably, upset and needed our support. My husband came to see that too."
Which is really the goal: more support and less judgement. "When we stop criticising women for being emotional, we open up a space for healthier relationships, for women and men," says Lyn Mikel Brown, who has studied girls' psychological and social development. "We're never going to get there if we keep labelling emotions crazy." So next time you feel kind of 'crazy', remind yourself that you're just trying to address your feelings. And remember, there's a clinical term for someone who can't process emotions. It's (wait for it…) psychopath.