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The Cole-Zanab Relationship On 'Love Is Blind' Is What Happens When Miscommunication Is Framed As Abuse

Photo: Sara Mally / Netflix
Cole Barnett and Zanab Jeffrey

Love is Blind Season 3 was awash with drama and heightened emotions, as usual. But the storyline that pulled me in the most centered on the relationship between Cole and Zanab.

The season ends with Zanab leaving Cole stupefied at the altar. She tells him he had “single-handedly shattered [her] self-confidence.” That “love shouldn’t hurt like this,” and she couldn’t marry him.

Cole seems genuinely shocked, devastated, and blindsided by the abrupt end to what he’d thought would be a life-long partnership.

At the reunion episode, Zanab references the “cuties scene” as evidence that Cole had been controlling, abusive, and trying to body shame her.

We’re shown the clip at the end—and my honest impression of it was that it didn’t read as such.

What I saw was a miscommunication, a wide gap between intention and impact, two people speaking different languages, and—perhaps most of all— massive amounts of projection.

For a relationship to be healthy, each partner has to own what belongs to them. Sometimes, though, one person seems to offset all responsibility onto the other. Their partner is more wrong; less mature; in greater need of healing. The blamer simply doesn’t have to change as much, in their mind.

I saw this happening in Zanab’s treatment of Cole.

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Her one-sided abuse narrative didn’t feel fair or honest; it felt like she’d grabbed for it as a way of dodging acknowledgment of her part in the relationship. By denying the full complexity of the situation, she evaded any examination of the ways in which she’d hurt Cole in return.

And there were ways. I noticed quite a few of them as a viewer.

I watched her repeatedly criticize him, for one.

I saw a series of small daily cuts add up— which, on their own might not have seemed that damaging, but together, created a climate of judgment and chronic tension.

Many of these criticisms were over Cole’s cleanliness habits, but they really extended to so many other things about him—to even the way he talked. Cole wasn’t off base to express his grievance of “I just feel like you don’t even like me that much,” in response to them.

Zanab adamantly voiced how Cole had destroyed her self-esteem— but I wonder what effect she thinks these constant remarks had on his. To me, they seemed to have come straight from pages of the chapter “What Not to Do” in a book titled Creating a Climate of Emotional Safety and Acceptance.

I watched her dismiss Cole when he brought up how these frequent criticisms made him feel (even while expecting him to fully and unquestioningly validate her feelings in return). She called it an attempt to change her; a form of abuse, even. Cole voicing his feelings somehow got recast as him abusing her.

I think asking someone to change who they are fundamentally is different than requesting reflection on a certain behavior, action, or form of communication that may be causing harm. Is one “less their self,” for instance, if instead of talking 90 percent of the time, they listen for half of it?

But certain behaviors had become so ingrained in Zanab over the course of her life.

Once we come to associate behaviors inextricably with our identities, we might struggle to give them up—even when they’re harming others. 

It’s often still possible to hold onto the desired value or personality trait, though—while just learning a different or healthier way of expressing it. 

Our defenses can masquerade as personality traits; “Other people should just accept those parts of me,” a person might say. I think it’s important to recognize when the armor we adopted in our younger years isn’t keeping legitimate threats away anymore. When it’s now keeping away people we’re trying to love.

What I also saw in their dynamic was a lot of projection of insecurities on Zanab’s part.

It’s so easy (and common) for those with a history of traumatic experiences to react as if the same hurtful event is re-occurring. The past predisposes us. It colors our interpretation of the present.

As podcaster and comedian Paul Gilmartin described it, “It’s like the earthquake under the sea happens, then the tsunami after that goes on for years and years.”

I know from my own experiences with trauma from a young age. On certain days the detritus left by past experience fills in to explain or ascribe meaning to (neutral) communication or events in the present. Floodgates to memories of prior hurts and betrayals pry open.

I have to repeatedly stop and ask myself whether my past trauma is becoming activated and applying an outdated lens where it doesn’t actually belong.

I’ve had to learn to have a dialogue with my thoughts and regulate my emotions to a certain degree— while also hoping that occasionally, the people who care can be understanding and acknowledge the difficult work that this requires. That we won’t always be perfect at it.

Zanab had every reason to adopt her particular lens, given what she went through. The events that contributed to her self-esteem issues—living steeped in a culture that values and positions whiteness at the top echelon of beauty, for one— are significant and real. She’d also lost her parents at a very young age, which is a trauma that would absolutely reshape a person.

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What Cole said in the pool towards the start of their relationship (that he was attracted to another contestant on the show, when he and Zanab were in a monogamous agreement) was also incredibly inappropriate and insensitive.

I can see why that incident would break Zanab’s trust in him. Maybe she never fully recovered from it. 

Still, acknowledging that moment—not the cuties one—as the source of negativity would have felt more truthful and constructive. Instead, she carried over the residue of her feelings from that incident and projected them onto a later one. Even though it was a mistake that Cole should have taken accountability for (and he did), from what I saw, it wasn’t a pattern of behavior. 

I have compassion for Zanab, and want her (and anyone who’s developed similar defenses as a result of traumatic past experiences) to heal and find comfort in relationships where they don’t feel constantly triggered and activated.

But we all have to own when our past stories are bubbling up and affecting our present behavior.

Each of us is capable of learning to observe when we sense the pull of a negative past experience. To shine a light when it colors our perception. 

When we don’t shine that light, the trauma brain is likelier to cling to and be limited by the old story. We’re likelier to project and offset the residue it’s left behind onto the closest scapegoat or someone who isn’t entirely responsible (in this case, that seemed to be Cole).

Mindfulness can help us disentangle the past’s claws, the way we would a cat from our shirt.

It’s important to acknowledge the pain done to us. Doing this can be an act of self-compassion. Once people self-validate what they went through, they can then begin to heal it.

But I think it’s equally important to not identify exclusively as victims. To not deny or downplay the likely truth that we’ve also harmed others in ways big and small.

If we shoot directly into victim mode and refuse to look within, we deny ourselves the opportunity to see situations for what they fully are. 

As Keri Mangis wrote, “When we are so busy looking and labeling outward, we can’t turn the flashlight around on ourselves. Our growth gets stuck like boots in the mud.”

We won’t see reality as it is— only for what our lens of woundedness has painted it as. We’ll stay stuck, convinced that people are cruel, rather than seeing how our own actions also contribute to a painful cycle.

Having said all this, sometimes two personalities are just too opposing to be compatible. To think that love can overcome extreme differences is a lovely idea. As Harriet Lerner wrote, “Often we behave as if ‘closeness’ means ‘sameness.’ But one of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is to recognize the validity of multiple realities.”

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When two contrasting types work together they can gain new tools that enrich both their lives, allowing them to accomplish more than what either could on their own. 

In addition, boiled down, often we’re not as different as we imagine. Certain traits might remain dormant until others help bring them out in us. Many of us contain the full spectrum of everything (to an extent). 

I know one or two couples whose love has overcome extreme differences. My childhood parakeets Coco and Limon were as distinct (energetically) as could be.

Coco, with his blue body and white head, was the more dominant of the pair. The expression on his face was a perpetual scowl (like Rabbit’s from Winnie the Pooh), and he bit often. 

Meanwhile, Limon, green-bodied and yellow-headed, veered more passive and docile. He never laid a beak on us, even when it would’ve made sense to in the name of self-defense against the grabby, obnoxious hands of over-eager children.

And yet the two really loved each other. Coco never quite bonded with another bird in quite the same way—not even Hermese, the parakeet we adopted after Limon passed away (who was temperamentally more similar to Coco).

Still, I’m not sure if anecdotes like these are the pattern or more the exception.

Realistically, I just feel like two people on opposite ends of the cleanliness spectrum will have a hard time meeting in the middle. I know from experience.

I know Zanab doesn't see it this way, but as an outside observer, when I watched her and Cole I saw not an abusive relationship with a primary aggressor but two people in a negative, difficult cycle of miscommunication— as happens in many relationships.

As author Judy Berman wrote in Time, “Partners hurt each other all the time, not because they’re cruel, but because they can’t get on the same page. Part of the challenge of spending your life with someone is in learning to see where that person, who often has a very different perspective shaped by gender or any number of other factors, is coming from.” 

We are constantly participating in back-and-forth feedback loops with others. Our behavior affects them just as much as theirs affects us. Their feelings are as valid as ours. This all may sound so obvious and unnecessary to state—but I see and hear so many of us forget it, all the time. Zanab here included.

In rarer cases is one person the unilaterally bad one while the other is the saint with no work to do.

I hope both Cole and Zanab can find themselves in a partnership someday where they feel seen, understood, and at ease—but each may have some inner work to do before they get there. 

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Eleni Stephanides is a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, Peaceful Dumpling, The Mighty, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others.