Can we take a moment to talk about “When A Man Loves?”

There are two things I would like to get across to K Drama makers and viewers: 1. Paternalism is not support, controlling is not caring. 2. Falling in love is not a math equation and you can’t blame someone for who they love.

When I watched the first four episodes of “When A Man Loves” I was interested in the story I thought it was trying to tell. Heroine Seo Mi-Do seemed to be a young girl stuck in a hellish moral quagmire between traditional expectations and a rapidly changing nation. It is difficult double standard many Korean women struggle with. On the one side is suitor older Han Tae-Sung, representing a traditional life of early marriage, material comfort, homemaking, and child rearing. On the other side is Lee Jae-Hee, a young professional who encourages Mi-Do to follow her dream career and live a challenging but exciting life, forsaking the traditional roles of women. After watching the opening episodes, I was excited to see how the drama would navigate between duty, expectation, desire and dreams, as well as between tradition and modernity. However as the show progressed, the story gained a much more terrifying message.

Tae-Sung grips Mi-Do's wrist as she tries to break up with him

Tae-Sung grips Mi-Do’s wrist as she tries to break up with him

Mi-Do’s relationship with Han Tae-Sung has easily one of the most disturbing I have ever seen in media, K Drama and otherwise. When they first meet, Han Tae-Sung is a gangster living a life of crime forced on him by poor circumstances. He comes to terrorize and beat up Mi-Do’s father over a predatory loan. During her first encounter with Tae-Sung, Mi-Do thinks she is going to have to sell her virginity to him in order to save her family. At the time Tae-Sung is 30 and Mi-Do is 18. Sounds like the basis for a healthy relationship, right?

Of course, Tae-Sung sends Mi-Do home and pays for her education as part of penance for his criminal ways. He turns his life around and after seven years is running a successful corporation. He finds Mi-Do and confesses his love for her. At this point I thought maybe Mi-Do and Tae-Sung could have a healthy relationship, despite the severe differences in class, age, power, and their expectations about what a relationship should look like. Unfortunately, as the show progressed it became more and more evident that the relationship was fundamentally toxic yet still glorified. Worse, a quick glance at the comments section of any episode reveals a fanbase seething with hatred for Mi-Do for not falling in love with Tae-Sung no questions asked. Her inability to love him had led fans to call her “selfish, a “gold-digger,” and “evil.”

To explain just what is so wrong with this drama’s main couple, here is a short list of facts we know about Mi-Do and Tae-Sung’s relationship.

1. Mi-Do is afraid of Tae-Sung.

After seeing him brutally beat up another man at work. Mi-Do is reminded of his violent past. She admits to Tae-Sung she is afraid of him. The implication is that she believes he may become violent with her. She has a point given his history of violence. Baek Seung-Joo gives her a warning about his uncontrollable violent tendencies. There is often an air that domestic violence may break out at any time. Two times (once on the stairs and again on the balcony) the audience gets the sense he gets very close to physically attacking Mi-Do. I cannot stress enough how unhealthy that is.

Tae-Sung looks up hearing Mi-Do begging him to stop beating another man.

Tae-Sung looks up hearing Mi-Do begging him to stop beating another man.

2. Mi-Do doesn’t like spending time with Tae-Sung and they do not share the same interests.

During their date at the amusement park it becomes clear that Mi-Do is far more adventurous than Tae-Sung. He is annoyed by her enjoyment of cute and silly things. Although Mi-Do compromises, we sense her disappointment. Tae-Sung does not believe in Mi-Do’s dreams. He does not support her career goals and is relieved when they are crushed, forcing her to stay with him because she lacks other options.

3. Tae-Sung and Mi-Do are at very different places in their lives.

Nearing his 40s, Tae-Sung desperately wants to settle down and have children. He regularly pressures Mi-Do to set a date for their wedding.  He also wants to have a child before he is 40, long before Mi-Do will be ready. Mi-Do regularly says things like “no one gets married before 30 anymore” and has a lot she wants to do before settling down.

During their amusement park date, her face says it all

During their amusement park date, her face says it all

4. Tae-Sung regularly violates Mi-Do’s personal boundaries.

Tae-Sung has a particularly nasty habit of showing up unannounced wherever Mi-Do is. He regularly goes to her home and waits for her to arrive. In a flashback, we see that he lurked around her college campus for the expressed purpose of hoping to run into her. She asks him to leave her alone, stop following her, and never show himself to her again. He agrees, but the audience knows that he will only continue his advances. In fact, after another run-in at her job he soon proposes to her despite the fact they have never even gone on a date. Later, he goes to her employer and asks questions, inadvertently causing her to lose the position. He shows stalking behavior and does not respect her personal space.

5. Mi-Do initially doesn’t actually like Tae-Sung and is only trying to like him because she feels indebted to him.

Nothing says “healthy dynamic” like feeling you have to date someone as payment. Their relationship is somewhat ironic, as Mi-Do’s sense of gratefulness starts when Tae-Sung cancels her father’s debt and doesn’t force her to sleep with him. Yet Mi-Do ends up selling her sexuality to Tae-Sung again. She only starts dating him because she feels in his debt because he paid for her college and helped out her family. Although later in the series Mi-Do says she has started to actually like Tae-Sung, it is vocalized several times that Mi-Do only started going out with out of a sense of indebtedness and is trying (and mostly failing) to fall in love with him. Even when breaking up with him she maintains that she will pay him back for her college, putting debt at the center of their connection.

waml 4

Originally I thought the characters and audience would see how toxic the relationship between Mi-Do and Tae-Sung was. The relationship would terminate and new relationships would form between Mi-Do and Jae-Hee as well as Tae-Sung and Seung-Joo. Although not completely healthy, the lesson would have been that having a “Daddy Long Legs” isn’t the great deal other dramas make it out be and that the ideal partner is supportive, not paternal. Yet, this was not the case. Her relationship with Tae-Sung continues while the situation between Jae-Hee and Mi-Do becomes increasingly worrisome.

In early episodes Jae-Hee seemed like Mi-Do’s way out. They had fun together and he showed nothing but support for her dreams, sending her books about art and helping her get to an important interview. Even though she rejected him he continued to treat her with respect, though still pushing the issue to a degree. In what appears to be an effort to get the fanbase to swing back to Tae-Sung, Jae-Hee sexually assaults Mi-Do. At first he apologizes, then recants saying it was his “true heart.”

No matter how the show resolves I don’t see anything positive coming out of it. Even if Tae-Sung falls from grace and Mi-Do leaves him the public’s mind seems made up. If video comments count for anything, the audience predominately sides against Mi-Do. Instead of seeing her as a young lady trapped in a desperate and untenable situation with an abusive lover, they see her as a cheating snake who should just love Tae-Sung despite his faults. Curiously, she is also called a gold digger, despite the fact she does not initiate the relationship or hide her reservations about him. “When a Man Loves” promotes unhealthy relationship dynamics and cannot see the difference between coercion, abuse, and love.


How do you feel about the relationship between Tae-Sung and Mi-Do? Let us know in the comments. 

  • Orion

    No one forced Mi Do to be with him and pretend she liked him when she knew he had the hots for her. The fact that she was trying to hide one man from the other makes it clear that she knows she is two-timing.

    Tae Sung on the other hand has started showing very controlling and unhealthy behavior as well. He likes her, but he is insecure and it leads to abusive behavior.

    To me, this is not a romantic series. It’s a series about some very messed up people abusing each other, a series about how things like obsession, extreme denial, manipulation of emotions and others create very dysfunctional relationships bound to end up in ruin and hurting all those involved.

    I partially agree with these voices. Mi Do is a two-timer and a gold-digger. But that does not make everyone else a saint. To me, they’re all messed up, each one with their own issues. The fact that some viewers can’t see that or worse, blame the girl only because the men are handsome, is the real issue here.

  • elenir.lachlagos

    I don’t know that drama (and after reading this I’ll never start), but I do sometimes get the feeling that some dramas – and animes and mangas – are made to keep women “in their place”. I can’t explain those plots in any other way. Someone must have deliberately written this.

    Boys Before Flowers? He’s having fun watching her being abused. WTF? Secret Garden? He’s stalking her and I’ve been shouting “call the police” at the screen several times. I stopped watching both before they finished.

    It gets even worse in anime. I know this is a hallyu site, but it’s similar. The worst I saw was Amnesia, when a guy drugged the girl and put her in a friggin cage – and she thought “oh, he must love me very much, he wants to protect me so much”! There’s more examples: Hapi Mari, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, etc.

    And just like you said, I was staring unbelievingly at the comments: they thought it was romantic. Because it shows how much he loves her.
    I don’t get it. I really don’t understand. What is wrong with those people?

    It’s one of the biggerst “culture shock” problems that I’m having with Asian dramas, anime, etc. And I’m really not sure how to deal with that. I feel like I should accept it as part of their culture, but I can’t. It makes me angry. I think it’s dangerous having culture transport this view of women and men and abusive relationships and that it has to change. It’s no wonder Suu Kyi called out Japan and South Korea to do more for gender equality – it seems it’s needed.

    • Orion

      The drama industry is run by rich men in a patriarchal society. The time slots are also given by such people. Then there is the censorship association too. So many “filters” to make sure most of what comes out serves certain purposes.

      As modern and glamorous as these dramas and celebrities might seem, they still have to work in such a society. Even if the makers and actors want to say other things, it all comes down to decisions made by powerful businessmen.

      Putting women “in their place” and trying to influence audiences through pop culture to suit their needs is how it goes.

      This reminds me of a very funny video.

    • nanapo

      Can I ask you why do you think Tonari no kaibutsu-kun is made “to keep women in their place”?

      • elenir.lachlagos

        Haru is possessive and violent. He hit Shizuku several times, and while it was accidently, I find it naive to think that someone who is aggressive towards others will never be aggressive towards you. Actually he also shows some aggression towards her. He once says he’d like to break her legs so she can’t get away. “D’awww, how cute, look how much he loves her.” He tells her not to meet with other guys, as far as I can remember. He threatens to kill his rival in love. It’s been a while, and I can’t remember every little detail, but he’s a guy girls should stay away from. But still it’s promoted as romance, he’s clearly the guy the show shows as Shizukus “best partner”.

        The thing is, domestic abuse happens. Every day. And the women stay with their partners because of stupid reasons like those shown on these kinds of shows. And because they think they can change the men – but that won’t work. Actually a few years ago I read in a magazine that the number one reason for women to die of unnatural causes (no illness, no accident) is their ex. It’s not the random stranger that you have to be afraid of – if you’re going to be killed by someone, it probably (according to statistics) will be your ex or current partner. You just have to take a look at the news: it’s in there all the time.
        But I think this issue is not addressed as much as it should be. Women should be raised in a way so that they don’t have to suffer, so that they are confident enough to leave. Domestic violence certainly should not be promoted by telling teen girls (mainly) that it’s romantic and just a proof of love.

        And not only women – it won’t do any good letting guys think this kind of behaviour is acceptable and even attractive.

        • nanapo

          thanks for replying me! ^^ I agree with you about Haru’s behaviour,(he seems really agressive ,sometimes almost like an animal).To be honest he scares me a little.

          I was curious about your oppinion since i have seen a lot of feminists & progressive kind (?) of people that follow this manga, and they tend to ignore this situations.

          Sorry for my poor english u.u

  • Literati Tempo

    I find their relationship very realistic, more so then other dramas. He’s obsessed with her and idealizes her as she was the catalyst to him changing his life and he saw his early broken self in her and he tried to help her out. So to him she is the epitome of what could’ve happened if he had someone positive in his life rather than the crime lord. I also see nothing extremely wrong with the way he behaves. Yes he wants to keep her around but most couples don’t want to be separated in the beginning of their relationship. Sure he effed up with his initial answer but he realized his mistakes and was man enough to admit it and compromise. To be fair she never talked about her dreams with him like she did with JaeHee how could he possibly know how special it was to her if she just glazes over things with him.

    She on the other hand sees him as someone yearning for love. She can give him that. Sure in the beginning she did it out of obligation because he saved her dad’s life (inadvertently) but you can see she really likes him. I think it’s different from a whirlwind romantic love but they still have feelings for each other. She has more natural chemistry with JaeHee because he owes her nothing but it’s not love. She was very vocal, “I have a boyfriend”, “We’re really happy” she gave him 110 signs that she wasn’t interested but he ignored it.

    JaeHee is totally in the wrong to me. Sure they have great chemistry and seem to like each other but once she said she has a man and is actively trying to avoid him. He should’ve backed off.

    I feel like she tried to keep their identities secret from one another because while she didn’t want to date JaeHee persay she didn’t want to hurt him either. Plus at one point she was pushing to tell him. The latest incident happened because she is hut by what she thinks Tee Tee did and is using JaeHee IMO, and she’s really grateful/moved by his dedication to her. IF she hadn’t started a relationship with TaeSang I’m sure the two of them would’ve been together and happy but that’s not how things played out.

  • Liz Mannion

    I know of one particular man who I was very attracted to who had a very similar background to Tae-Sung. his mum died when he was 10 and within a year his dad had remarried. He absolutely hated his step-mother. His father owen a few pubs around the area so they had a fair bit of money. No one noticed my friend descending into hell by way of a bottle. By the age of 16 he was in trouble with the law and his dad sent him to a military school, later he joined the army and learnt to fight and how to take anothers life if need be. I did not meet him until I was in a very bad relationship with my son’s father who had no interest in working or building a relationship with his son. At the time he was living in a hostel and had beaten up people for their beer. Although my friend Michael was an acquaintance of my ex-partner he was always very respectful when around me and my son. I had a job in a pub just near Michaels home and because he had a problem with drink he was always in the pub but he made sure never to be drinking too much when I was working. One night he told me he thought Joe was an idiot and he said he had told him so. Michael looked at me and said if you were my girl I would be working to make sure there was no need for you to be working in a pub. I knew that all he really wanted was a family and to be happy. If I ever came across him in the street and he was drunk he could never look me in the eye, he always looked very embarrassed and he would always apologise the next time he seen me. I was a little scared of him because of his dark energy but very attracted to him because he was a little old fashioned and deep down he loved women. A couple of years later he met someone a lot younger than himself 15 years younger and she really need looking after. I asked her one day if he ever frightened her, was she not a little scared of him and what he could do. Debbie told me NO never he would never hurt me he is tough but he would never hit a woman. Her step father had abused her from an early age and she told me he would tell her different ways she could kill a man with just by grabbing different parts of the body. They have 3 kids now and he has never drank a drop since she fell pregnant. so just because a man is a bubbling caldron of anger does not necessarily mean he will inflict that on a woman. i just wish my ex had been half the man he was and had the same ideals about his family.

  • absolutetruthgirl .

    First of all I would like to state that I’m not a feminist, therefore, I do not see all women as victims. I would also like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “When a Man Loves”. Here we are presented with complex people with complex problems. The theme of this drama is unrequited love. Tae-sung is madly in love with Seo-mi-do who does not love him. The resulting conflicts stem from this problem. To highlight the theme, Tae-sung’s character engages in possessive behaviour. Possessive behaviour is not necessarily controlling and manipulative. Tae-sung wanted all of Seo-mi-do’s attention and love. What lover doesn’t want that? Do you want to love someone who gives you half of his/her attention? The idea that Seo-mi-do has to “sell her virginity” to save her family is a bit skewed. Did Tae-sung force her to make that decision? No. Her father’s actions, when he went and got a shady loan, forced her into those circumstances. This is one of the major character flaws of Seo-mi-do. She never quite understands the dark dynamic of her family: a weak male parent. Throughout the drama, she punishes Tae-sung for the treatment her father received and her subsequent shame and humiliation. She never forgives Tae-Sung despite his repeated gestures of good-will towards her family and herself. Seo-mi-do is a conflicted character. She is narcissistic, passive and dis-engaged with the world around her. She seems only to have one dream; highly unrealistic considering her family’s financial picture. She becomes friendly with Jae-hee because he feeds her self-love. He coddles her with delusional ideas about her future and who she is as a person. Conversely, Tae-sung demands a mature response to his declarations of love. He wants her to become his wife and the mother of his children. He does not allow her to remain in her infantile world. This is a mature man with mature needs. I disagree with the idea that Seo-mi-do only goes out with Tae-sung because of feelings of indebtedness. I suspect she has strong sexual feelings for him, but, and this is her second major flaw, she is repressed. She can only respond to the world; she can not react in it. She is totally passive. This is also a theme in her sexual encounters with the two male leads. Strangely, her sexual encounters with Tae-sung are gentle and respectful. But didn’t you say she afraid of him? No. He represented a mature sexuality that she could not respond to. The encounter with Jae-hee is the opposite. It is heated and she responds to his demands until they are interrupted. There is no sexual assault here. They are two consensual adults. Seo-mi-do’s narcissism, delusion and dis-engagement with her world drives the two male leads to conflict, understanding and finally resolution. Unfortunately, Seo-mi-do never evolves in the drama, even after going abroad to study. She returns as blank as when she left. The open-ended conclusion is satisfying. I suspect that Tae-sung finally rejects Seo-mi-do as a potential lover. I highly recommend this drama.

    • Tara (Beyond Hallyu)

      I think you have a rather skewed idea of what feminism is. Feminism isn’t about seeing women as victims. it’s the exact opposite: It’s allowing people to have the same opportunities and control over how they are represented in society regardless of their gender. The fact that you describe Mi-do as narcissistic and shallow speaks volumes about how you think women ought to be treated by those that profess to love them. Just because someone tells you they love you doesn’t mean they are entitled to be loved back by you., or to own you like a possession as Tae Sung attempts to do. You also say Jaehee feeds Mi-do’s self love, but why isn’t Mi-do allowed to love herself? Is she supposed to draw confidence only from the men around her or can she have some inherent self-confidence too?

  • Comfort Olajide

    Certainly the relationship between tae sang and mi do is toxic but the reason why i cant accept her failure to love him isn’t because of what he has done for er but because of what he feels for her. Also although some ma debate this i don’t think mi do ever truly liked jae hee, he was just an avenue for her to escape the pressure.

    and finally jae hee was just a coward he never truly supported her dreams his words and actions were only sincere reflections of is desire to have so he just told er the words she wanted to hear.

    finally i don’t think mi do was wrong to not love tae sang like you said there are valid reasons for this, i am just sad and heartbroken that the love that was given was not returned.