Capturing an Unhappy Relationship: A Writer’s Roadmap

Relationships are a complicated beast, and if you write romance like me, then you’re wed (pun intended) to the HEA (happily ever after) ending. But the reality is, we have a divorce rate of around 1in 2 marriages; so as much as it’s fun to delve into the romanticised ideal of soulmates wandering hand-in-hand into the sunset, the challenges of relationships can just as equally lead to hearts broken and relationships fractured.

Which is what this week’s article’s about.

Capturing the unwinding of threads of a relationship is complex. Just like the real world, our characters have a history of weaving those threads together in little steps and big steps, usually with the intent that their fabric will be as tight as Egyptian cotton. But people evolve, circumstances change, and sometimes a relationship isn’t strong enough. Usually these ruptures don’t happen quickly; they involve little tears and big tears over days, months and sometimes years.

If you’re looking to capture this heart-breaking (or cathartic) process in your story, either with your main characters or with those memorable secondary characters (your MC’s parents, best-friends or children), then consider these four predictors of relationship breakdown (they are a wonderful way to capture ‘show, don’t tell’ and to create some interesting moments into your story).

  1. Contempt

Far more toxic than frustration, contempt is a virulent mix of anger and disgust which involves seeing your partner as beneath you. Apart from its direct consequences of either belittling or angering a partner, contempt involves one character closing themselves off to their partner’s needs and emotions. If you constantly feel smarter than, better than, or more sensitive than your significant other, you’re not only less likely see his or her opinions as valid, but, more importantly, you’re far less willing to try to put yourself in their shoes to try to see a situation from their perspective.

If one or both of your characters are contemptuous of the other as they interact, you’ve just captured one of the cornerstones of an unhappy relationship. Consider these examples:

  • Jane sends Jo a list of groceries for tonight’s dinner. When Jo gets home, Jane realises that Jo picked up self-raising flour instead of plain flour. Jane becomes frustrated, asking Jo what sort of idiot doesn’t know the difference between the two. She even posts it on Facebook so her sisters can see what she has to live with.
  • Barry is organising his next fishing weekend with his two sons. Daria laughs as they are packing their tackle boxes, pointing out to their sons that she caught the biggest fish last time she went out in their godforsaken tin-can-of-a-boat.
  1. Criticism

Like contempt, criticism involves turning a behaviour (something your partner did) into a statement about his or her personal character (the type of person he or she is). As many of us have experienced or observed, fault-finding and belittling behaviour adds up. Over time, darker feelings of resentment and contempt are likely to brew.

  • Alex has a habit of leaving her cereal bowl—soggy, uneaten weeties and all—on the coffee table every morning. Sam makes sure she makes note of it each day as she collects them, pointing out what a lazy and inconsiderate partner Alex is.
  • After a sleepless night, Jake overheats baby Bobby’s mashed pumpkin. When Bobby spits it out and starts screaming, Sally scoops him up, shouting over the top that when it comes to parenting Jake couldn’t raise a sweat let alone a child.
  1. Defensiveness

Defensiveness involves a sense of protectiveness and guardedness about our thoughts and feelings. A character who is being defensive will often play the victim in tough situations with their partner; at times that may be justified, others not so much.

  • A couple are late to a cousin’s wedding. Ashleigh is the first to say, “It wasn’t my fault!” as they slip into a back pew.
  • Jane is online to her best friend, typing furiously that she never got a chance to tell her husband about the dint in the car door because all he does is watch YouTube. If he gets upset about it, he can’t say she didn’t try to tell him.
  1. Stonewalling

If your character can sense an argument brewing, they feel the tension tightening between their shoulders, notice their voice amping up a few decibels, and their response is to shutdown or walk away, you’ve got a stonewaller. Stonewalling can be just as toxic for a relationship as criticism or contempt because it keeps your characters from addressing their underlying issues. When perspectives don’t get a chance to be explored, then frustration is likely to morph into resentment.

  • Ian and Sarah are arguing about their credit card debt. When Ian asks Sarah exactly how much those shoes cost, she turns and walks away. Picking up her phone, she retreats to the bedroom.
  • During a parent teacher interview, Jacqui suggests that maybe their son isn’t succeeding in math because of the children he’s sitting next to. Her husband, Jed, rolls his eyes at the teacher, shifts his seat forward, and tells the teacher that their son just needs more challenging work as he’s obviously bored. Jed starts enquiring about extension work.

John Gottman, the guru of relationship therapy and founder of the Gottman Institute, has said that these four factors are tell-tale signs that all is not well with a married couple. In fact, when the frequency of these four behaviours are measured within the span of a 15-minute conversation, Gottman and his fellow psychologists can predict which marriages will end in divorce with striking precision.

Are you seeing how you could weave these behaviours into your own narrative? I hope so! I’d love how you’ve already done this, or how you plan on showing their unravelling relationship. Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

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