The Marriage in Trouble Trope: Love Is Hard Work
I’m not sure how I came across this article about Olivia Wilde. I’m not a fan of hers and wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a pretty actress line up. But in an interview with Marie Claire, Wilde spoke about her divorce. “I don’t think love should be work,” she said. She acknowledged that her parents, married 35 years told her that marriage was hard work, but “When the relationship becomes about working to make it work, it’s lost that beauty and that optimistic bohemian sense that brought us together.”
Unlike Wilde, I see beauty in the relationships that persevere and it is one reason why I like marriage in trouble romances.
Broken marriages come in all shapes in romance. They are created through immaturity, sometimes through indifference, and even through cruelty. In Erin McCarthy’s Hot Finish (reviewed here), Suzanne and Ryder’s marriage broke up because of a lack of communication and fear. Suzanne was insecure and married to a celebrity racecar driver whose default setting and “on” setting is laconic, those fears of self worth were heightened. She began to lash out and Ryder, obtuse and unobservant, lacked any meaningful response. The situation exacerbated until neither was happy and they divorced. Two years of being within the same social circle, however, brings the two to the realization that their connection hasn’t been severed, only strained and because of their desire to begin anew, they begin to communicate in ways that they hadn’t before.
Perhaps the modern queen of the marriage in trouble trope is Sherry Thomas. In Not Quite a Husband and PrivateArrangements, Thomas explores long time separations between married couples in the late 19th century. In Private Arrangements, the duke perceived his newly obtained duchess deceived and abused his regard for her. He leaves her and they live apart, literally separated by an ocean, for almost a decade until the duchess petitions for divorce. In Not Quite a Husband, the heroine and hero made an improbable match. She was barren, a surgeon, older. He was a celebrity of sorts, well favored, younger. Yet they were so much in love until the heroine discovered something about the hero that ruined their marriage and they too spent several years physically and emotionally distant.
In both stories, the characters had to learn forgiveness both of themselves and each other. Perhaps the greatest character trait they acquired in separation was tolerance. I asked Sherry Thomas what she thought about the Marriage in Trouble trope:
It is not marriages-in-trouble that interest me so much as disillusionment, which is a major theme in my writing, even when there is not a glimmer of a marriage is sight. We as a society have celebrated falling in love for a long time. But as anyone who’s been in a longterm relationship–the end goal of romance–can testify, the initial infatuation is the easy part. There are probably a few couples who never leave that state of pink hazy happy glow, but for the vast majority of us, it is what we do after the initial infatuation has worn off that determines the longevity of our relationships.
I’m a firm believer that disillusionment is not only something that can be dealt with, but a good thing. It means you look at your beloved not with lust-goggles, but realistically; not as an extension of yourself and your own wants and needs, but as a person in his/her own right. But it is not easy to arrive at that point of zen. Can you deal with another person’s flaws? Can you understand that it is by the same discomfiting process that they are dealing with your flaws? Cuz chances are, no matter whom you end up with, you’ll have to go through these stages.
So I explore these questions in my books, with much huger kinds of disillusionment than folks normally encounter. But the process is the same. Characters who first think of each other as all kinds shiny and perfect realize that holy cow, not only are they not perfect, they are all kinds of problematic. They sulk. They agonize. And then they man/woman up and say, “You know what, you are not perfect–and neither am I. I still love you and want to commit to you and I hope you feel the same way.”
And that makes me happy.
In Beth Andrews’ Feels Like Home, the heroine is a completely different person than who she was when she first met and then married the hero. She had tried to be the perfect southern belle daughter and then the perfect beauty queen wife, but inside she felt empty and powerless and so she left her husband. In the period leading to their reconciliation, the heroine is sorry that she hurt her husband, the hero, but that she didn’t regret leaving him.
Tightening his hold on her, he yanked her to him. She pressed her palms against his chest, and could feel his heart beating strongly. “You left,” he growled, lifting her to her toes. “You. Left.”
“And you can’t forgive me. You want to stay angry, that’s your choice. You want to put the failure of our marriage squarely on my shoulders? I’ll carry that burden, because I did leave. You want honesty?” she cried hotly. “You want the truth? Leaving you was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the best decision of my life.”
The heroine had changed and thus, in order for their marriage to work the second time, the hero had to not only accept the change but fall in love with a different person.
In all marriage in trouble stories, I am looking for the author to convince me that these two individuals that the characters have learned from their past mistakes, grown as individuals, and still love what the person has become. I particular like seeing how an author can bring that couple back together again without a near death experience or reveal of a big secret.
Most romance stories end at the beginning of the happy ever after. The marriage in trouble explores what happens during the ever after. It’s the struggle and hard work that make these stories beautiful, contrary to what Ms. Wilde may think about love, marriage and beauty.