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 ending (happily ever after). But the reality is, we have a divorce rate of almost 1 in 2 marriages; so as much fun as it is to delve into the romanticized ideal of soulmates wandering hand-in-hand into the sunset, the challenges of relationships can equally lead to hearts broken and relationships fractured.

Capturing the unwinding threads of a relationship is complex. Just like the real world, our characters have a history of weaving those threads together, 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.

John Gottman, the guru of relationship therapy and founder of the Gottman Institute, outlines the following four factors as tell-tale signs that all is not well with a married couple. In fact, when the frequency of these four behaviors 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.

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, 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).

Contempt

Far more toxic than frustration, contempt is a virulent mix of anger and disgust which involve 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 toput yourself in their shoes to try to see a situation from their perspective.

Consider these examples:

  • Jane sends Jo a list of groceries for tonight’s dinner. When Jo gets home, Jane realizes that Jo picked up self-rising 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 organizing 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.

Criticism

Like contempt, criticism involves turning a behavior (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 behaviors add up. Over time, darker feelings of resentment and contempt are likely to brew.

  • Alex has a habit of leaving her cereal bowl—soggy, uneaten Wheaties and all—on the coffee table every morning. Sam makes sure she notes 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.

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; 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.

Stonewalling

If your character can sense an argument brewing and their response is to shut down 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.

Are you seeing how you could weave these behaviors into your own narrative? I hope so! I’d love to hear how you’ve already done this, or how you plan on showing your characters’ unravelling relationship. 

Tamar Sloan

Resident Writing Coach

Tamar is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also a USA Today best-selling author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.
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This entry was posted in Character Flaws, Characters, Conflict, Romance, Tension, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.
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[…] with distinct voices, Janice Hardy shares 5 ways to develop character voices, Tamar Sloan explores capturing an unhappy relationship, and Julie Glover examines if your character will fight, flee, or freeze. If your character is of […]

Kay DiBianca
10 months ago

Wonderful information, Tamar! I don’t write romance, but these relationship issues can be found in mystery as well. I look forward to adding a little nuance in future works.

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Kay DiBianca

Hi Kay,

So glad it’s useful! You’re right – relationship and their complexities happen in every genre, so understanding them can really help a writer.

Happy writing,
Tamar

Dawn
10 months ago

I don’t write romance, but this is still excellent stuff. I actually plan on having a relationship mess in the fourth book of my series. Contempt and criticism will be involved.

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Dawn

Hey Dawn,

Yep, contempt is a big one! It’s actually the strongest predictor of a relationship breakdown.

Happy writing,
Tamar

ANGELA ACKERMAN
Admin
10 months ago

This is really great stuff, Tamar. We do think a mot about what brings people together in storytelling but not always the insidious things that pull people apart.

I will admit I cringed a bit because I recognize some of these things in my own relationship with hubs, but married 25 years happily, I wouldn’t say that the presence of them necessarily herald the footsteps of doom. So I’m guessing quantity is a factor and probably the willing to acknowledge and apologize when we’re not behaving our best?

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago

Hey Angela,

I doubt there’s a relationship that hasn’t experienced any of those (including my own 20 year marriage), but you’re right, it’s the frequency, and whether the couple are able to acknowledge their error and forgive that’s key.

Tamar 🙂

Traci Kenworth
10 months ago

A difficult phase from experience. Lives shattered. Picked up. And forged ahead to build a new foundation of promise between single parents and their kids.

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Traci Kenworth

Hey Traci,

Yes, a very painful time for all. As you say, a chance for growth (and if there are children involved, a time to remember they come first) and deepening the connections you have. It can also be a time of pain that some struggle to move on from (and some who don’t want to). Capturing both those experiences on a page can be very powerful.

Happy writing,
Tamar

Jan Sikes
Jan Sikes
10 months ago

Great stuff, Tamar!

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Jan Sikes

Thanks Jan!!

Have an awesome 2020!
Tamar

Sandra Warren
10 months ago

Excellent blog post! I can see how this roadmap can be used in any genre that involves relationships.

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Sandra Warren

Hi Sandra,

I agree! Relationships are the cornerstone of the human psyche, which is reflected in books 🙂

Happy writing,
Tamar

Jennifer Lane
10 months ago

Excellent post! I love Gottman, and this was a good review of his four horsemen.

Tamar Sloan
Tamar Sloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Jennifer Lane

He sure knows his stuff, huh?

Hope your 2020 is productive and fulfilling, Jennifer.

Happy writing,
Tamar