Writing relationship conflict – Darling, Is this Love?

The violets explode inside me

When I meet your eyes
Then I’m spinning
And I’m diving
Like a cloud
Of starlings
Darling, Is this love?

This lyric from the opening track, Starlings, of the Mercury prize winning Elbow album, The Seldom Seen Kid, is the perfect description of romantic love for me. Lyrics have always been the stand-out part of a song for me, perhaps because I am a writer. My musician partner hears the guitars before the lyrics.

Writing about relationships invariably means writing about things going astoundingly well, like in the Elbow lyrics, or love gone wrong. I don’t think there’s much of a market for stories where nothing happens! Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end and some conflict happens and is sometimes resolved by the end, sometimes not. The history of storytelling is ancient and a well trodden path in academia, from Greek legends to fairy stories, and much has been written about these enduring stories being a kind of moral backbone and a metaphorical blueprint for behaviour.

As a writer and psychologist, I have an insight into what brings conflict into people’s lives. My rationale for writing my series of novels was to situate the knowledge I had attained from a study I conducted into women’s life narratives into stories about lives. Each of my novels is based on a dialectical finding from the study.

Dirty Sparkle examines the love/sex dialectic. Finding Isaac explores the age/fertility dialectic and Life: Immaterial is about the reality/expectation dialectic around family roles.

In the study I found that most of the people I interviewed had a set expectation about love. You date – fall in love – get engaged – get married – have children – children grow – children leave home – grow old together. I also found that for most of the people I interviewed, these expectations had been shattered. One women told me “When I realised I was gay I sat in shock. I was ecstatic that I felt free, but sad that I would never get engaged, get married and walk my child in a park in a pushchair.” Another woman told me, “My mother drummed into my the order in which I should do things. She worked so hard at it that I made and still make, at the age of thirty six, a conscious effort to go against her ‘shoulds’. In some ways she has won, because this has still ruined my life. I will never marry because of her.” The expectation endured, and the conflict and indeed suffering was caused by a perceived deviation from what they thought they should be doing.

The steady path of expectation from one generation to another in generally focused on the love relationship and often causes conflict when expectations go unfulfilled. The narrow stereotypical expectations dictated by various institutions are even more restrictive. A strong theme that emerged from my study was that people felt that they were not allowed to be who they actually were for fear of breaking societal taboos. Going back to the Elbow lyrics, this description of romantic love was similar to that explained by the interviewees for the first six months of a relationship. Most of the people I interviewed felt a pressure to keep this ‘spark’ in their relationship even though they felt it had moved on to more of a settled stage. This pressure was more for outer appearance to others, rather than an inner deception. The fear and conflict was that if the relationship did not align with the ‘rules’ then it was seen to be failing. The non- appearance of social signposts such as engagement, marriage and children was still perceived as failures rather than valid life choices due to generational expectations.

So how does this relate to writing? The conflict in stories are quite often around a love or relationship interest. The expectations of the main character are laid out and then the protagonist places a barrier to these expectations. The resolution or transformation is usually in the form of the main character being steered back to the expectations. This traditional formula reinforces the social signposts which raise expectations.

I tried something different. I took the dialectics from my study and overlaid them onto characters who were already in conflict. Jinny, Rita and Juliet all have well-developed aversions to the rules for very different reasons. Instead of steering my main character back onto the path, the stories highlight their exploration of difference. The final transformation is not a happy ending, but an ending grounded in the realisation of alternative futures with touchstones of happiness that negated the traditional social signposts, very much in line with the finding s of my study based on the lives of real people.

The link between psychology and writing raises the question of how implicitly reflexive fiction is, but that’s another blog for another day!

3 thoughts on “Writing relationship conflict – Darling, Is this Love?”

  1. Interesting stuff, Karris. In a similar vein to one of the current threads on WW!

    I have noticed over the last few years the opposite in some single career women over 40 writing in the press, women who have steered away from the social conventions of marriage etc because of generational pressures to pursue utter independence and a career path – only to wish themselves back to the traditional path of marriage and kids when they realize, in some cases too late, that that is what they really want.

    It is a complex subject. And sad that so many of us feel these pressures, either way, whether they come from tradition or the current generational expectations.

    Great post.

    Sam x

  2. Thanks for commenting Sam. You are absolutely right, people do make decisions than whish they had decided something else, that’s why I concluded that identity was fluid.
    The good thing is that some of us can choose, and there isn’t actually a right or wrong way, some people choose the career, some the family, some both, some none. That’s great as long as they are happy. 3rd wave feminism means that we value and accept each other’s differences instead of striving for a perceived equality that assumes that something else is superior.
    It’s the people who, for reasons such as disadvatage or vulnerability or ignorance cannot choose and are at the full mercy of the implict and explict pressure I worry for as they are the people who suffer most from narrow prescriptions of expectations.
    Thanks again

  3. Hmm, although we can choose i think in a way this has pitted women against women and this is no clearer than in the school playground. Full-time working mums (who have chosen to work and don’t need to for economic reasons) are defensive about not being able to attend school events and about arrangements for childcare – stay-at-home mums are defensive about not having a career.

    I think the fight for equal rights has resulted in some unexpected problems which to a degree, have made life just as challenging for women as it ever was.

    Of course, for the next generation of women, i doubt their will be so much choice due to economic and social reasons.



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