Here’s the problem with Valentine’s Day, as I see it anyway. It’s an illusion. Let me explain what I mean. If you watch or listen to the advertisements, or see the greeting cards, or watch one of the dozens of romance films and TV shows out there, you can easily get the idea that relationships are happy, even blissful, and exciting, with flowers, lovely holidays and so on. But that’s the thing. They’re not.
Of course anyone who’s been in a long relationship will tell you that flowers, holidays and all that sort of thing are a part of it. They’re terrific. They really are. But real-life relationships are not easy. And they’re not always fun. People who expect otherwise can get very disillusioned when they learn that relationships need work. Sometimes that work is painful and difficult. It involves forgiveness (Ever done something stupid and had to ask your partner to forgive you? Me, too.). Sometimes it involves giving up things you want, or forgiving your partner when you really don’t want to. Nobody in the greeting card industry tells you that part of it.
Relationships can be hard work because no-one is perfect. We all carry ‘baggage,’ and we all have faults. When you expect that a relationship with an imperfect person (when you’re not perfect either!) will be smooth sailing, you’re bound to be sadly disappointed.
But here’s the thing. Good relationships – the kind you admire in couples who’ve been together for decades and decades – are worth the work. It’s not the candy, flowers, sexy lingerie and so on that make them solid. It’s the bond between the people involved. Let me offer a few examples to show you what I mean.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and academician (now retired) who’s had her share of blows over the years. She’s come out of it all a stronger person, and in general, she doesn’t obsess about the things that have happened to her. She is married to successful attorney Zack Shreve, who has his own baggage. They’re both intelligent and strong-minded people; and although they love each other very much, they’ve had their rocky times. Bowen doesn’t gloss over the hard work involved in staying married, even when you’re in a good relationship. But at the same time, she doesn’t skip over the positive things either. Joanne and Zack enjoy each other’s company. They’re good ‘sounding boards’ for each other, and they support one another. As Joanne herself puts it,
‘Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.’
I honestly don’t know if any really good marriage is also really easy.
Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant knows all about the hard work involved in a long-term relationship. In some ways he’s still working that out for himself, and fans will know there are a few story arcs that involve his love life. But he has a good role model. His mentor is successful clothier Anthony Gatt, whose partner is former supermodel Jared Lowe. Those two have been together for some time, and have had their share of troubles. I won’t spoil the story arcs by detailing everything, but suffice it to say that Anthony and Jared’s lives have not been uninterrupted joyful bliss. But that’s not what keeps them together anyway. They love one another, and each has the other as a top priority, even when things go wrong between them, or when something happens to one of them. They’ve resolved to patch up whatever differences they have, and that bond is more important to them than anything else. But it hasn’t been easy. The ‘frothy’ romance films don’t tell you how difficult staying together can be…
In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, we meet Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. The main plot of this novel concerns the murder of Ruby Devine, a brothel owner and friend of Swann’s. But running in the background is Swann’s relationship with his wife Marion and his daughters. The family has been going through a very rocky time, as families sometimes do. And Whish-Wilson doesn’t make light of that. As the novel goes on, everyone has to start to put the family pieces together and learn to trust each other again. But in Zero at the Bone, the second Frank Swann novel, we see the result of that. Frank and Marion Swann are devoted to each other. It’s not the devotion of fancy flowers, fine champagne or a night in a five-star hotel. It’s that gut-level devotion where each one accepts and appreciates the other, flaws and all. And that’s because each has made the conscious choice that the marriage is more important than ‘winning.’
That’s also true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin and his wife Rebecca. When we first meet them in The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, Charlie has recently returned to Australia after serving in WW II. He meets Rebecca during the course of an investigation into a series of robberies and a suspicious death, and the two fall in love. But it’s not a ‘greeting card’ sort of romance. Charlie’s dealing with the ghosts he’s brought back with him from the war, and Rebecca has her own issues. Nevertheless, they love each other and support each other. In Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, we see that their marriage has to endure its share of ‘bumps in the road.’ McGeachin doesn’t indulge in ‘over the top’ events just to show that the marriage is tested; rather, the couple faces some of the things any couple could face. It’s not an easy ride, but Charlie and Rebecca take it together.
A lot of Golden Age mysteries involve couples who fall in love, usually as one or the other of the couple is suspected of murder. One couple in particular is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife Harriet Vane. They first meet in Strong Poison when Harriet is charged with murdering her former lover Philip Boyes. Lord Peter attends the trial and finds himself smitten with Harriet. In fact, he determines to clear her name, and clear his own path to marrying her. But it’s not all flowers and candy. For one thing, Harriet has to deal with having been on trial for murder, and with her reluctance to trust this man she thinks she loves. And Lord Peter has things to learn too. They’re not a magical couple who all of a sudden fall in love and marry, to live happily ever after. They have to work through things, and they have their difficult times. In the end, the awareness that they’re better together than alone cements their relationship and allows them to reach out for each other.
I wish the greeting card companies and the Valentine’s Day publicity machine told people that a good relationship is not easy. It’s very hard work, and it’s not always fun. But then, if they did, they’d probably scare too many people away from getting involved with someone, and that would be a shame. Because what you get if you’re willing to do that work is a lot better than candy. Even dark chocolate almonds.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough.