Are You Strong Enough?*

Real RelationshipsHere’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.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, David Whish-Wilson, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin

36 responses to “Are You Strong Enough?*

  1. I think crime novels are quite good at showing relationships quite realistically because they tend to be focusing less on the romantic aspect anyway so can therefore give space to a more truer account of a relationship and what it takes to make one work. I’m quite against Valentine’s Day. So much hype and rubbish placed on one day.

    • Rebecca – There is a lot of hype around Valentine’s Day isn’t there? I think all that pressure is very hard on people, too, and distorts the whole point of a good relationship. I much prefer, as you say, the kind of realistic relationships that you see depicted in good crime fiction. Certainly those relationships are more like the ones we see around us, and they give a better perspective on our own relationships.

  2. I’m very glad you cited Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Margot – theirs is a pretty complex relationship, spread over four novels from meeting to honeymoon. I’d also like to point out Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his wife (wooed and won over a couple of novels), painter Agatha Troy. When they first meet, in fact, it is because Troy is involved in a murder investigation – and, as with Peter and Harriet, that adds a pretty significant amount of baggage to their relationship.

    • Right you are, Les, about Alleyn and Troy. The murder investigation plays its part in their relationship, and that’s not the only thing. They are both good people, but that doesn’t mean either is perfect. So of course they have their moments. But then, what couple doesn’t… And as to Lord Peter and Harriet, I like the fact that Sayers acknowledged the challenges and layers in their relationship. I think it adds to the richness of it, and certainly makes it more credible.

  3. Terrific post, Margot. Great to see David Whish-Wilson and Geoffrey McGeachin referenced in relation to this topic, too. Both provide refreshingly ‘real’ takes on marriages in their novels.

    • Thank you, Angela :-). I totally agree about both Whish-Wilson and McGeachin. And I think you yourself have a great perspective on relationships in your Jayne Keeney stories.

  4. My parents were married for over fifty years and I think, despite some huge bumps in the road, that they were very happy. But as I watched them through the years, it was very clear that they worked at being happy. When my parents were in their seventies, a young couple who had noticed how in love they seemed approached my parents and asked what their secret to happiness was. My mother and father both said the same thing, “Communicate and compromise!!”

    • EATierney – Thanks so much for sharing your parents’ secret! I think they’re really onto something. It really does take work to stay together, and it takes I think a conscious decision to work at happiness. A long-lasting marriage takes work and the choice to be happy and it’s good to learn that from people who’ve been there.

  5. Great post Margot! Relationships take work. All relationships.

  6. tracybham

    My husband and I don’t really do anything for Valentine’s Day. No cards, no nothing. But we have fun everyday.. well, most days. Every one is different in how they handle things and no one has to live up to the standards of “holiday” expectations. But, I think early in relationships people are romantic and thrive on the celebrations, and if that is meaningful to both parties and they want to continue that throughout the years, that is fine.

    • Tracy – I think you hit on something important. There is no one ‘right’ way to celebrate or not celebrate a holiday. Whatever works for a couple is best for them. And anyway, it’s the everyday fun that you mention that keeps a couple together.

  7. Margot: For today I will disagree. There are 364 days other days each year to be realistic about relationships. I am glad there is one day in the calendar where we celebrate the ideals of love. If we were always rational who would be married? The odds do not favour success. I am glad to get a sentimental card and give some flowers. I see Valentine’s Day as a time to openly honour commitment to relationships.

    • Bill – You have a point about the value of celebrating love. Relationships do take work, and part of what makes that work worthwhile is taking some time to celebrate the love behind them.

  8. Kathy D.

    Very interesting post here. True, all relationships take work, including friendships. However, I think any day that has the component of chocolate in it is worth celebrating. My way will be to buy chocolate for good neighbors and appreciate the friendships.

    • Kathy – There’s definitely something to be said for a day that features chocolate. That in itself is a good thing. And your neighbours are lucky to have a friend like you.

  9. Glad to hear I’m not the only one with a ‘bah-humbug’ attitude towards Valentine’s Day! Still, how would chocolatiers and florists and card manufacturers make money between Christmas and Easter if they didn’t have this, right?
    Some of the couples I like in crime fiction – and who are portrayed in realistic ways – are Peter and Ellie Pascoe, Brunetti and his wife Paola, and Thomas Lynley and Helen in Elizabeth George’s novels.

    • I like those couples too, Marina Sofia. As you say, they are portrayed realistically, and that makes them all the more appealing. And it’s funny: it’s lovely to get flowers and chocolates and so on. I think it’s just the hype that gets a bit much for my personal taste.

  10. The Sayers example is a really good one Margot it seems to me as their romance takes rather a long time to blossom and develop (on both sides) and is, in that respect, more plausible perhaps than Nick and Nora Charles from the THIN MAN, though i do like the wry depiction of two people who despite it all do in fact get along. Hope you had a very good Valentine’s day 🙂

    • Thank you, Sergio, I did 🙂 You’re absolutely right too about Lord Peter and Harriet. I think their relationship is all the more plausible because it doesn’t all of a sudden blossom and turn out perfectly. Real life just doesn’t work that way as a rule. And as to Nick and Nora, there is something appealing about them, and I think it is in part the rapport between them. As you say, despite everything, they do have a good relationship and there’s something to that.

  11. davewhishwilson

    Thanks Margot – I think that’s a perfect reading of the Swann’s relationship…

  12. Kay

    I’ll add Armand Gamache and his Reine-Marie. Lovely couple who have been together for a long, long time. And I agree with the commenter’s parents – communicate and compromise. I’ll also add “being able to laugh together”. And chocolate. Always chocolate. LOL

    • Kay – Yes, indeed! Where in the world would we be without chocolates!? And laughter 🙂 – Thanks for mentioning the Gamaches. I happen to be very fond of them, and they’re a perfect example of a couple who’s been together and seen things through. I really like the way Penny depicts them.

  13. As always, you speak the truth, Margot. Relationships are messy, they’re work, but the good ones are so worth the effort. Many young lovers look at older couples who’ve been together forever and become disillusioned that it’s easy. I wouldn’t trade my husband for the world. But after almost 18 years I can’t say it’s always been easy. Like everyone we’ve had our ups and downs. My philosophy, train your husband like you would a puppy. Praise when they’re good. Scold when they’re bad. It’s worked for me! Shh… don’t tell him I posted this on social media. Ha!

    • Don’t worry, Sue; I won’t breathe a word… I think you put your finger on something important. A good relationship – the kind really worth having – isn’t easy. Some days are fun, and lovely and memorable (and they sometimes happen when you least expect it!). Other days…aren’t. Those are the days you have to grit your teeth and get through as best you can. But in the end, a really good relationship is worth those days. And congratulations on getting to the 18-year point. That’s terrific 🙂

  14. Kathy D.

    I would add to the communication, compromise and laugh, mutual respect.
    Friends who are in their early 90s and have been together for 60 years — and say they are happily married — have all of the above. But they do laugh together, and they laugh at each other’s endearing and unique traits.
    On the business end of Valentine’s Day, the local news in the Big Apple has had constant stories urging people to buy gifts, with candy stores and florists galore. In this city $142 is spent on average for this holiday, higher than the national average. Businesses expect record sales this year in the billions of dollars.
    I’ll just buy chocolate for friends without breaking the bank — yes, and I do have good neighbors, which includes one great, but aging dachshund who cannot have chocolate but whines for it anyway.

    • Kathy – I’ll bet she makes her wish for chocolate clear! And you’re absolutely right about mutual respect. You don’t have to agree with your partner all the time (in fact, I think it would be odd if one did). But if there isn’t an underlying respect for that partner, that’s a problem. And no doubt about it: laughter goes a very long way in keeping a relationship durable.
      Oh, and I’m not surprised at the amount of money spent on flowers, candy and the like. It’s a big industry.

  15. Your mention of Sayers’ novels has me searching through what my library has to offer. I’ve read only Nine Tailors, but now I will be reading more but with a renewed interest.

    • Lewis – I hope you’ll enjoy some of Sayers’ other novels if you get the chance. I really do think the story arc of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane is very nicely done.

  16. Kathy D.

    My favorite couple are the Brunettis, especially when the repartee is quick-witted and pointed. Love those early morning “discussions” between Guido Brunetti and Paola Falier.
    Another good twosome is made up of Irene Huss, Swedish police detective and her spouse, Krister, a chef. Good home life, but a major point in Krister’s favor is that he practices his culinary skills at home, as well as at work. How could a relationship not work when there are gourmet meals to be had — made by the husband — after a hard day’s work?

    • Those are both indeed great couples, Kathy! And what I like about the way their relationships are handled is that both families have their tough moments, but they go through them together. I really like both very much.

  17. Col

    I have the perfect partner – she bought me a book for Valentine’s Day!

  18. I particularly liked Bill’s comment above, Margot, now his sounds like a happy and successful marriage!
    In Jane Haddam’s long serious of mysteries featuring Gregory Demarkian, he forms first a friendship and eventually a relationship with his neighbour Bennis – I really enjoyed watching their afffections grow.

    • Moira – It’s definitely true that taking the time to celebrate love can add to it.And I think you’re probably right about Bill. Thanks also for reminding me of the Haddam series. I really must make the time to spotlight one of those novels…

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