Romantic Relationships – A Speculative Commentary

Last week we discussed love among characters. This ranged from brotherly love (philia), or the affection between friends who are or can be as close as brothers, to romantic love. I was not able to express all my thoughts on romantic pairings last week and thus this post will contain those ideas.

Previously, we discussed how love requires two things: service and sacrifice. Most of the examples focused on familial or close friendships and only nodded at the romantic. That is because romantic relationships require far more service and sacrifice than most people stop to realize. While the obvious point here is to mention how much infants and children require parents to sacrifice, that is not the main object I had cause to consider when reflecting on romantic love in fiction.

I am not a reader who enjoys Harlequin-style romances. Given a choice between a story with explicit romantic interludes and a “sweet romance” where the most readers see is a passionate kiss after early intimations of mutual attraction – such as hugging, moments of being vulnerable, physical contact that amounts to “I’ve got you, they won’t be allowed to hurt you,” and/or necessary physical contact that offers support of some kind – I will take the latter. I do my best to write the latter as well, something those who have read the stories listed in my Bibliography know.

Along with Crossover Queen, I really do not understand the need to simply leap to “immediate gratification of sexual desire.” Like Crossover, it strikes me as more than a bit illogical. No matter how good looking the stranger, the person is still a stranger. Even in the case of “old flame suddenly turned up in my house after picking the locks,” if he or she is an “old flame,” there has been time spent apart. The face, voice, and name may all be correct – but the person who owns them now is not exactly the same as the person who owned them however many years ago that he or she broke up with the protagonist.

This ties in with the earlier post on masculine vulnerability, specifically the mention that public emotional displays are a cry for intimacy with the nearest warm body. It is very difficult to tell, in such real-life situations, whether such plaintive calls are genuine or emotional/psychological lures meant to draw the unwary to a predator. To answer such calls, immediately and without thought, is dangerous even if the calls are sincere. Not everyone can get along with others or certain types of personalities; sometimes, we can only take our friends in certain doses of time, energy, etc. We need time alone as well as with others. This means that occasionally, no matter how much we love someone, it is entirely possible for that person to be living an unhealthy lifestyle that will drag anyone close to them down a hole into trouble.

Now, if you like this type of fantasy or science fiction, that is fine. I am not picking on anyone’s taste. My point is that authors need to know their genre and their characters, as well as their audience, because the type of behavior Crossover describes in the linked post can and will turn some readers away from the story. Some readers (waves from behind computer screen), might recognize where the trope comes from and still prefer to avoid it because it doesn’t strike them as safe or sensible. Knowing your market helps you know not only where you are shopping, but where you intend to sell and to whom.

In that regard, this post by Crossover about the trope of “Slap, Slap, Kiss” is also important. As Foxfier aptly describes it, this is a “feral trope.” There are times the trope works, though the examples I am about to cite have it happen in reverse. John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s The Quiet Man* sees O’Hara slap Wayne after he kisses her. New to Ireland, Wayne has returned to his ancestral home, but the house is a bit of a mess.

O’Hara, knowing this and having decided she likes Wayne (the trope “love at first sight” comes into play here), sneaks into the house to clean it up for him. She spends most of the day doing it, however, and this means Wayne catches her when he arrives after dark. Acting on impulse, he leans down and kisses the beautiful woman he saw and became smitten with at a distance earlier. Once the kiss ends, though, O’Hara promptly slaps him before escaping into the night. (This was the only time anyone was injured on this film set – O’Hara hit Wayne so hard she broke her wrist.)

Here we have a man and a woman carried away by “certain urges,” sharing a mutually desired and passionate kiss. Yet O’Hara, rather than spend the night with our hero, hits him. She then turns and runs. That is not the type of behavior one regularly sees these days in “Slap, Slap, Kiss” situations because writers – if not society at large – has forgotten that impulses are great. They are not, however, always safe, smart, or right.

A man who has been in combat develops several impulsive habits in an effort to protect himself. Sleeping light so the slightest sound will wake him, sleeping with a gun in reach, drawing said gun fast as lightning – these are trope actions in Westerns because, on the frontier, men desperately needed to be able to react fast in case someone or something tried to sneak up on them. There were wild animals and native tribesmen, to say nothing of bandits and cutthroats that roamed the land, who were all excellent at stealth. In order to counter them, the men who tamed the West had to be ready to move at an instant’s notice.

The movie* and the book* for Hondo, by Louis L’Amour, show early on that this impulse has its downside. Mrs. Angie Lowe picks up Hondo Lane’s rifle, reads his name on the plaque, and drops the gun like a hot poker. In doing so she startles Lane (played by John Wayne), causing him to sit up with his pistol in hand, searching for a threat. Though nothing comes of the movement, the fact is that his impulse to defend himself from a potential threat could have ended badly if he had lacked self-control.

Readers, here is where service and sacrifice come into play not only in civilized society, but especially in a romance. Romantic relationships are not transactions in the strict business sense – one party fulfills the other’s needs while the second or co-signing party fills in another. A romance or a marriage that treats the other person as an object is neither romantic nor a union of two into one; it is a business contract masquerading as love, as service and sacrifice.

The film Prairie Fever* goes into this in some depth with all of the female leads. “Mail-order brides” are engaging in a contract that they hope will turn into a mutually loving and beneficial relationship with the man they have chosen via a pen pal-type system. Fourteen out of the seventeen brides who come West choose well enough that they can be happy with the men they have selected to be their husbands.

Unfortunately, one of the women finds she chose poorly. Lettie’s “husband” entered into the marriage as a contract. In her words, he “…didn’t want a wife, just another farm animal.” Her “husband” paid another man to write her letters full of lies to convince her to come West, whereupon he beat her and forced her to work as a veritable slave on his land. She retreated into an animalistic mindset to protect herself from the abuse, which led to her impulsive attempt to murder the man when he threatened to burn her beloved organ for firewood. Again, this impulse, while not unprovoked, was erroneous.

Blue’s error was less egregious in that she chose her husband, Frank, well but could not choose his brother. Frank’s brother molested her, traumatizing her to the point that she retreated to the Bible in an attempt to ask forgiveness for “her” sin. This is another case of poor impulse control, as her impulse is to blame herself for the actions of another person entirely – one who followed his urges to satisfy himself without regard for his brother or his brother’s wife.

Olivia, the female companion of a card sharp and a gunman, illustrates that real love has no place in a match that treats marriage like a contract. Her male partner in crime is eventually revealed to be her husband. She married him young and I can no longer recall at the moment if it was because she fancied herself in love with him or if it was to pay a debt her family owed. In either case, while he cared for her, it was less as a wife and more as a partner and student of his craft. When she decided she had had enough, she had to tie him to a bed and gag him to abscond with their ill-gotten loot.

During the film, Olivia and former sheriff Preston Biggs (played by Kevin Sorbo) do fall in love. It is not easy but gradual, with her working on helping him accept the loss of his wife in a hostage situation several years before the film starts. There has been mutual arguing, mutual frustration, and mutual disgust for both of them in their dealings with one another. They prove to the audience and each other that they can work together well, giving and taking as needed to get the job done, facing a variety of dangerous situations as they escort the three women Biggs was hired to take to the train that will take them back East.

It is this that I call service: the willingness to help another face the challenges that crop up in life. Most of the service seems to be on Olivia’s side, as she does her best to help Biggs with his alcohol withdrawal, aiding in digging a bullet out of his back, and “taming” the “crazy women” who were giving him so much trouble. Yet the fact that Biggs treats Olivia as a woman worthy of respect is in itself service, as her clothes and ability with a gun are highly unusual for the time. The fact that she carries a great deal of money with her as well also hints to her unsavory past, meaning “respectable” people should “rightly” look down on her and chastise her for her wicked ways.

Rather than do that, Biggs shows her the respect men of the time would naturally accord a woman. He listens to her, debates with her, and thinks over her arguments even when he disagrees with them. In effect, he gives her time, attention, and consideration – none of which she received from her legal husband. Theirs is a case of mutual service that culminates in a surprising sacrifice: when Biggs learns she is technically married, he stops pursuing her. He then gets himself drunk and attempts to start a fight with her husband, something that puts all the hard work to shame that he and Olivia had engaged in to get him sober…

…until he reveals the method to his apparent madness. Biggs “drunkenly” confronts and insults Olivia’s husband, leading to a moment where the other man nearly shoots him. Olivia intervenes to save the man she loves and a crisis is averted, whereupon Biggs reveals to everyone in the saloon that he isn’t wearing a gun. Had Olivia’s husband shot him, he would have been sent to jail, tried, and then hung for murder. By sacrificing his reputation, Biggs frees Olivia in public of her usefulness to her husband at the same time he outs the other man as a card sharp who is not afraid to kill to keep his ill-gotten wealth.

This means that not only can Olivia’s husband not remain in town for long, he can no longer keep her. Word will spread of the card sharp who travels with a woman matching Olivia’s description. She is now a liability rather than an asset in his trade, and they all know it. He cannot continue to make use of her and so he lets her go, whereupon she rides off to rejoin Biggs.

It is a tense moment, and when Olivia tries to apologize, Biggs kisses her. When they pull apart, she slaps him, as O’Hara slapped Wayne. Then she kisses him. Both kisses are acts of impulse whereas Olivia’s slap carries the reprimand and reminder that impulse must be tempered for each party’s sake, as well as the sake of anyone watching. They are not in private (there is one other person in this scene, watching and holding back giggles), so they cannot afford to simply “follow their feelings” and act on their desires. They have an example to set and standards to live up to if they are to remain civilized people.

Lest you think I jest, this article goes into some depth about what happens when people simply “follow their feelings” or impulses in matters of “certain urges.” It is not an easy or a pretty read, but it does show what happens when one does not stop to think about one’s responsibilities with regard to not only the other party in a relationship, but to those who may be affected by a poor or even toxic relationship. This goes beyond the children that may be born from such a union and extends to society itself.

A good fictional example of this would be Harley Quinn and the Joker. Like the women in the article linked above, Harley insists the Joker loves her even when he abuses her. She refuses to see or admit that his abuse is not a manifestation of love – though if someone else treated her this way, or treated another woman in such a manner, she could and would likely be upset by it. Only when her “puddin’” does it to her, she insists it be called love when it is manifestly not.

Society suffers for her delusion as well. By supporting the Joker, Harley helps him hurt people. Good people, innocent people, and yes, bad people all suffer for the Joker’s “antics” as he tempts and taunts the Dark Knight of Gotham. Harley takes part in his mad schemes, and though she is not inherently evil herself and has lines she personally will not cross in Batman: The Animated Series*, the fact remains that she is abetting her “puddin’” in his plans to maim, destroy, and murder. The effects of her poor choice of a male companion go beyond her personal misery – they make everyone around her miserable, too.

For a male example of this same mindset and effect, look no further than the NCIS* episode “Light Sleeper.” As mentioned here, one of the suspects in the installment is a Marine married to an abusive wife. Rather than fight back or seek a divorce, he accepts her violent physical assaults and psychological manipulations, proved when he lifts his shirt to reveal the bruises she left on his body. To deal with the punishment his wife would dish out, he seeks escape in alcohol; the team finds him sleeping off his latest hangover in his pickup truck, one of the few places he can physically distance himself from his cruel spouse.

Our Marine’s poor choice of wife seems more detrimental to him than the neighbors, but when one considers that the woman whom he married was a North Korean spy, it becomes clearer how his error threatened others. Had one of his wife’s fellow spies not turned on the spy cell and killed her, the Marine’s wife might very well have helped to perpetrate suffering and great evil on her innocent neighbors. By tolerating the evil which she perpetrated on him, he allowed her the freedom to harm others, even if he was unaware of the specific type of wickedness she and others plotted to unleash.

The missing links in both Harley and the Marine’s relationships are service and sacrifice: neither the Joker nor the Marine’s Korean wife respects their partner. They do not see them as people but as useful objects that allow them to further their goals and which they can take some modicum of pleasure in mistreating whenever they feel like doing so. It is Harley and the Marine who must sacrifice and serve them; the Joker and the spy have no need in these relationships to offer their partners anything other than pain because they see no other reason to keep these people around. It is but one manifestation of the thought processes described in the linked article, and which the article did not address at all.

If you are going to write a romance, future authors, or any kind of loving relationship, you have to keep service and sacrifice in mind. When someone loves another person, they want to do something good for that person even if it costs them something. Loving relationships are a mutual giving and receiving in this vein: no matter how tumultuous they may be, real relationships where love abides stand the test of time entirely because the people involved are willing to sacrifice for and serve those they care for. Any other relationship may include some form of cohabitation or intercourse, but if it lacks the desire for the good of the other even at the purposed lover’s expense, then there is no love of which to speak.

You can’t write a romance if there is no love, the mark of which is service and sacrifice. You can write a story where two people have intercourse, but intercourse can be had without service and sacrifice as part of the relationship. Thousands of years of history attest to this fact, just as they testify to the fact that true love exists and always has existed. Be careful that you do not confuse the two, or you and your audience may find that your protagonists’ liaison is steamy, yet strangely unfulfilling.

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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Her first anthology – The Guardian Cycle – is available in ebook and paperback as well. Order them today!

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9 thoughts on “Romantic Relationships – A Speculative Commentary

    • Touché – though I will note, the episode implied the neighbors were rather certain the spy was the one being abused, not the one doing the abusing. It was her murder which led the authorities to investigate, not the “loud shouting” the neighbors heard from the street. The shouting just gave them a likely suspect who turned out to be a victim instead.

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  1. Good post!

    I liked the ‘Slap-Slap-Kiss’ link. I guess I always think of that trope more as “two strong-willed people who enjoy pushing against each other because they know they can take it and enjoy the drama” rather than “I’m literally abusing you; isn’t that hot?”

    Hm, regarding DCAU Harley, don’t underestimate her. She *did* collaborate in torturing and brainwashing Tim Drake, don’t forget (it kind of depends on the episode).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! 😀 The main concern with “Slap, Slap, Kiss” is how it is misapplied. Handled properly, the trope works fine.

      Most of my issue with the way “Slap, Slap, Kiss” is mishandled these days boils down to: “These people were just having a heated argument – since when do people in the middle of shouting at each other and on the way to a crescendo suddenly decide to kiss each other without first lowering the decibels?” There are some writers who use such arguments to have their characters Say The Hurtful Thing that adds more drama, or as a distraction for the bad guys (or good guys), or as a lead up to sudden, terribly quiet admissions. In those cases, a kiss *following* the argument makes sense and does not dispel the aura of the story world.

      Unfortunately, a lot of other writers skip those intermediary parts and jump right to the kiss, which makes *no sense whatsoever.* An argument – an honest, actual argument – interrupted by a kiss can work…only if a writer does the legwork to make it believable. A fair number of writers skip that because they’re hitting the high notes in the sheet music rather than playing the whole melody, because playing the whole melody requires studying the music, which takes work. Beginners can’t always see the difference and no one gets mad at them for it – we all make mistakes when we’re starting out. Those who continually play the high notes without studying the music, though? Houston, we have a problem…

      Ah. I forgot the brainwashing of Tim Drake, you’re correct. Need to watch that movie again, darn it. Thanks for the reminder! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Prairie Fever is a good movie – not very intense, but it tells a darn good story and it isn’t a deconstruction of the genre. I would say it is one of the better Westerns made in the last twenty years for this reason: it takes the genre seriously and itself less so.

      I haven’t cross-posted my Substack articles because I thought it would be more fun to keep them separate entities; with the blog set up into categories, I thought the Substack would be a place where I could write things that “didn’t fit” specifically into the article format on the blog. On Substack, I’m less likely to be as formal as on the blog, making it more of a place to unwind and just chat about whatever comes to mind. Or to fisk something that ticks me off. 😀

      As for plugging my Substack more…I probably should. This year has been a bit stressful in a number of ways, and so I didn’t see as many opportunities to plug it as I might have otherwise. Maybe in the new year I can do more to promote it than I have previously. Hmm….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One notes that there IS the question of whether he respects you, is a wimp and a pushover who will, for instance, let you and the children starve rather than stand up for money he’s owed, or is just not that into you, and already deciding on who’s next when you repulse him.

    They can be interesting to sort out.

    Liked by 1 person

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