As romance writers, we’re in the business of describing couples in love, be it a new love or the loving relationship of a long time couple. The goal is to capture it without being forced to spell it out, using details or observations that enable the reader to figure it out for herself. It’s not an easy job, but it’s fun to try and put that wonderment into words.
In some ways it’s one of those “you’ll know it when you see it,” things, but that doesn’t help when you’re trying to put it on paper. We want the reader to identify that “look” without having to tell them. I don’t think it’s as difficult to describe with a couple newly in love. We watch as they take turns stopping in mid-sentence to make sure the other is in agreement and/or they haven’t interrupted. When one speaks, the other gives the speaker the space and the full attention she or he needs to shine. There’s lot’s of “we” in their conversation and a kind of giddy behavior as if they have a secret that they can’t reveal. And even when you’re with only one of the pair, that person is glowing and figures out numerous ways to say the other’s name.
It’s not nearly as easy to describe with a long time couple. This couple knows each other well. They are used to each other. Needless to say, the excitement has pretty much gone from the relationship so we have to look more carefully. We probably aren’t going to see “giddy.” Intellectually we know that if we find love it will be a deeper and more mature, but in reality it’s not as “pretty” to see and it isn’t always easy to spot.
There could be signs such as one spouse’s concern about the other’s health, but that could just as easily be because the one concerned doesn’t want to be the survivor and be left alone if the other dies. On the other hand, what if one spouse isn’t listening to the other, does that mean the non-listener doesn’t care? Or is it just a bad habit and not definitive.
An unhappily married couple is easier to paint. There’s the inattentiveness, or worse, the scowl or smirk when the other speaks. It could be the vacant expression in the eyes of one or both when they’re together, as if they’re mentally off somewhere waiting for the ordeal to be over. Sometimes it’s just an obvious mental absence or focus, as if they honestly forget that the other is supposed to be part of their universe.
But when writing about an older couple who are still in love, how do we do it? Do we have her laugh at his jokes? Have them hold hands while they watch TV? Or is it that they clearly take pleasure in each other’s company be it on their regular Saturday night date or trip to the grocery store when one unnecessarily goes along to keep the other company?
If we have them fighting or criticizing each other is that a problem? Or is the true test the silent communication that we might see if we’re really looking. The recognition that one has of the other’s vulnerability and then the quick response so the spouse isn’t out there alone. A deft save when one has stepped her foot in it with an outsider. A phone call made to save the other from embarrassment. You can picture all these scenarios. The question is, are any of them it? Will seeing him make the call to fix the awkward incident that she created, or her hurrying out to join him for a trip to the grocery store clinch it? Or is it a matter of piecing these scenes together along with the occasional fight, criticism and concern to paint a convincing picture of a long time love.
Deborah Nolan is the author of Suddenly Lily and Conflict of Interest, both published by Montlake and Second Act for Carrie Armstrong, published by Desert Breeze Publishing.