There is a reason why most love stories end at the ‘happily ever after’ part; after we’ve seen the couple finally confess their love or defeat the obstacles which were preventing them from getting together, we like to believe that they skipped merrily into the sunset and never had any problems ever again. We don’t like to acknowledge that in reality, even the most loving relationships can still have problems, and most don’t work out at all. It doesn’t help that most couples in fiction who are supposed to be a representation of true love wouldn’t work out for very long in the real world. This leads to many writers depicting a long term couple as boring, relying upon old stereotypes, or piling unnecessary drama upon them.
As someone who has been in a long term relationship for nearly 12 years (I’m only 28, by the way), I can tell you that there are ways that you can write one and make it just as interesting and heart-warming as a couple who have only just gotten together. Here are a few top ways:
Dealing with realistic issues
Rather than using a string of soap opera melodrama to test the couple’s relationship, it is much better to show them going through realistic and relatable issues. This could be health problems, issues with their families, or the stress of raising a child. These are the real tests of a relationship which determine if it will last. Readers will respond to them much more than yet another forced temporary breakup.
For instance, in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Princess Cadence and Shining Armour are supposed to be the literal embodiment of romantic love, but they were criticized for being too perfect. In recent seasons they had a baby, Flurry Heart, and had to deal with the stress of caring for their first child, which turned opinions on the characters around and suddenly made them much more realistic and grounded.
Five love languages
Author Gary Chapman theorised in his book The Five Love Languages that there are five ways that couples show love for each other, and that we need all of them, not just one or two, to make a relationship work long term. These are gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical contact. Ensure that your fictional couples use all of these to show how their relationship remains strong.
Leave out the arguments
I for one am really sick of the so-called joke of two people arguing ‘like an old married couple’ as proof that they are a perfect couple. It is true that even the best relationships do involve arguments over petty things such as leaving the fridge door open or who was supposed to take the dog for a walk. We all get stressed at times or make mistakes so it is inevitable. But readers don’t want to be reminded of these disputes when they are indulging in escapism, so it’s best to leave them out of your fiction.
Have the relationship evolve
One of the things I love about the Japanese anime My Love Story is that the love confession scene, which would be at the end of any other anime, happens in episode three out of 24. The rest of the show is dedicated to the two figuring out their first major relationship by going on dates, setting up their friends, and getting to know each other’s families. It goes to show that you can definitely have a romance story arc that doesn’t end after ‘I love you’.
Don’t make the reader question why they’re married
For decades, mainstream television was under the apprehension that arguments and constant disagreements are a normal, and even preferable, part of relationships. But attitudes towards marriage, divorce, and family have since changed, so when modern audiences look back at these old shows, they usually say ‘but why don’t that couple just get divorced?’. Youtuber The Mysterious Mr Enter deconstructed it perfectly in this video and I agree with every word he says:
Today’s consumers aren’t accepting of actions that can be interpreted as abusive and are bored to tears of nagging wives babysitting their lazy husbands. Many of them might have even grown up in these types of households and have experienced first-hand why they are so destructive in real life. So no matter what, don’t make your readers question why your couple ever got together in the first place or why they are accepting of a miserable living situation.
Write them as characters
In cartoons it is normal to have stock parent characters who are only ever referred to as ‘Mum and Dad’ even by other characters. Am I the only person who has noticed how weird that is? But you hopefully aren’t writing this type of story. You want to write your long term couple or parent characters as people, not stick figures. Give them backstories, goals, likes and dislikes, and everything else you would give your protagonists and they will become some of the most memorable and lovable characters of all.