Writing Bad Relationships

I’ve been reading a lot of Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone books lately. Parker does a good job of conveying why people stay in bad relationships. Jesse Stone really needs to let go of his ex-wife, Jenn but he stubbornly hangs on to her, and she is just as stubborn about hanging on to Jesse.

In the first novel she is described as using sex to obtain what she wants. Once married to Jesse she no longer felt the need to have sex with him, because she is sure of him. The novel starts after Jesse has abandoned LA and crossed the country to Maine in an effort to start fresh away from Jenn and the aftermath of their divorce.

Jenn spends the first book calling him, and trying to re-forge their relationship, but at the end of the book when she realizes that she can’t convince him to come back to LA she makes the decision to move to Maine.

Jenn and Jesse are both very real characters and their relationship, torturous as it is to watch, is just as true-to-life. The reason that it seems so real is both because of the flaws, which I will enumerate on later, but also because of what is right in it. Jenn and Jesse understand each other. Jesse seems happier in her presence, and they really talk to each other about everything. They act like friends as well as broken lovers.

Unfortunately what is right with them is probably not enough to overcome what is wrong in their relationship.

Most of the flaws in the relationship (despite what Jenn says) are due to Jenn’s selfish behavior.

Jenn had no friends or and never refers to family of any kind, which seems to be why her relationship with Jesse is so important to her. Even though she knows that Jesse expects fidelity she slept with other men during their marriage to further her carrier and feels that its unfair of Jesse to expect her to be faithful. That it is just who she is. Often she demands that Jesse be available to help her with her problems, but whenever Jesse needs her, she is busy, and claims that he is ‘crowding’ her.

All of this is classic selfish behavior. I can see it and yet when trying to create a character of my own I would need to choose different behaviors that show my characters flaws. But selfishness comes in many guises and as I’ve thought about people it seems to me that the bad behaviors that break a relationship seem to fall into four main categories.

1) Word breaking.

When Jenn doesn’t keep her marriage vows it breaks trust with Jesse. Marriage vows are a very obvious example but word breaking can be as simple as not showing up when promised, blabbing a secret or breaking your diet. When a person is unable to make a promise and stick to it they become less trustworthy.

2) Inability to recognize relationship boundaries and responsibilities

Jenn doesn’t seem to understand that a relationship is both about doing things for another person, but also knowing what things that can be expected from them and what can’t. With marriage, the vow states the responsibility of fidelity but many relationships don’t have specific rules like this, they are intangibly agreed upon boundaries that grow and change. Without spelling out these rules people still instinctively are uncomfortable around people who don’t ‘play fair’ and we all tend to move away from people that take advantage of us. Taking advantage can be as simple as asking for favors but never granting them, or not listening when a friend has problems, but it can also be as bad as ‘barrowing’ things that are not yours, or only being nice to people when you want something from them.

3) Inability to accept responsibility for relationship flaws

Jenn never accepts that she is responsible for the divorce. She is constantly telling Jesse that he is the reason that she acted the way that she did. Or that she just can’t change and implying that he is mean for expecting her not to cheat. Without owning responsibility for bad behavior a person can never expect to change her behavior. A good example of this sort of behavior is when a person on the first date says “I’m a real bastard” and then after they have treated the other person very badly in the relationship says “I told you I was a bastard, you shouldn’t have trusted me.”

4) Inability to empathize with the other party in the relationship

Jenn is constantly calling Jesse and asking him about himself, but if he tells her things she will drag the conversation around to ‘them’ and how because of his way of dealing with problems that they can’t be together. When he is in the middle of a serial killer investigation she calls and asks him if she can use his status as the chief of police to get an inside interview to help her career. She later apologizes but the fact that she asked shows a lack of consideration for his job and a lack of understanding as to his personality. Not empathizing can be seen in small ways like not listening to your partner, or turning every conversation so it’s about oneself or in large ways like letting someone think they are in a relationship when all you want is sex or demanding more from the person than they are able to give.

So as a writer its important to make sure that a relationship that will succeed dose not have too many flaws and a relationship that will fail has enough to be a failure but not so many as to be tragic.

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