Fiction is rife with dysfunctional couples. When handled well, these can explore interesting social dynamics, create conflict, and make a statement about real-world issues like domestic violence and dating abuse. However, when an unintentionally unhealthy relationship is portrayed as a character’s happily ever after, it often leaves readers with a bad taste in their mouth.
Portraying Unhealthy Relationships
When a relationship is meant to be unhealthy, it is generally acknowledged in-universe. Other characters may react to it, verbally or otherwise. The story will not tie itself in knots trying to justify the couple’s relationship. One or both of the partners may realize that something is amiss, and may try to address the problems or leave the relationship. The story is set up such that if readers conclude that the relationship is unhealthy, it adds layers to the story rather than opening plot holes or collapsing the central premise.
When a relationship is unintentionally unhealthy, the relationship’s flaws are not acknowledged or addressed. Disrespectful, abusive, or downright creepy behaviors are treated as a sign of affection. Most times, this happens when an author misreads how the audience will interpret something or just misses the mark without realizing it. It’s a writing problem because it usually means that the story continues to present the couple as a functional relationship (if not the embodiment of True Love™) in direct contradiction to what readers are actually seeing. It’s also a social issue, for reasons that another blogger lays out very well in this article.
Here, I will mostly be discussing unhealthy relationships in terms of writing, and the implications for your story. I do not have the space to make a comprehensive list of problems, so I have singled out three common unhealthy relationship tropes to watch out for.
The two partners are not on equal footing. One may be the other’s boss. One may be much older (especially for mortal/immortal romances, and for teenagers dating more than a few years up). One may be orders of magnitude more powerful than the other. There are real life relationships with power differentials that work. They can work in fiction. But they need to be handled very carefully. When 17 year-old Alice the intern is dating the immortal, reality-warping vampire CEO of her new company and he starts coming onto her,readers have a dozen different reasons to suspect that he’s taking advantage of her.
When a high-power character aggressively pursues a low-power character, it often comes across as predatory. This counts double if one partner is captive, enslaved, underage, or otherwise lacking the ability to legally consent.
Power differentials also have a tendency to warp the relationship, and to create opportunities for abusive, controlling behaviors. The high power partner may:
- Make all of the decisions.
- Force (or threaten to force) the low-power partner to do what they want.
- Lecture or talk down to the low-power partner under the guise of looking out for them.
- Regularly reject the low-power partner’s opinions.
If you notice these things happening in your story, that does not look like true love. It looks like domination.
Special Case: The Self-Appointed Caretaker
A common trope is for one character to demonstrate how much they love the other one by placing themself in charge of the other character’s physical needs. Think of Edward in Twilight insisting that Bella eat something, even though she said that she wasn’t hungry. This sort of behavior isn’t sweet—controlling, not to mention patronizing. Unless one of your characters has a condition in which they actually cannot take care of themselves, this is a red flag. Your characters are grown-ass adults (or teenagers). They know if they’re tired. They know if they’re hungry. They can decide how to take care of themselves. It is nothing short of intrusive for someone to come along claiming to know their needs better than they do.
Partner, True Love, and Only Friend
When someone’s significant other is also their best friend, that’s sweet. When their SO is their only friend, it’s a problem. Regardless of whether the friendless character is coming from a troubled past, or is allegedly popular but never interacts with anyone, expect some raised eyebrows. There are three obvious explanations for this, and none of them are a ringing endorsement for the relationship.
- The relationship is seriously unhealthy and one partner has been cutting the other off from their social network, intentionally or as a byproduct of other emotionally abusive behaviors.
- One of the partners has been neglecting their other connections, and probably isn’t emotionally mature enough to handle a serious relationship.
- One partner has no friends to begin with. This in itself may be a sign that something is amiss. It may indicate that the character is struggling with personal issues, that they have poor social skills, or that they have done something to drive others away. This character does not need an SO to kiss everything better. They need to focus on themself, and to work on building up a healthy social network.
Moreover, for a character to have no one in their life but their SO means that it’s going to be a strained relationship. The characters have no one to vent to, no way to get space from each other, no one to turn to if they decide they want out, and they rely on each other for literally everything. That’s emotionally exhausting at best.
(This gets mentioned in another post, from a slightly different angle. For more reasons it doesn’t work, check the link.)
The ‘Perfect’ Couple
These two are quite literally made for each other. They always understand each other, and they never fight. Expect the word “perfect” to come up a few times in the text. Maybe even directly from the supposedly objective third person narrator’s mouth. The issue here is that nobody’s actually perfect, and so it ends up looking outright uncanny when the two dance around each other’s faults and refuse to acknowledge that their partner is a flawed human being. A state of continuous bliss isn’t love; it’s a honeymoon phase. And it raises the question of what’s going to happen once reality sets in and the couple has to acknowledge that they’re both human.
Healthy couples don’t pretend to be perfect; they address each other’s flaws and idiosyncrasies, and they learn how to deal with each other’s hang-ups.
From a writing standpoint, there are two more problems with the perfect couple. The first is when reality doesn’t set in, and it simply strains disbelief that these two people are actually flawless. The second is the fact that if the couple doesn’t have to do any work at all, it isn’t particularly interesting to read about them. Unless they’re stock characters hanging out on the periphery of the story, a little tension in their relationship is a good thing. It keeps the story lively.