B Plot

How to write a romance when the couple is already in a long-term relationship

Thursday, April 22, 2021 Conflict Romance Long-term relationship Spark

Heart on background of pink roses


Most people think of romances as an enemy to lovers story. The characters start not liking one another, but there is so much sexual attraction and tension between them, they are compelled to stick around one another. Throughout the book, they get to know and love one another. Writing this trope is popular because it is a high-conflict scenario, and in romances, it’s conflict that drives the plot.

What happens if your characters have been together for a long time or are married and they have a reasonably comfortable relationship? How do you write a book when they know each other so well?

It’s a problem I faced in my fantasy series, the 29-book series I keep going on about. The first book has the foundational couple in an enemies to lovers trope. There are other books in the series in which Calanthe and Sanders are the main characters. I used different tropes such as second chance at love and my big messed up family to keep the characters engaged.

Your characters can know each other very well and still have differences. It’s those differences that can be a source of conflict. A couple that’s been married a long time might have differences of opinions on how to raise their children, how to handle their finances, sex (or lack of, or lack of adventure in the bedroom, etc.), career paths (one works too much or not enough), hobbies, and how much time they spend (or not) with family.

Couples grow together as much as they grow apart. Perhaps once the children have left the house, the couple finds themselves with a lot more free time they don’t know how to fill. One takes up an expensive hobby that consumes most of their free time, and the other feels left out or ignored.

People’s bodies change. Perhaps one partner isn’t as attracted to the other after they put on thirty pounds. Perhaps one develops an illness, and one perhaps can’t cycle or hike or engage in the same activities they once did as a couple.

It doesn’t matter what the conflict is, so long as the conflict is deep enough to drive the plot for the entire story. There’s a fundamental formula in romances: internal conflict + interpersonal conflict with romance interest = romance. Each character must face internal conflict that drives personal conflict. In addition, each character must face an interpersonal conflict with the romantic interest which prevents them from having a happy for now or a happily ever after.

Throughout the story, the characters engage in a series of try/fail cycles until they learn and grow as individuals. Once they are in the right headspace, they turn their attention to improving their relationship, and by the end of the book, they’ve found a new equilibrium.

I might have taken the fun out of romances with that analysis. Hmm.

There’s a bonus to writing romances with characters who have been together for a long time. They know each other very well, and it forces the author to deepen the emotional connection between them. When you’ve been with someone for twenty years, there’s a lot of hurt and happiness that can be brought up during an argument. A couple might be arguing over how to parent a child when the child is injured playing in another room. The couple drops the argument and rushes to tend to the child. The matter’s not resolved, but the action shows the reader that both love the child, even if each parent has a different parenting style.

Authors have a lot more history to mine for deep hurts, character flaws, lulls in a long-term relationship, and unresolved personal and relational issues. There’s also the potential for deeper emotional intimacy because the characters know each other so well. There’s knowing a certain slump in his shoulder or look in his eye or her eating triple-chocolate mint ice cream with extra-large chocolate chips, fudge sauce and white chocolate flakes that now is not the time to start an argument. The other person already had a bad day, and while the matter is pressing for the love interest, the fundamental care they have for the other person suspends the discussion.

Exploring the nuances of emotional intimacy enhances character development and enriches the reader’s experience.

Another thing to consider is the three following scales. The first, sexual tension. That is the degree to which the love interests are sexually aware of the other. The number of times they check one another out, the explicitness in which the sexual awareness is described.

The second is heat level. Heat level refers to how sex scenes are described. In a low heat book, sex scenes are non-existent or fade to black. In a medium-heat book, a paragraph or two describe sex. In a high-heat book, sex is explicit, described in detail sometimes over pages, and likely happens multiple times throughout the book.

The third is how much space is given to the non-romance and romance plots. If you play around with the plot ratios, you alter the dynamics between the characters. If a romance arc takes up 90% of a character’s time, it says something about the character. Whereas, if the love interest spends 90% of their time at work or with friends, but their major pain point is the love interest and the struggling romantic relationship, that says something completely different about the character.

How do you keep the spark alive between characters that have been together for a long time?

What do you think of the three scales? You can see the proposed scales here.  Would such scales help you select a romance novel? Let me know on Twitter or through this survey. I’d like to thank @BurrisKirk for having brought up the issue of better classifying romances to help readers select an appropriate book.


Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron. I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights.

I’d like to thank @merelecroix for the topic suggestion of how to keep the spark going when writing couples who have been together for a long time.



Bob Erickson
Thursday, April 22, 2021, 12:48
Hi. I wrote a story titled "Surviving Retirement" about a couple who started a business which was ridiculously successful and sold it at 35. But now with more money than they could spend, what do they do with their lives? They visit a couple of therapists. This is how I visualized the their situation developed. I have no idea if this is real but it worked for this story. <br />When we came back, there were some snacks on the coffee table in front of us and a fresh pot of coffee on the burner. Harold began, “Let me tell you a little about us and why we’re very interested in you and your situation because we are very interested. I’m a psychologist and as such, I focus on individuals. I don’t look for the usual negative things like depression and behavior problems. I leave those for others. My interest is in the stage of people’s lives and the changes which take place as they mature and age. We used to talk about adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, and then senior citizen or the golden years as they were called. I prefer to narrow those down to young adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, early maturity, and then late maturity. During young adulthood, people are exploring life, careers, and finding their mate. Then they go forward trying to fulfill their dreams and plans. There usually aren’t a lot of problems in this period. The second period is middle adulthood. People have settled in to fulfilling their dreams and moving forward. This is also when they begin to have children. The problems during this period are usually with the women. They begin the struggle to balance motherhood versus career. The late adulthood is when she resolves these issues as the children are growing and life is relatively smooth. The problems during this period are usually with the men. We generally refer those as being middle age crazy. They feel trapped in continuation of their lives or more of the same. They have affairs and domestic tension grows. Late adulthood starts when the children leave home. The problems now are with both people. They each look at their partner who they have lived with for twenty years and see a stranger. The man has usually been deeply involved in his career and the wife is eager to do something new. Then we get to early maturity. Many couples end up divorced through the last three periods but those who do survive, have resolved their early issues and begin to expand their horizons. They rediscover each other’s uniqueness and find satisfaction. The man is pretty well at the top of his career and the woman has rediscovered meaning in her life. I won’t go on with the others because they don’t apply to you yet. The important point is at each stage, each person is faced with new and different challenges and learning opportunities. If they are successful, they all come together in the early retirement period. I’ll let Susan pick it up from here.”<br />“I’m not a psychologist but a sociologist and I focus on relationships and how they work and why they fail. While Harold works with individuals, I counsel couples to work with them through the problems and things which face them through each of these stages. As Harold said, there are many failures during these stages. They’re spread out over a twenty to thirty-year time span. Once the relationship breaks, each couple goes back to the young adult stage and starts over again. This is personal and not career or age related. We’ve been doing this together for twenty years and have written several books together and independently on our studies. You can find them on-line if you’re interested but they won’t help you much because you are part of small group where the normal life cycle doesn’t apply any more. To be honest, you have been in the early adulthood stage for fifteen years and suddenly you went from that to late adulthood without passing through the other stages. It’s no wonder you’re confused and lost as to what to do next when you’re still in your mid-thirties. We have worked with a number of people like you but with different issues. Usually, one partner achieves early success and the other partner is just there going along for the ride. One of our clients was a lounge singer and his wife worked as a waitress in the club he sang in. They were barely making ends meet. He cut a record and three months later, he was an overnight success and she was still a waitress in her mind. We had a similar situation where the woman was an actress and her husband was a mechanic. She got cast in a big movie with all of the glitz and glamour and he was still a mechanic. We have also had several couples more like you where they sold their business and had enough money to retire but weren’t ready to do that yet. We have developed a few things we can suggest which might help you if you’re interested. There has been little research on this subject but we both know it will be a growing area and we want to learn more and grow with this trend. This is why we’re so interested in working with you.”<br />