As some of you know, I'm spending the winter working on a novel I've wanted to write for many years. It's a love story. Usually I write the "one woman's search for _____" kind of book. But this time, there are two protagonists, a man and a woman, and the story spans over 50 years of their lives. It's a made-up jaunt in the fields of abundant love, and who wouldn't want to play around in those fields? The bummer is... turns out, a love story is hard to write. Go figure. I thought it would be a breeze.
Here's why: In the story of every important relationship, real or imagined, there is a conflict. It's not about avoiding the conflict, or denying it, or being afraid to meet it head-on -- it's about accepting the conflict and learning how to navigate it with all your heart. That's not easy when you factor in the origin and foundation of each player's sense of self, future, safety, risk. A love story can be blood-sport, and it often is. It's how you play the game that matters. (Not that it's a game -- I'm just using a metaphor. At least I didn't use "s***-storm.")
Most of us do not want to accept this universal truth. We want our relationships to come easily, without bumps and hiccoughs, never mind gutting pain or bottomless challenges or high-altitude hopelessness.
In fact, you may be one of the people out there who blithely claims that there is no conflict in your relationships. But I'm not sure I would believe you. I have a Golden Retriever, known to be one of the most docile, uncomplicated, forgiving, accepting creatures on earth. And believe me, we are in conflict every single day, and for a large part of it.
It goes something like this: "No, I can't pet you -- you rolled in deer guts in the woods and you reek and I don't have time to give you a bath. Don't give me those eyes again. I can't handle the guilt! I have a deadline and I'm late to pick up the kids! And no, you can't come in the car because you rolled in deer guts in the woods! That's what you get for being a Montana dog! Maybe you'd rather live in a three-story walk up in lower Manhattan and regularly go to a dog groomer, and enjoy Chinese take-out at the dog park! I apologize for your 20 acres! I know -- I'm a horrible horrible person. All you want is a little love. I love you. Does that work? Do you speak English? Can I write you a love poem instead of touching you right now? Ugh. I promise, I'll get one of the kids to wash you later today. I just don't have time right now! At least I let you in the house with the deer guts all over you! Can you throw me a bone here? Ok, that's twisted. I know. Especially when I haven't given you a bone in a long long time. It's probably my fault that you went out foraging for animal bones. You're probably lacking in calcium or something."
And that's just my relationship with my Golden Retriever. You should hear my conversations with my teens!
This afternoon sounded something like: "I'll give you five bucks to give the dog a bath."
"I've got homework."
"I've got basketball practice."
"How about $10?"
"$15. Do you want me to show you the C-section scar again???"
"Fine. I'll do it for 15. But I'm still mad at you for not teaching me how to do a somersault."
I glared. I should never have taught them how to negotiate so well. Mother of the Year.
And so the dog, the dog I love, does not get rubbed behind the ears. But at least he gets to stay in the house. (I don't profess to have the cleanest house. We choose our battles.) And the teens, they get their homework done, and the dog gets washed eventually, and we sit at the table on that rare night when everybody's home and we talk. What do we talk about usually? Relationships. About them being hard. With teachers, and friends, and family members, and bosses. That's the stuff of life: conflict. Otherwise, there's no story. Otherwise we talk about the things you talk about when you're trying to help your kid not have nightmares. Strawberry shortcake and fields of daisies only go so far. Strawberries mold, and daisies wilt, and fields get hit by thunderstorms and blight.
Think about it. Every good joke has conflict. Here's our family favorite: "So, there're two muffins in an oven. One muffin says to the other: It sure is hot in here. And the other muffin says, Wow. A talking muffin." Conflict: Muffin vs. Nature. Muffin vs. Muffin. Muffin vs. Itself.
The fun of it is in Conflict Resolution. After the dog gets his bath and you are snuggling with him, rubbing him behind the ears and down his back, after the kids forgive you for not teaching them to do a somersault, $15 richer, after the house is quiet and the I-love-you's get whispered... that's when I'm thankful for the love story and its inherent conflicts. There is an arc to love. It doesn't just hatch and bloom. It comes, double-helix sometimes, like the Northern Lights. But one thing is sure: It comes. Maybe not in the way you'd like to write it -- as a beautiful, sweeping, epic love story. Maybe it just wants you to scratch behind its ears. And take it for a drive with the window down.
Laura Munson is a best-selling author, and the founder of Haven Retreats.