I met my husband like this:

I’m a massive fan of birthdays. I believe in broadcasting it to everyone for a good two weeks beforehand, and spoiling myself silly on the day. That doesn’t mean spending lots of money – it means on this one day I do whatever the hell I feel like. Mostly I feel like pancakes.

When I turned twenty-three I had a nuclear group of friends who were like family to me. They also liked drinking beer at the park in the afternoon. Twas a golden era.

The boy I’d been breaking up with for about nine months threw me a birthday party – and by party I mean small, intimate dinner with my ten closest friends. There were homemade pizzas. I didn’t find out until I was there, that one of my friends was bringing her boyfriend’s friend who’d come over from Glasgow, Scotland. (I’ll give you a second to get that one straight.)

This did not make me happy.

I remember very particularly thinking: At least if he’s big and ginger with a thick Scottish accent there’ll be some novelty value.

Special k looks like this:

(Heh. He’s so cute.)

And like this:

And also this:

Big and ginger, he is not. Also, his accent could pass for American. Or Irish. Or maybe Danish, on a bad day.

I think all I said to him the whole night was “Hello”, and I don’t think I said it in a nice, welcoming sort of way.

The next time we met the first thing I saw were his boxing boots, which were just like mine. Then I heard him beatbox. And then I tackled him to the ground in a game of footy and cut him open with my fingernail.

The first time he hugged me, I felt this shock of surprise, like, “Huh. He’s so human.”

I was reading a review on Dear Author the other day that got me thinking about the way love interests tend to “hate” each other when they first meet. The first two thirds-or-so of a romance is taken up with bickering and insults and arguments. And kissing, of course.

In the context of a whole life together, my period of conflict with special k is pretty tiny. But it goes to show there’s something to the idea that dislike can be the earliest incarnation of really-like.

It’s the way we express attraction as kids, isn’t it? Hair-pulling. Seaweed throwing. I once called a very pretty boy a dickhead, for not logical reason. Why do we express attraction through insult? WHY???

(That’s a serious question, by the way. I’m stumped.)

The review made me think of it, because the bickering of the hero and heroine just sounded pretty odious. The hero won’t leave the heroine’s restaurant until she agrees to hook up with him, even though she’s asked him to leave many times. He spouts clunky innuendo at her while she’s serving cake to some old women. Ugh.

A couple in a romance have to challenge each other. They have to expect unreasonable things, and unsettle and push each other. Romance and love couldn’t happen without it.

But I can’t help feeling we get so used to reading “bickering” as “attraction” that we lose track of what’s beneath it – what it actually means. What drives a person to be awful when they most want to be lovely?

(Again – no answers here.)

I was cold to special k because I was immature, and I thought I knew all there was to know about him sixty seconds after I met him. Falling in love was a bit like following lanterns down a dark path. Piece by piece he surprised and delighted me as my expectations were overturned.

I watched him eat ice cream. (There’s an ice cream cone engraved on the inside of my wedding ring.) I watched the sun rise with him from the roof of the Pascoe Vale swimming pool, and he looked at me from under the brim of his blue Glasgow cap. He hid from me at Heathrow until I was forlorn then hugged me for twenty whole minutes without letting go.

Maybe people are just better, when you have misunderstood them entirely.

Comments 21 Responses

  1. Jill Sorenson

    What a lovely post.

    I like conflict in romance novels, and that unsettling feeling you mention when a person’s beliefs or insecurities are challenged in order to inspire change. That makes a dynamic character. But when a hero imposes his will on the heroine, or acts like a jerk just to watch her squirm…that isn’t something I enjoy. I suppose it inspires sympathy for the heroine? Or maybe it shows us how masterful and ruthless he is. Either way, I’d rather read about a woman who stands up for herself (especially in a professional setting, on her own turf), and about a man who doesn’t want to belittle her.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      You’ve put your finger on it exactly – it’s when he enjoys watching the heroine squirm for the sake of it (some kind of power play?) that it doesn’t work for me. I hate being embarrassed (I’m sure most people do) so mortification does not equal romance as far as I’m concerned!

      Special k and I have had many powerful, unsettling conversations over the course of our relationship. I don’t enjoy the sensation one bit – and sometimes there’s a bit of embarrassment. But it’s more of the facing-myself variety. The distinction can be hard to find, but is important.

      1. shallowreader

        We were in the same undergraduate course at university. We had a friendship of sorts – we chatted at uni and occasionally ended up at the same nightclub with friends but not friends enough to swap phone numbers. We didn’t start going out until 2 years after graduation and 3+ years of friendship 🙂

  2. lora96litdiva

    Very lovely and beautifully written and good photos, too.

    Makes me think I should go over some of the bickering in my WiP and maybe smooth it over.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I’m so glad this has helped you in thinking about your WIP! I don’t think bickering has to be smoothed over necessarily, or taken out. It’s more like – think about the personal reasons they’re bickering (even if it’s light-hearted). Make it deeply, essentially them. I guess like all dialogue it should progress them, too, so that they come out of the exchange at a different place to where they entered it. (Er, metaphorically.)

  3. princessfiona01

    You should have known the moment you drew blood ;-]. Such a sweet story. Probably not enough conflict for an entire book though. He is really cute. Love the Heathrow thing. I think I’m feeling all mushy.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Hee, mushy is good! I occasionally think of our story in terms of a romance novel, and come to the same conclusion: not enough conflict. Bad for fiction, GREAT for real life! (And he is so cute.)

  4. Mike Innes

    Its not quite the same thing you are talking about, but It still kinda annoys me when there are argumentative couples that dont seem to see or care what their attitude does to friends around them. If it precedes a break-up you can forgive them, but I can’t stand those relationships where the two people seem to love each other *because* of, not in-spite of, their arguments. Whatever works, though, I guess!

    The girl I love and I have yet to argue. At all. (Doubtless it will come 😉 However the relationship she was in was full of ‘fun’ arguments. It was partly the basis of their connection, I’m guessing, the mutual slagging. She still loves the guy but she’s not *in* love with him.

    However, we never talked. Not for two years (and, admittedly, I don’t live in Newcastle, so I haven’t seen her that much in that time, though I travel there a fair bit.) In-fact, when we finally started talking, it emerged that she had assumed I actively didn’t like her and I had assumed she just didn’t like any of Jez’s (her ex) friends because she seemed quiet and moody!

    A similar thing happened with a girl I didn’t love but who I randomly had a brief fling with a couple of years ago. We’d known each other for *years* but had never tried it on with each other at all, or hardly even exchanged more than a few words, it transpired both of us had mutually assumed the other was arrogant because of our looks. Unsurprisingly, neither of us actually thought of ourselves as especially good looking (I’d always observed her flirtatiousness with others and she slept with a good few of her friends, but it was insecurity, as such things so often are, not confidence, which was responsible.)

    So I think that, while it may not be so much about active argument, there certainly seems to be something about good relationships whereby the same elements that result in attraction and true love (whatever those may be,) are also related to factors that lead to major misunderstandings before you come to know someone!

    All I can say is, thank fuck for the internet and SMS, facilitating articulate communication between people who would otherwise be too embarrassed or uncertain of intentions to say two words to each other!

    Does anyone think modern communication methods are helping more people find love, true love? Are there novels of electronically facilitated romance? Certainly many classic romance tales partly take place as exchange of letters, now such uninhibited conversation can occur in real-time, which means love can grow with increasing rapidity and reduced misunderstanding, no?

    Assuming total honesty, of course…

    1. anna cowan Post author

      The last book I stayed up all night to read was a chick lit novel called I’ve Got Your Number. The premise is that the chick is engaged to one guy, but in her bride-stressed need starts using the phone of another guy. She and the second guy fall in love mostly through texts and phone calls, and I LOVED the way that worked. I hadn’t thought about it that specifically before though – that technology allows a communication that’s not so fraught with all our face-to-face insecurities. It has its own pitfalls of course – misunderstanding the tone something was meant in; typing something without thinking about it first (I do this ALL the time), and not being able to just face-to-face express your immediate embarrassment or apology. But there’s definitely something about chatting to someone you can’t see or hear that frees you up.

      I like your point too about the impact that sort of bickering has on the friends of a couple. Often in romance the bickering allows the friends to be all, “He’s obviously bonkers about you.” But I’d kinda like to see a romance where, when the heroine changes her mind about the hero, the friends are cautious, and unhappy. (There are probably many like this out there. It’s a big genre!)

  5. michellesomers

    Great post, Anna!

    I just love cute-meet stories.

    My hubby and I met at a party that neither of us wanted to be at for a girl we didn’t particularly like. We didn’t talk all evening till it was time to leave. He was dropping a couple of friends home, and I decided to tag along. And just to put a spanner in the works, I was interested in another guy at the time!

    Funny how fate works, because we had friends in common and can pinpoint parties we’d both been to previously where we’d never met.

    Two years later he proposed to me over a scrabble game and I still have the board with the letters attached.

    I love that you have an icecream engraved on your wedding ring. Some memories are priceless.


    1. anna cowan Post author

      I suspect the reason we love “how we met” stories so much, is that all our random decisions take on this cast of “fate” now that we know the outcome. I love that moment you had: I’ll tag along. And proposal stories – that’s a whole other post!

      I was interested in a couple of other people when I met special k too. This is making me think – what a great romance set-up: having the heroine all taken up with someone, and the hero’s kinda annoying/distracting to begin with. Actually, as I write that I’m realising my favourite romance, What I Did For a Duke has exactly that set-up.

      Hmmmmmm….much to think about.

  6. Deborah Neale

    I love this. reminds me of my awesome relationship with my hubby (sonny) ah romance and love. I still love sonny as ferociously as when I finally gave in and realised that I did… lol how wonderful to have such gorgeous men in our lives..

  7. Pingback: How I met my husband or Love at 327th sight « Shallowreader's Blog

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