The Marriage Box Rule, cabin fever, and staying home

Authors are solitary animals. I know a few who feel the need to mingle with other humanoids – I think here of Mary Strand, who plays bass in a rock band, plays basketball, and engages in dunnamany other social endeavors, and of Michele Dunaway, who teaches high school with zest, not to say abandon, and is never at a loss in a verbal encounter. But the bulk of us live like mice, snug each in our cheese, siloed from one another by work and by inclination.

For such people, staying at home for six to ten weeks is no hardship.

Then our husbands and wives come home from their day job for the duration of the plague.

I remember Nora Roberts telling stories of her husband, whom she met when he built an addition onto her house: “He was so good, I kept him.” When his knees began to object to construction work, he retired, and when he debated between opening a hardware store and a bookstore, Nora nudged him toward bookstore because, she said, “Then I can come in and steal books.” But she was firm on one point. He must leave the house so she could write. “I can hear you breathing down there!” she would yell.

Nora tells another story often, of warning her two young boys not to disturb her while she was writing. “Don’t bother mother unless there is blood.” When they got older, she amended that: “Don’t bother mother unless there is blood and open flame.”

In two-parent families, one parent of whom perhaps works at home already and the other has been sent home, one parent can sometimes be dispatched with children for an hour to the out-of-doors, where they amuse themselves walking, throwing a frisbee, scurrying over the Perrier Par Course, feeding ducks, or, if this parent is sufficiently desperate, looking at their phones.

When both parents need to work at home, or perhaps there is only one parent at home, I can only assume that infanticide must infallibly ensue.

What if there are just the two of you, trapped in marital bliss whether you’re ready for it or not?

Romance fiction may save you.

I’m not talking here about the sex, for there’s plenty of genre romance where the sex takes place only from the neck upward.

I speak here of the Marriage Box, my own invention, illuminating a device not only at the core of genre romance but of stories of convicts sharing a cell, children trapped indoors on a rainy day, passengers stuck in an elevator, a boy and a freaking tiger sitting in a freaking boat. The Marriage Box Rule goes thusly:

“This is the box. We will get in the box. We will stay in the box. Nobody gets into the box with us. Nobody gets out of the box. We will stay in the box. All other rules are negotiable.”

Every proper genre romance story takes two persons who seem both wildly incompatible and well-matched and traps them in a situation where they cannot escape one another’s company. At first it seems that one person has privileges the other has not; they’re “the boss,” they “make the rules.” But as anyone knows who has been in the Box, that only holds until “the boss” has realized that neither of them will be leaving the box for a long, long time. The underdog has ways of making their feelings known…and of motivating the top dog to try to accommodate them.

Now they have to work out how to get along.

Every single romance novel ever features this situation in some form or another. Because how else are these two people going to take the full 256 pages to reconcile themselves to the notion that they belong together? They have to start saying No and end up saying Yes, and they mustn’t be allowed to run away until it happens, not for 256 delicious, emo, bantery, adventurous, possibly steamy pages.

If you are stuck in the house with your life partner 24/7 for the duration of the plague, the idea of exploring such stories may seem a bit like binge-watching apocalyptic sci-fi on Netflix: Are we sure we want to go there?

But I offer you this consolation. Every single romance novel ends happily. Nobody (unless they’re a vampire) ends up murdering their beloved. And there’s an excellent chance they will enjoy some fabulous sex along the way.

You could have fun with this.


King of Hearts by Jennifer StevensonFor a close look at the Marriage Box Rule in action, I humbly offer my stagehand romantic comedies, King of Hearts and Fools Paradise. These are my whack at recreating in blue-collar Chicago the intricacies of Regency farce: A hundred families, all intermarried to a distressing degree, disporting themselves in an exotic environment – here the live entertainment industry – an environment that is as closed and class-conscious as Almack’s Assembly Rooms on a Wednesday night.


Fools Paradise by Jennifer Stevenson

A stagehand does not, like the scion of a prosperous earl, inquire of the date of his rival’s title, how much his income depends on his rent rolls, or the lustre of his family name. A stagehand instead wants to know, Who’s your father? When didja make journeyman? How many hours didja work last week? And, since there’s an excellent chance he may recognize the name, Which waitress ya dating?

And yes, there’s a bit of very nice sex.

About Jennifer Stevenson

Jennifer Stevenson’s Trash Sex Magic was shortlisted for the Locus First Fantasy Novel Award and longlisted for the Nebula two years running. Try her fantasy series Hinky Chicago, which is up to five novels, her paranormal romances Slacker Demons, which are about retired deities who find work as incubi, or her women’s fiction fantasy series Coed Demon Sluts, about ordinary women solving life’s problems by becoming succubi. She has published more than 20 short stories.

Find Jennifer at the Book View Cafe blog, at the second row at fast roller derby bouts in Chicago, or on Facebook.