First rule of relationships: Look after yourself
Bestselling novelist Cathy Kelly says she's no dreamy eyed romantic, but the former agony aunt has a few relationship tricks up her sleeve. Ailin Quinlan finds out more
This mother of energetic twin boys happily describes herself as a Virgo to the core – relentlessly practical and utterly pragmatic.
She won't think twice about spending St Valentine's Day in hospital with her mother, who is having an operation on her knee.
Cathy Kelly was scheduled to appear in a Valentine's Day TV special to coincide with the publication of her 14th novel, 'The Honey Queen', but for her, the practicalities of life and family will always come first.
"I'm not a huge fan of Valentine's Day," she admits. "People imagine that if you write books you must have a romantic streak in you – I don't."
All the same, she acknowledges, it's nice to get a soppy card and a hug or two – and husband John and nine-and-a-half-year-old twins, Dylan and Murray, are usually happy to oblige.
That same pragmatism comes into play when she talks about love. Relationships don't just trundle along of their own volition, believes Kelly; it takes effort, thought and good communication to keep that spark alive.
A former agony aunt for the 'Sunday World', she knows all about relationship pitfalls, yet the Wicklow-based writer remains cautious about dishing out advice.
"I used to get an enormous amount of letters, some with unbelievable things and some saying incredibly sad things," she says.
"People have always come to me for advice and still do, but I'm very wary of putting them on the wrong path."
However, says Kelly, there are some tried-and-tested rules that do hold true. First among these is that for a relationship to work, women must appreciate themselves; they have to be happy with who and where they are in life.
"Women can be bad at looking after themselves," she says. "I think we tend to be good at looking after everyone else – but looking after yourself is crucial."
There's a very practical reason for this she says: if you never take time out for yourself, you'll end up getting irritable and acting the martyr.
Look after yourself, she counsels. Be strong for yourself, and, for God's sake, don't be afraid to say what you feel; Kelly doesn't hold with suffering in silence.
"If you believe there's something missing, don't expect your partner to be a mind-reader, because he's not," she says.
"If St Valentine's Day is very important to you, and your partner's not big into it, say in advance that you'd like to get something; say straight up that you'd love something like a soppy card.
"Otherwise, he'll forget and you'll sulk. So tell him what it is you want him to do."
It also helps to go out together regularly, she believes. She's a big fan of date night. "It's very American, but I think it's a brilliant idea," says Kelly – though she admits that it is something she and John don't always get around to.
"John and I go out every few weeks," she says.
"We tend to do it on the spur of the moment, but I think it'd be nice to set it up and say, 'Yes, we'll go out one night a week'. I think it'd be nice to have a date. You could go to the cinema."
And don't forget the fun bit, she says. An avowed fan of 'Mrs Brown's Boys', Kelly's a great believer in the healing power of laughter.
"Remember, fun is a very big part of having relationships," she says. "We all need a bit of it."
Even watching something funny on TV together can be good.
"I love 'Mrs Brown's Boys'. It's crude but incredibly good fun. The language is absolutely hysterical but the ideas and the humour are fantastic. You have to laugh."
"I don't go out at night much," she continues.
"It's hard to go out when you're working and have children, but we'd go to see a film or go for a meal, something that doesn't require a lot of effort and is relaxing. I wouldn't be able to go out to the pub and spend hours socialising."
One of the themes of her latest novel, 'The Honey Queen', is ageing and the menopause, and the impact it can have on relationships.
Although, at 46, Kelly's not there yet herself, she researched it closely.
"Menopause can have an effect on a relationship," she says. "Some women get a lot of aches and pains, while falling oestrogen levels can affect the sex drive. Some people also put weight on around the middle. It's a very difficult time.
"There can be depression and mood changes, and there's also a feeling of loss because your fertility's gone.
"Menopause is a huge issue for women because they fear it and people still don't talk about it much."
And then there's that ageist double standard that so many women have to contend with.
"Older people are amazing, yet the world is massively obsessed with youth and the culture of youth," she says. "Women become invisible, while men become 'craggy and distinguished'."
Kelly got a brief preview of what an ageing body could feel like following a whiplash accident at the age of 44 which left her in "horrific pain".
"I was out walking and a big friendly dog bounded up to me and head-butted me, in a friendly way," she says.
"The pain made me feel older. I was afraid to do yoga or Pilates. I still get headaches, and I'm still on painkillers, though I'm back doing exercise more and more."
Ageing can be hard on women in other ways, too, she continues.
"We become more conscious of our looks. It's being thrown at us all the time – look at the amount of money that's being pumped into the cosmetic industry, yet there's a large part of me that thinks none of it works. It only serves to make you more self-conscious."
And that's partly because of what surrounds us. "Youth is where it's at – magazines, films, TV all obsess about it, and as you get older, you wonder where your place is," says Kelly.
She recalls a line from the film 'The First Wives Club': "Goldie Hawn's character says there are only three ages of women in Hollywood – 'the babe, the lawyer and Driving Miss Daisy'."
Don't buy into this negative categorisation of women; recognise instead the advantages that age can bring.
"We're wiser at 46 than we were at 26 and we don't care as much about what people think," says Kelly.
"When you're a teenager, you can be so self-conscious. I used to walk home from school with my friend, and if my friend wasn't with me, I hated passing the cars queueing at the traffic lights. I thought they were all looking at me. It was terrible."
'The Honey Queen' by
Cathy Kelly is out now. Published by Harper Collins, €14.99