Relationships on the Screen

This blog posting recommends movies and TV shows which depict relational struggles in deep and authentic ways.

A few weeks ago I said that a lot of the reason we have unrealistic expectations of our relationships is because of what we see in the movies and on television.  We are typically shown the excitement and titillation of the romantic stage, which is always a short-lived introduction to the longer term challenges of what it means to stay in relationship with another person.

But through the years I have seen some good depictions of relationship struggles and I wanted to share some of those with you today.  I hope none of you reading this think that I only see relationships in terms of struggle, since that has been a lot of what I focused on.  But I do think it is necessary to correct for some of the unrealistic and -- I believe -- unhealthy depictions of relationships in the media that are based on lightness and ease and don't match up to the reality of most people's lives.

I want today's blog posting to be a little lighter, even while still exploring relationship struggles.  So here are a few of my favorite depictions:

"The Night the Roof Fell In":  this is an episode from the "Dick Van Dyke" show that first aired in 1961 and has held up well in the intervening 50 years.  For those of you who remember the original show, even the theme music will be a trip down memory lane.  This episode shows an argument through Laura's (Mary Tyler Moore) and Rob's (Dick Van Dyke) eyes, and both the depictions and the wildly contradictory versions are hilarious.  I think you'll be able to see clearly how two people can have the same fight and see things so differently. You can view these in three YouTube segments, The Night the Roof Fell in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Another responsible depiction of marital struggles is Rob Reiner's "The Story of Us", a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis.  Of course they're both gorgeous eye candy, so that part isn't realistic, but overall it's a nitty gritty look at married life after the romantic phase.  If you get the DVD, pay special attention to Chapter 8, which shows how both sets of the couple's parents are -- in the movie, quite literally -- in the same bed as the couple.  It's both hysterical and a spot on study for how the messages we internalized from our parents play themselves out in our understanding for what it means to be intimate with each other.

Finally, check out "Couples", episode 4 from Season 1 of "Thirty Something", another quality TV program which has aged well.  Like the episode I referenced above from the "Dick Van Dyke" show, this one shows a fight between Nancy (Patricia Wettig) and Eliot (Timothy Busfield) from four different viewpoints:  Nancy's, Eliot's, Hope's (Mel Harris), and Michael's (Ken Olin).  It is absolutely brilliant.  I have watched the episode at least five times and each time I pick out some other detail embedded in the episode, some other way which shows that how we view an experience is as much a reflection of who we are as it is what happened.  The DVD of the season is available Netflix, or watch it online for $2 on Amazon here.

To me these examples show that you can both entertain and enlighten people if you invest more energy and creativity in producing something of lasting value.  It's not that TV or the movies have no value, it's just that I think too often Hollywood has taken the easy way out in order to attract the largest possible crowd and we are left with wildly distorted portrayals of love and commitment.

Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at josh@joshgressel.com.

Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.

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Emily Henry May 30, 2012 at 10:47 PM
Josh, thank you for the examples here. What are some of the "unhealthy" depictions in TV and movies? I'd be interested to know your opinion.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D. May 31, 2012 at 03:02 PM
That's a great question, Emily, and for a moment it stopped me dead in my tracks. Sure, there are some egregious examples of glorified casual sex (yes, I know most of us have done it but now that I'm a geezer I really don't see it as a healthy way of relating for either party) and hyper dependency or hyper independence dressed up as a relational value. But I think for me the question comes down to this: when you watch a relationship depicted on the screen, does it make you somehow feel inadequate? The voice in your head can sound something like "I'm not sexy enough" or "I'm not witty enough" or "I'm not cool enough" or "My relationship isn't as easy as that" or "I'm not macho like him." I think it's a very corrosive element in Hollywood, creating artificial images as ideals that no one (certainly not the Hollywood actors playing the roles) can live up to. I certainly enjoy the beautiful people of LA as much as the next person, but when that beauty extends to air brushing the wrinkles out of relationships, I get on my high horse and want to protest. I can't tell you how many couples in my office think they're the only ones with this particular problem or this level of dysfunction, when actually the couple that just left 10 minutes before has the exact same issue (that's one of the reasons I run couples groups -- so couples can see they're not alone). Where do these unrealistic ideas come from? I blame Hollywood, but that's probably simplistic on my part.


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