Director Noah Baumbach’s much-vaunted divorce tale — ironically titled “Marriage Story” — received a best-in-show six nominations at the Golden Globes and is now riding into the Oscars with the prospect of winning not only the Academy Award for best picture but also for best actor, actress and screenplay. As the chorus of praise swells, however, this expletive laden, vein-popping portrait of marriage’s descent into divorce also raises questions about how popular depictions of romance and marriage (or its demise) influence the scripts of our own intimate relationships.
To what extent are we, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, imitating art?
Do cautionary tales about love gone sour, poison our collective marital wells? Is the escapist allure of happily-ever-after creating unrealistic expectations?
The answers to these questions are nuanced, and certainly not every movie or binge-worthy streaming show becomes a ready-made guidebook for life. But there are nonetheless reasons why we might want to better understand — particularly for the sake of emerging adults — how overly romanticized or distorted portrayals of relationships modulate mature models of love that sustain healthy pairings.
Let’s face it, most of us are romantics.
We rightly celebrate the news of an engagement; we’re thrilled when we discover that our favorite characters of a television series will, in fact, become a couple after six seasons of “will they, won’t they” drama. There’s a reason why Hallmark is in an ever-escalating arms race with streaming services to produce the ultimate vault of feel-good romantic movies. This positive, hopeful view is what economists call the optimism bias. We are, as a species, bullish about the likelihood of positive events while simultaneously discounting the potential downsides. This bias spills over into how we approach relationships, and exposure to fairytale media may exacerbate it.
From rom-coms to reality television shows, the examples of relationships we see as adolescents (and the extent to which we internalize them) may be impacting our own ability to initiate and maintain healthy relationships and marriages. This concern has long been held with regard to sometimes-problematic onscreen depictions of risky behaviors — such as smoking, drinking, or drug use — in films aimed at teens. But, less concern is typically expressed about the relationship patterns our entertainment pushes, and yet, research on adolescents suggests that film and television can in fact influence assumptions and attitudes about intimate relationships.
For adults, meanwhile, viewing different relationships in the media can have positive effects. Findings from a study out of the University of Rochester suggest that couples who watched movies together featuring relationships, had discussions about the positive and negative factors of those relationships, and then applied those discussions to their own relationships were observed to have just as positive of outcomes as couples who participated in marital education interventions.
On the flip side, the study further supports the reality that, to at least a limited extent, we learn patterns from the examples we see in the media. And, for less mature audiences, the social cues we take may shape perceptions and mold patterns. Lamentably, the media portrayals of marriage we often encounter exhibit polarized paradigms.
On the one hand, there are overly romanticized narratives that fail to represent the realistic complexities of marriage, but, on the other hand, there are narratives that depict marriage as archaic, oppressive, or, in the case of “Marriage Story,” brimming with pain. Both ends of the spectrum present potentially harmful — or at least unhelpful — beliefs.
In addressing marital paradigms, philosopher Alain de Botton argues that romanticism, taken literally, reinforces unhealthy patterns in relationships, including the belief that true love should be easy and automatic, that it accepts us just as we are without requiring any growth or sacrifice on our part, and that true love does not require — or is even hindered by — robust and thorough communication.
Romanticism at its core, is the expectation of total acceptance by another human being, an ideology in which to receive correction from one’s partner may be viewed as evidence that love has waned. Because, as one study has found, unrealistic portrayals can sometimes lead to unrealistic expectations of marriage, it may be that individuals who adhere to the conventional wisdom of romanticism are poorly prepared to weather rough patches that any normal long-term relationship is sure to bring.
Perhaps in an effort to compensate or calibrate for these long-established romantic tropes, there are other narratives in today’s media — even films for children — that reject idealized romance. But these risk going too far, landing closer to ideological trends that seem aimed to discount the value of marriage and stable, long-term relationships overall.
One recent example is Pixar’s “Brave”, a story about a Scottish princess who defies tradition by refusing to become betrothed. Not only does Merida, the protagonist, view marriage as smothering, but the animated film depicts men (albeit playfully) as incompetent buffoons. Not a single adult male character escapes this treatment. Even the king, although at times caring, is portrayed as markedly less intelligent than his wife, Eleanor. When not directly tipping the scales, other media narratives present marriage as simply incompatible or in conflict with careers and life goals.
In their book entitled “The Case for Marriage,” researchers Waite and Gallagher describe this phenomenon as a post-marriage culture, in which marriage and family ties are regarded as a threat to individual fulfillment and desire. This is the case, for example, in Damien Chazelle’s romantic-drama musical film, “La La Land,” about a young actress and a jazz musician who meet and fall in love while pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles. Despite their passion for each other, they ultimately part ways in favor of their careers. They go on to become successful, but not together. To be fair, part of the film’s message underscores the relational sacrifices we often make at the altar of careerism — forcing us to ask whether it’s worth it. But audiences, particularly the younger sort, can hardly be blamed for missing the message.
The two polar extremes of love — the idealized, romanticized love, as well as the rejection of marriage — are both potentially distorted sets of beliefs for the well-being of marriage in society. A significant way to address this paradox is to promote the representation of more realistic, nuanced, and yet resilient and fulfilling marriages in the media. Two great examples are the television series’ “This Is Us” by the NBC Network, and “Poldark” by the BBC One Network.
The two polar extremes of love — the idealized, romanticized love, as well as the rejection of marriage — are both potentially distorted sets of beliefs for the well-being of marriage in society.
Both shows feature an imperfect couple battling through very real and difficult life challenges including adoption, child mortality, eating disorders, addictions, poverty, infertility, and even infidelity. The couples and families portrayed in these stories are far from over-simplified fairy tales. And yet, they also do not condemn marriage and family as an outdated institution or, per “Marriage Story,” as a brutal series of raw emotional eruptions. “This Is Us” and “Poldark” exemplify how the beauty of family more often exists because of the hardships, the sacrifices, the unrelenting commitment to one another, and especially forgiveness in the face of deep wounds and betrayal.
Conversely, when we buy into the allure of romanticism, we are tempted to place our significant other on an untouchable pedestal, which can be dangerous because once they err — or once our infatuation wanes — the fall is all the greater. In one striking scene from “Poldark,” Ross, the protagonist, delivers a proverbial line when comparing his first love, the “untouchable, perfect” Elizabeth, to his wife Demelza, who is “imperfect, human, and real.” He claims that “... when you take an idealized love, and bring it down to the level of an imperfect one, it isn’t the imperfect one that suffers.” In other words, the fantasy of a perfect relationship will always fall before the reality of an imperfect one, simply because the expectation of perfection is not equipped to handle the challenges of marriage.
In the long run, it is humanity, not perfection, that endures the tempests of love. This idea deeply permeates the narrative and message of these two shows. If we can learn and accept that our loved ones are human, that they will make mistakes, and that the opportunity for forgiveness and redemption is positive and powerful, we will be one step closer as a society to building and maintaining lasting, healthy relationships.
In her book on the history of marriage, Stephanie Coontz describes an interesting irony of the modern marriage: Because marriage in the west is now more commonly initiated by choice on the basis of love — as opposed to being arranged for necessity or economic and political advantage — it is simultaneously far more fragile and far more fulfilling and egalitarian than ever before.
Because people today can live productive independent lives outside marriage, there’s something markedly intentional about creating and sustaining a relationship that is entirely voluntary. Coontz states that today, “marriage is fought for in a way unprecedented by past generations.” People work hard to foster intimacy and trust in their relationships, displaying a level of dedication that couples of the past might find astonishing. With marriage now becoming more optional than ever, how then, can people who want to cultivate these relationships withstand the modern challenges of matrimony?
Brigham Young University professor Jason Carroll defines what he calls “mature love” or the ideal of marriage supported by benevolent actions and attitudes that promote the development of our relationships. Similarly, in his talk on romanticism, de Botton calls true love “the willingness to be generous in the interpretation of another’s behavior.” In other words, we must see and accept our partners as flawed individuals who will make mistakes, and that this is to be expected.
Perhaps a helpful metaphor is to think of marriage like the experience of running a marathon. For the runner, the experience is surely painful and arduous, but also promises an unquantifiable sense of joy and thrill, and likely an intense feeling of accomplishment. Runners spend many months training for the race and putting in the work. This diligent preparation is comparable to the “benevolent attitudes” that characterize mature love in marriage.
In order to have success, we must do the things required to maintain a healthy relationship. Then perhaps, even more important to the race is our anticipated perception of the difficulties we will encounter. The successful marathon runner is not disappointed when the race becomes challenging in the sixth mile, because the pain is to be expected. This is not to say that unhealthy or abusive relationships are to be endured in order to make it to the finish line — they aren’t and divorce exists for a reason. But, when we expect and prepare for lesser hardships — the kinds that beset so many normal relationships — their occurrence is less devastating and possibly even strengthening. Likewise, we can approach and represent marriage with the expectation that it will be difficult, but ultimately a fulfilling and beautiful experience, worthy of our sacrifice and commitment.
When we expect and prepare for lesser hardships — the kinds that beset so many normal relationships — their occurrence is less devastating and possibly even strengthening.
This model is particularly important as modern marriage increasingly becomes an effective “trophy” or “capstone” marker of affluence that one achieves after they are established financially or otherwise. The marathon marriage, however, can remain democratized. The accomplishments of this kind of marriage don’t rely primarily on wealth or status, but rather on the dignity and joy of building enduring familial bonds.
In discussing the representation of marital relationships in the media, it would seem that those most capable of promoting positive change in this direction would be those directly involved in the entertainment industry. Though true, in a practical sense, each of us as discerning consumers benefits from an awareness of how the media might affect our perceptions of the world. If we simply pay attention to the stories we watch and their effect on us, we can learn to be selective of what relational patterns we choose to internalize into our own lives; we become discerning about our children’s media consumption as well.
What’s more, we can be intentional about utilizing the lessons we learn from the media to inform us of our own biases and mistakes in relationships. We should not be exposing ourselves or our children exclusively to overly romanticized depictions of love or scripts that dismiss marriage as a destructive institution that has outgrown its usefulness.
If we can view — and depict — marriage as something that is simultaneously beneficial and attainable, our desire and ability to flourish in important relationships is likely to grow. Marriage can thrive, not just because we are infatuated with the idea of falling in love, but, importantly, because we are prepared as individuals and as a society to do what is necessary, through work and sacrifice, to reap the perhaps less glamorous, but far more satisfying, human rewards of marriage.
Isadora Ferreira De Melo is a student at Brigham Young University. Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. Their views are their own.