Late last Friday, my husband and I had a rare free evening at home so we decided to try to watch something on Netflix. I suggested, “What about that series we started last fall that we stopped watching?” and immediately saw an almost imperceptible guilty expression flash across my husband’s face. “You Netflix cheated, didn’t you?” I accused. “I might have,” he confirmed, trying not to laugh. “How could you? When?” I demanded. “While I was spinning,” he admitted. “How much did you watch?” My voice was getting shrill. He looked away and mumbled, “The whole thing.” “You really watched the entire rest of the seasons without me? We were only into the second season!” I was starting to sound like a crazy, desperate person and I knew it, but I really was feeling a little betrayed. “OK Lor, when is the last time you actually stayed awake for anything we started to watch on Netflix? I don’t think you saw one entire episode. I always end up watching it myself with you asleep next to me.”
True. But it was the principle of the thing.
The term Netflix cheating was coined in 2013 after a survey showed that 51% of people admitted that they would watch a Netflix show ahead alone that they had previously agreed to watch with their partners. Many of those reported that they would hide the fact from their partners and would re-watch it with fake emotion to hide it. A smaller percentage said they would feel guilty enough to confess. Netflix has used this information to their marketing advantage, dramatized in this 2014 Commercial.
One company jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting a set of commitment rings that link to a streaming service that won’t allow access to a certain series unless both partners are together. While that sounds extreme, I have seen couples controlling enough to actually want to pay for that kind of service.
Just last month, in an expansion of the clever marketing campaign with the tagline “Watch responsibly,” Netflix released data collected in a recent survey showing that Netflix cheating has tripled since 2013. They have continued the spoof with an ironic Michael Bolton video encouraging partners to apologize for the betrayal. They went so far as to actually create entertaining cheating profiles.
Sharing media with partners has been associated with greater relationship quality and may be particularly important for couples who are separated by geographical distance. According to research, media sharing can be a way that partners develop and maintain a joint identity. Sharing activities deepens interdependence. It’s a way of establishing “we-ness.”
So, why is Netflix cheating even a thing? Why would a partner feel betrayed by a spouse watching ahead? Like everything else in therapy, it’s a triviality that can be representative of something bigger. While Netflix cheating is a tongue-in-cheek phenomenon, there is some truth to the relationship risk of duplicitous watching ahead. As a marriage therapist, it makes perfect sense to me why people would be legitimately upset. If a partner Netflix cheats it can send a message that “You don’t matter to me,” or “I don’t care about sharing this with you.” It dilutes that concept of “we-ness,” and invites uncertainty into the relationship. It makes a partner more unpredictable.
I have to give my husband credit—while he has Netflix cheated before, he has always had the common courtesy to refrain from revealing spoilers. Also, since he falls into the small percentage of cheaters who feel guilty enough to admit it, I should admire his honesty. That being considered, he’s out of town and I have nothing better to do than to watch the next episode or three of our current shared series. He really should have signed that pre-viewing agreement I suggested the other night. In the interim, I have just enough time to perfect my look of surprise.
Let’s stay home and watch TV: The benefits of shared media use for close relationships (2016) by Sarah Gomillion , Shira Gabriel , Kerry Kawakami , and Ariana F. Young, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, DOI: 10.1177/0265407516660388.
Occasionally, a movie is released that has enough universal impact that I hear about it repeatedly from my clients. So far in 2017, the movie is “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Since its release, I have had many couples come in and report that the low point of their week was seeing the film. Having read critics’ reviews, I realize that the movie’s ending is polarizing. People like it or hate it. I hated it. As someone who dabbles in relationship angst daily, it gave me anxiety. My husband liked it. He pronounced, “I liked that ending—do you want to know why? Because I didn’t let the girl get away.” I’m sure many have experienced it that way, but after watching it, I realized why it was having such a depressing impact on my clients.
If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading. Basically, the movie highlights the utopian budding romance of a couple with enviable chemistry. It generates nostalgia for the feelings associated with first love, which drive an obsessive need to be with one’s objet d’affection. The feelings elicit hope and great expectations.
Then, in the last few minutes of the movie, everything is turned on end when viewers watch the female lead go on a date with her husband (who is not the original male love interest) and stumble upon her old boyfriend’s favorite haunt, which is now his dream-realizing jazz bar. She sees him and immediately viewers experience a speedy montage of what her life and his could have been like if they had stayed together instead of following divergent paths. And guess what? Everything looked perfect. Then, BAM, viewers are slammed upside the head with the scene back in the present in which the female lead is now with someone else. Everything seems copacetic but also seemingly mediocre, even though she has realized her personal dreams and seems happyish.
Many critics like that the ending shook up the classic “happily ever after,” scenario which (sort of) suggests that life can go on even after lost relationships (All Hail Independence). For any of my clients in distressed marriages, it elicited some discomfort about the present and fueled yearning for returning to the wildly hopeful state associated with new love.
I get squeamish when long-term marriage is contrasted with developing relationships. They are quite different, but when they are compared, long-term love is usually presented with a stale energy, suggesting that people in those relationships are somehow missing out. In other words, it is “Blah Blah Land,” vs. “La La Land.” This feeling can be what drives some people to seek out alternative relationships which can ultimately destroy a marriage.
As humans, we are driven to attach to people, which often means setting up a long-term predictable relationship which can be a safe environment for raising children. Sometimes, however, the predictability can diminish novelty and excitement, and dullness ensues. When people talk about marriage being “work,” it’s more than just working at continual compromise—it also applies to actively putting energy and passion into the marriage.
There are several reasons why life in “Blah Blah Land,” (not meant to be pejorative, alluding to prosaic but meaningful process in quotidian family life) is worth pursuing. People in healthy long-term marriages overall enjoy better mental and physical health and financial benefits. They are likely to have better sex lives. Children raised in those environments also experience the same benefits and greater opportunities for academic achievement. Research is indicating that after children are raised, many marital relationships start becoming like they were during “La La Land” courtship. Keep in mind, though, that in contrast, a highly distressed marriage can be deleterious for well-being.
Here are some tips for surviving “Blah Blah Land” to get to the other side where “La La Land” is alive and well.
Accept that feelings of love normally wax and wane in long-term relationships. If you wake up next to your partner thinking, “Really? This is my life?” it doesn’t mean that you are doomed. It means you are uncomfortable in that moment.
Refuse to be boring. I started marriage knowing that I was going to be a marriage therapist. I have always put a lot of effort into my marriage because I wanted a marriage that stayed fresh. Fortunately, my husband has been on board, because it takes two people. The internet is full of ideas. Check out the dating divas for a plethora of options. Be spontaneous. Be unpredictable.
Have something to look forward to. Research indicates that planning and looking forward to something can be more satisfying than the event itself. I try to always have a future event or trip planned for my husband and me.
Try something new together. Anything—new food, a new activity, new restaurant, etc.
Realize that today is not forever. If anyone understands the monotony of the daily grind of raising children, it is I. I don’t even try to explain to people what it was like to have 7 children under the age of 14, with 5 boys, and a husband working full-time and in MBA school. I had periods of time when I had to do a lot of self-talk just to keep from ending up in a fetal position in the closet. A few times, I was in the fetal position in the closet, hoping no one would find me. FYI—They ALWAYS find you (Just ask this mom with quadruplets who tried to get 30 seconds alone).
Don’t ignore the sexual relationship. This is a sensitive topic, but I believe it’s worth doing what it takes to prioritize physical affection. If you need therapy because of past trauma, make that a priority. Don’t deny yourself the ability to have a bonded and satisfying sex life.
Write down what you would miss if your spouse were gone. I have always known that if I weren’t married to my husband, I would never stop missing him.
Make a “year’s worth of new things” calendar (See 2, 3 and 4 above). It only takes 12 things. You can do it!
Ask your partner why he/she still loves you and tell him/her why you love him/her. I asked my husband this a few weeks ago and his answer was, “It’s 100% your mind,” which put me into a laughing fit. “Is that some kind of fat joke?” I challenged, and he said, “No. I like the way you think.” If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have that reassurance to carry around with me. Thinking about it brings me joy.
Laugh, laugh, laugh. Anyway, anyhow. This isn’t always automatic. It takes effort.
Different person, different problems. Sometimes it’s tempting to think that if you were with a different partner, you wouldn’t have problems, but the fact is that when you marry a person, you marry a set of problems. Sometimes people who remarry wish they had the old set of problems back.
Don’t buy into the myth of soul-mateism. In the words of Gary Chapman, “Soul mates tend to be crafted, not found.” I can say comfortably that my husband feels like my “soulmate,” but I also know that I have worked very hard to make it that way. John Gottman asserts that, “There are tens of thousands of people out there that anyone could be happily married to.” I believe that.
I was still feeling a little melancholy about the movie’s ending when I walked into our kitchen and my son sensed that I was not in the best mood. He said, “Uh oh. Mom’s in a bad mood. OK Google, play ‘Eaten by the Monster of Love,’ by Sparks.” Immediately, our Google Home blasted the upbeat, electronic, bubble gum, everything-you-love-to-hate-about-80’s-music, song. I was assaulted with echoes of “Don’t let it get me, ow.” “How appropriate,” I thought, but it did have a cheering effect. I’m at the stage in my life where I can actually see “La La Land,” on the horizon.
In the game of long-term love, effort matters. Refuse to be boring. You will up your happiness quotient.
I Predict. (A little something for my Sparks fans)
Reference: The Science of Marriage (2017). Edited by Nancy Gibbs. Time Magazine Special Edition. Published by Time, Inc., New York.
WARNING: If you are a raging Nicholas Sparks loyalist and can’t wait for the next book or movie to come out, then you will likely feel defensive and misunderstood if you read this post. Continue at your own risk.
I believe in the concept of keeping romance alive in marriage (apologies to those who think marriage has nothing to do with romance—in my marriage, it does). However, I’m something of a romance curmudgeon when it comes to the silver screen.
Recently, my husband and I were trying to find a movie to attend, and for lack of options decided to go see Nicholas Sparks’ new movie, The Best of Me. I’m always somewhat resistant to Sparks’ movies because they so often seem schmaltzy and formulaic, and filled with delusions of destiny. I TRIED to read one of his romance books. Once. (Confession—not a fan of the traditional romance genre).
As I exited the theater, my husband asked me if I liked the movie, and I told him I felt annoyed. The premise is that a man and woman who dated twenty years previously met up together again, and of course immediately felt fueled by fate as they had a brief sexual fling, declared their true love for each other, and painfully separated so he could return to his mediocre lonely life, and she could return to her predictably distant and colorless marriage.
The message: It is burdensome to keep your commitments and do the right thing. You are sad. You might as well curl up in a fetal position now. Oh, and you just passed up your chance at true love…Loser… Lonely loser.
Then, the movie shifted. I won’t COMPLETELY spoil the movie, but SPOILER ALERT and BIG SURPRISE, she divorces her husband. In the brief scene with her son post-divorce, he seems perfectly well adjusted to the fact that his mother and father have ended their nearly 20-year marriage, and she is of course happier than ever, pursuing a new career which will undoubtedly lead her back to “true love.”
As a marriage therapist, I felt sick inside. Since it is easier than ever to reignite former romances and to communicate clandestinely through technology with someone outside of the relationship, there seems to be an endless stream of people damaging or ending their marriages in order to pursue new or former romantic relationships to chase what they think is “true love.”
What the movie did not show was any emotional pain experienced by the son when his parents divorced after their long marriage. Nor did it portray the real grief, pain and loneliness many if not most endure after a divorce, or after the end of the romantic affair that imploded the marriage. That, my friends, is much more realistic.
At this point (especially for the Sparks fans), you may find yourself saying, “Settle down, lady…it’s a fiction romance movie, not a documentary on human relationships.” I know. I get it. However, I get very worried about how “true love” is portrayed in these romances, because the truth is, it affects viewers and their relationships.
If we define true love, by the very real dopamine-induced twitterpation experienced early in a romantic connection which inevitably diminishes over time as relationships become more predictable and secure, then it might be easy to feel like our long-term relationships aren’t “true” at all, and we are missing out. This is more dangerous when that feeling is used as a measuring stick for what is genuine. There is a very real physiological response in a new, exciting relationship, or in a secret affair, and people regularly mistakenly believe this feeling means that the relationship is somehow more legitimate than the long-term one which may seem prosaic in comparison. Over time, the long-term partner can even be viewed as the enemy, preventing “real happiness.”
There have been actual reports of people ending their marriages after watching some of Sparks’ movies, because they felt so disillusioned in their comparatively boring committed relationships.
Interestingly, Sparks is still in a long-term relationship, married to the woman he met in college, and raising a family of five children. That is undoubtedly not easy, even for someone with steady cash flow from writing fantasy romance scripts. He seems like a very committed family man. If I could conduct an interview, I might ask him about how he reconciles his fantasy romance tales with the realism in his own life. I’m guessing Sparks knows how to fuel a real-life romance, and the formula is different than in his stories.
I began wondering what I, as a couples therapist, would include in a really good true love romance, were I to write one (which I am certain will never happen)….one in which the partners have set up a life together, complete with children. Just for fun, I used “romance,” as an acronym.
A really good romance should include:
R for reality: As in real life. Like when your entire family begins vomiting in the middle of the night, and you and your husband both have somewhere to go the following morning, and you stay up all night cleaning up truckloads of vomit, and scrubbing the carpet, and you are cranky, and stinky…oh, and the mortgage was due yesterday and…..well, you get it.
O for obstacle: As in unemployment. As in chronic or devastating mental or physical illness. As in your preschoolers deciding while you are nursing a baby that it would be a good idea to mix the rice, flour and sugar bins together, put some of the mixture in the dishwasher, and then top it off with just the right amount of maple syrup for good measure, and you found out 15 minutes before you are supposed to have your baby at the doctor. As in your kids discovering that if you stomp on Christmas lights while they are still screwed into the string, on your garage floor, it makes a really cool popping, crunchity sound, so they must stomp on ALL of them on ALL of the strings—even the ones stored in the Christmas boxes on the shelf—rendering them useless and leaving miniscule shards of glass strewn about which, like the demon glitter, will find their way into your house months after evading the Shop-Vac…I could go on…
M for Memory: Memory is always being constructed, and has everything to do with the narrative we tell ourselves. People who want to stay married tell their marriage story with the positive things at the forefront. Like, do I want to remember the time my husband and I had one car and he left me standing in the freezing cold because he forgot to come get me, pre-cell phone days, or do I want to remember the time I had been out of town and walked into my room and there were dozens of floral bouquets everywhere? Be careful of entertaining narratives that someone else was your true love—brains remember things better (or worse) than they were. Memories are also notoriously inaccurate and more fluid than most people want to admit.
A for Attitude: Whether you focus on the positive or negative elements of your relationship is completely within your control. I can focus on the fact that my husband can step over a clean basket of clothes that needs to be brought up stairs and folded, for a seemingly indefinite amount of time (since I gave up on the experiment after 5 days) instead of picking it up and folding it himself, or I can focus on the fact that my husband never complained about a wife who asked him to please bring that basket of clothes up the stairs and fold it after it sat there for 5 days.
N for Negotiation: Negotiation is ongoing and necessary for romance to work out. Like when your husband wants to go to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but you really want to go see that action film (patience, dear reader…I threw that in to see if my husband is really reading my blog posts like he says).
C for Commitment: This is the most important variable in long-term relationship durability, and is necessary with any romance. C is also for “children,” who benefit from having parents who they can tell are in love, or who can distract you from your couple relationship because they are dependent on you for their survival. They are also guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.
E for Effort: A good romance requires work, plain and simple, and it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Once, when I had small children, I was feeling resentful because my husband was traveling for business, and I didn’t like the way I was feeling about him, mostly because I was envious that he was able to go to the bathroom by himself. I tried to think of what I could do for him, and I remembered the pile of shirts that needed missing buttons replaced, which I had successfully hidden underneath my more interesting sewing projects so that he would forget about them. I got them out and put buttons on 8 shirts and surprised him with them when he got home. Seeing how appreciative he was made me happy. Romantic indeed.
Please, enjoy romance, but get your education about romance outside of Hollywood.
I’m not a Nicholas Sparks hater. I actually did finish and enjoy, Three Weeks with my Brother, an autobiographical memoir which was actually quite interesting. I just don’t love his romances.
I did recently see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which looked a whole lot more like my life than the Sparks romance. My husband reminded me that I had given him the book while we were engaged when he was having a bad day, and told him it was my most favorite children’s book of all time. I had forgotten. The fact that he remembered, however, made it romantic.
If you are hankering for that romantic film, pick up The Princess Bride. It will make you laugh, unless you have no sense of humor at all, in which case you might want to consult a doctor…or a therapist…or a humor whisperer, I guess.
My favorite line in the movie is when the disguised Wesley said, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”