There are few things as dramatic and universal as love – hence why television, along with every other story-telling medium, has always been so fascinated by it. Yet according to relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, it’s also complicated in ways that are rarely captured on screen.
“The first thing is that TV usually only portrays love as the initial attraction,” she says. “So that makes us feel like we have to feel like that all the time. But we don’t at all. Love is date-stamped physiologically. Physiologically, those nervous, excited feelings die after anything from six months to two years.
“Another problem is that TV doesn’t present an idea of relationships that are good, supportive, and generally problem-free; because in order to be interesting on screen you need to have some intrinsic problem. And as soon as it solves, the credits roll. Maybe they’ll gaze into each other’s eyes, but you never see the good model of the next 40 years of the happy ever after. So you don’t get an impression of the bits that actually make relationships work. Remember, there’s always life after the credits.”
Deep. So, with all that in mind, we asked Susan to sit down with some of our favourite fictional TV couples to get her opinion on their relationships, and whether they would really survive in the real word. Happy Valentine’s Day.
The Doctor and Rose Tyler (Doctor Who)
Who? He’s a 903-year-old Time Lord who travels through time and space, she’s a 19 year-old Earthling from a council estate.
The potential problem: The Doctor and Rose’s relationship is pretty weird for a number of reasons, not least that whole ‘I’m leaving you in a parallel universe with a half-human clone of myself’ thing. But let’s forget about that for a moment and talk age gaps. There’s 884 years between the Doctor and Rose. Could such a gulf in age and experience ever work?
Susan says: “It’s a big age difference. But age differences absolutely work if there’s motivation and if their values are the same; in other words, what each partner believes about the world. The particular situation between Rose and the Doctor is more acceptable in society because we still believe the man to be older than the woman. If she was 903, and he was a teenager, it’d be frowned on more. What you do need to look for is as Rose gets more mature and older, her values might change. Because who you are at 19 is not who you are at 39.”
Could it work? “Him having more experience is more likely for him to play an acolyte role and she might get resentful of this. ‘Hold on a minute, I know stuff too.’ But if he was willing to accept what she brings to the table, and tries not to be a father figure to her, then yes, it can work.”
Ross Geller and Rachel Green (Friends)
The potential problem: When Rachel lands the job of her dreams, Ross turns needy and jealous, straining their relationship so severely that Rachel suggests a break. Cue Ross drowning his sorrows, sleeping with someone else and breaking Rachel’s heart. It also spawned the great debate – and one of the worst – of our times: Were they, or were they not, on a break? And if so, do they even work?
Susan says: “Well, a break is a break! You can’t have a break and then assume you’re still a couple. I think people go wrong on that, where they have different definitions of a break. One partner thinks, ‘a break means not seeing each other for a while’ and the other thinks, ‘well, we’re single now’, so there can be a big miscommunication there.”
Would it work? “The good thing about this is that the relationship is based on friendship. Because with friendship you know the bad side and the good side of each other already, and it’s going to be much more realistic when you get back together.”
Cersei Lannister and Jaime Lannister (Game of Thrones)
Who? The Lannisters are the most powerful family in Westeros, yet hide a sensational secret: two of their most influential members, Jaime and his royal sister Cersei, are totally doing it.
The potential problem: It’s incest. Use your imagination.
Susan says: “The underlying thing here is that when you’re totally related – there’s supposed to be an in-built resistance. However, genetically, similarity can bring us together. It’s called GSA – genetic sexual attraction – and there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of brothers and sisters meeting, not knowing they’re brother/sister and there being a magnetic attraction. Also, because there’s a lot of social pressure, it becomes you against the world, and that brings you close together too.”
Would it work? “They’ll probably cling together because of the secret – until it’s discovered, and then there will probably be a lot of blood involved.”
Luther and Alice Morgan (Luther)
Who? He’s the hard-boiled murder detective who gets results, she’s the prolific murderer who will never be caught.
The potential problem: Luther and Alice are not explicitly romantic, but it’s obvious that the show ships them pretty hard. Could they ever overcome their differences?
Susan says: “She may be attracted to more righteous values, and he might be attracted to the fact there’s a side of him that is expressed in her. As a murder detective, even if she sees the light, can she really settle down with someone with that history? But if he flips and becomes a murderer, maybe it could work.”
Would it work? “I have a one word answer to this one: no.”
Leonard and Penny (The Big Bang Theory)
Would it work? “None of the couples I ever work with say, ‘I’m only into looks and riches’. I’ve never had a client say that to me. In real life, people are much more subtle than that. So we’ve moved on from the model of, ‘It’s either brawn or brain’ or ‘beauty or brain’ to being attracted to what attracts you. And actually, the crunch here, is whether they respond to each other emotionally. Because that will always trump looks.”
Homer and Marge Simpson (The Simpsons)
Who are they: Homer is the work-shy, donut-eating couch potato, whereas Marge plays the less attractive role of long-suffering housewife.
What’s the problem: The Simpsons constantly flashes back to Marge and Homer’s younger years, both young, in love, and in the case of Homer, a little more slim-lined. Three kids later, the couple have fallen into the typical 50s family set-up, with supposed breadwinner Homer drinking into the late hours with his friends, and Marge left at home to cook and clean. Is such a one-sided marriage doomed to fail?
Susan says: “It’s a traditional, old-fashioned relationship. The thing is, if both parties buy into it, they may not be blissfully happy, but they live with it. So for the beautiful subservient wife, there may be something in it for her around security, and the ability to nag him maybe is familiar to her, maybe comforting to her. He’s happy because he’s being waited on hand and foot. It might not be what we’re like nowadays, but 100 years ago, kindness is what a woman expected from a husband. I’m not saying it’s OK. But it is a traditional model.”
Chances of survival: “She’s not going to walk. He’s not going to walk. But is it an ideal marriage? I wouldn’t say so.”
How to Choose a Partner by Susan Quilliam, is out now