Great Expectations: Television’s Effect on Your Relationship

This week, staff writer Dallas Fitzgerald gives a comparison and contrast between real-life relationships and those portrayed on television. What do YOU think?

I consume a lot of culture—television shows, music, books, movies, websites—and one thing I’ve noticed is that television shows, in particular, create great expectations for our relationships.  In most TV shows, the characters that are in a relationship experience some sort of conflict in their relationship, the conflict comes to a head, and by the end of the episode, the characters resolve the conflict and are shown peacefully cuddling on the couch.  This pattern follows a traditional narrative arc—conflict, climax, and resolution—and it is an effective way to tell a fictional story.

In real life, however, relationships aren’t so simple.  Conflicts are rarely, if ever, totally resolved, and lingering feelings from one conflict often provide the spark that ignites the next conflict.  While characters in TV shows are cuddling on the couch happy and content with the resolution, people in real relationships are cuddling on the couch as well, but they aren’t quite so happy or content.  They are rehashing the conflict, plotting their next move, and rehearsing what they might do differently next time to obtain a more favorable result.  There are no complete resolutions to conflicts in real-life relationships: only tenuous peace treaties.

I think that, too often, we expect our relationships to be like the ones we see on TV.  We expect simple conflicts to be followed by simple resolutions; and when our relationships don’t follow this pattern, we experience a sort of dissonance: the expectations that we have for our relationships do not match up with the reality of those relationships.  Because of this, we think that there is something wrong with our relationships, but this is simply not true.

TV shows portray relationships and the conflicts that result from them simplistically because they have to cram the entire conflict into a half-hour or sixty minute program.  Real relationships are drawn out affairs.  They exist over days, weeks, months, years, and sometimes even decades, and often-times individual conflicts are re-visited numerous times throughout the lifetime of a given relationship.  This does not mean that there is something wrong with that relationship; it simply means that it’s a real relationship.

I’m not saying TV shows are bad.  I love TV, and I love TV relationships.  What I am saying is that it’s not good to use TV shows as models upon which to base our expectations for our real-life relationships.  This creates great expectations, which our relationships will almost certainly fail to live up to, and when this occurs, we risk abandoning those relationships in search of new ones that we believe will more accurately represent the fictional relationships that we see on TV.  Remember, it’s just a TV show.  Don’t make it anything more than it is.

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