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Natalie Girshman | Love on Screen

The No Marriage Rule

Published: Monday, February 10, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 10, 2014 06:02

Previously, I’ve talked about tropes that have both a good and a bad side, but which I still hold some affection for. However, this next trope is particularly pernicious and one of my own pet peeves in popular depictions of love: we rarely — if ever — get to see a couple actually being a couple. Instead, there’s page after page, episode after episode, or scene after scene of them breaking up and making up and going through all kinds of angst about why they aren’t together. Rarely — if ever — is a couple portrayed as staying together through most of the series and dealing with the actual challenges of relationships. I like to call it the No Marriage Rule.

Why can’t characters actually get together? First of all, a writer can generate a lot more dramatic tension with endless meaningful glances, deep conversations, accidental (and not-so-accidental) glances and witty banter than with a couple simply being happy together. Even once a pair has gotten together, writers often decide to throw various obstacles in their way. From temptation in the form of an old flame, to job offers in a foreign country, to deadly diseases, to unexpected pregnancies, a couple — especially a television couple — can’t expect an untroubled existence.

Writers may also fear fan backlash if they get a couple together and fail to produce an absolutely perfect romance: for instance, some feel that writers on “Friends” (1994-2004) got Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) together too soon. Sometimes, a couple is better off apart than together such as Finn (Cory Monteith) and Rachel (Lea Michele) on “Glee” (2009-present), back when “Glee” was still a show that people talked about. Their endless, monotonous, contrived story arcs pulled attention from couples that could have been more interesting and instead repeated the same story for two consecutive seasons.

Yet there are still couples that prove the narrative potential of a couple that stays together, with one of the best examples being Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segal) from “How I Met Your Mother” (2005-present). Admittedly, they do briefly break up at the end of the first season, but they get back together within the first few episodes of the second season. Throughout the series, they’re a funny, fun and affectionate couple that dispenses advice to the eternally hapless Ted (Josh Radnor) and try to help Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) have a functional relationship. They’ve gotten through job changes, the death of Marshall’s father, their initial struggle to have a baby and the actual difficulties of parenting — and they still remained one of the most likable and interesting couples anywhere in popular media. There’s also Henry and Clare in “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (2003), whose relationship remains strong and develops throughout the novel. Other notable exceptions to the rule include happily married secondary couples in the work of Jane Austen — such as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), who provide an example of a good marriage for the hero and heroine — and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen Parr (Holly Hunter) in “The Incredibles” (2004), whose relationship is actually made stronger by the trials they go through.

Other tropes may be annoying, but the No Marriage Rule can be harmful. It can teach us to focus on the getting together part of a relationship rather than on being in one. Negotiating the ups and downs of a relationship may be more challenging, but it’s certainly more rewarding. Moreover, a lack of happy couples on screen makes happily ever after seem almost impossible. Popular culture should depict love in all its phases, from beginning to end, and present all kinds of couples, from those who are too shy to do more than exchange longing looks to those who are married with children. Love is bread and roses, coffee and champagne and courtship and marriage. Let’s have a media that reflects that.


Natalie Girshman is a sophomore majoring in history and drama. She can be reached at

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