Trust us: Pick a Nancy Meyers movie for your next date night. BY OLIVIA STREN
IN A CLASSIC 1997 episode of Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine goes to see
The English Patient—the Oscar-winning war drama set in a bomb-ravaged Italian villa and in the Tunisian desert—with a date, Blaine. While leaving the theatre, a dry-eyed Elaine runs into friends who are all sniffling and clutching bouquets of well-used tissues. Blaine, repulsed by Elaine’s flintiness, declares, “To tell you the truth, Elaine, I don’t think I can be with someone who doesn’t like The English Patient.” Later, when Elaine’s boss learns of her hatred for the film, he fires her and then dispatches her to live in a cave in the Tunisian desert so that she might better appreciate the movie.
What is so memorably absurd about this scenario is how non-absurd it seemed to me at the time, when I was in my early 20s. A friend of mine nearly broke up with her long-term boyfriend because he remained unmoved during a viewing of Titanic. While she sobbed enough tears to sink an ocean liner, he chewed on a Glosette and remarked, “The dialogue feels contrived.” “I think you’re contrived,” she shouted. It was around this time that I watched The Way
We Were with a new boyfriend. I loved the movie—the script, the outfits, the nostalgia-inducing soundtrack, the thrilling freshness of ’70s-era Redford and Streisand in cream cable-knits on a California beach. I appraised his emotionless performance in watching Redford’s and Streisand’s sweeping performances, viewing it as a sort of litmus test for our compatibility and romantic fate—which was doomed, as it turned out. Today, I can’t say that my husband and I always share the same viewing tastes: He could happily watch sports on television for 12 hours (I have even seen him watch poker tournaments in a state of rapture); meanwhile I can barely handle watching hockey for 12 seconds. But he, at least, is open and evolved enough to also watch Baby Boom.
All this to say that I’ve long believed that differing tastes in pop culture can be an emotionally high-stakes affair; how many of us are just a Steel Magnolias screening away from a breakup? But a recent University of Rochester study found that watching romantic movies can, in fact, prevent breakups. The research, published in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, followed 174 newlywed couples over the course of three years and established that watching and discussing so-called relationship movies could cut the three-year divorce rate in half. For this movie-as-counselling approach, couples were told to watch five films (a list of possible films was provided; The English Patient, interestingly, was not on it—too divisive?) and then discuss them.
This study seems to put a lot of pressure on Terms of Endearment’s ability to rescue a marriage. But if the movie analysis was conceived to help newlywed couples, I wonder if it might help a less, um, fresh married couple—say, me and my husband of over seven years. I decide to call Rebecca Cobb, professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University and director of SFU’s Couples Lab, who contributed to the study, to better understand the benefits of this kind of Hollywood intervention. “We think the important element for couples was
giving conscious and deliberate attention to their relationships—how they supported each other through tough times and how they dealt with hurt feelings,” she says. Indeed, the crux of the study was that the couples were given a list of 12 post-film questions to consider—for example, how did they feel the cinematic lovers handled conflict? Cobb continues: “It probably isn’t enough to simply watch movies together—couples already do that. They need to think about how their relationship is working or not working and how they want to change it. The movies are a catalyst for those important conversations that couples may not be having.”
I ask Professor Cobb if the movies can, as I and Elaine Benes can attest, also have problematic effects. Though the study revealed that conjugal movie viewing and chatting can promote intimacy and understanding, I’ve rather been of the opinion that Hollywood has a lot to answer for when it comes to expectation management in relationships. Comparison, as the axiom goes, is the thief of joy (see: Instagram), so watching the more glamorous, repartee-spiced courtship of film characters, it seems to me, has a deft way of taking the shine away from one’s own romance. I’ve commonly left a theatre somehow hating a boyfriend because he wasn’t, say, Colin Firth and wanting to divorce myself because I wasn’t, say, Meg Ryan. “I agree with you that movies, TV and books can create unrealistic and unhealthy expectations about relationships,” says Cobb. “Many movies and romance novels promote ideas that are actually related to unhappiness in romantic relationships—such as ‘True love conquers all,’ ‘There is only one soulmate for me’—but we chose the movies in the intervention carefully. Romantic comedies are not terribly suitable because they usually only show the beginning of a relationship.”
These days, well past the meet-cute stage of my relationship, I often find myself thinking of the late, great Nora Ephron’s quote about children and marriage: “When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage, and when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was.” The explosion is set off, at least in part, by a deprivation of sleep and time, by stresses physical and financial. If, before we had our son five years ago, my husband and I used to spend weekends discussing how busy we were over leisurely brunches, we now seem to spend our time “off ” at feral birthday parties, sob-inducing swimming lessons and wild trampoline parks that make Disney World look like an ashram. I can tell you now that when it comes to romance, spending a Saturday with five-year-olds and a ball pit is no candlelit dinner at Paris’ Le Grand Colbert, like the characters have in Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give.
So when I spotted some of Meyers’ masterpieces on the “intervention list” from the study, I proposed to my husband that we embark on a romance-moviewatching-as-therapy adventure. (If there’s anything I love as much as a good romcom, it’s therapy—the combination of the two is frankly thrilling.) He was game. Neither of us is a stranger to the couch, and as far as I can tell, a partner’s openness to therapy is almost as curative as the therapy itself. When my husband and I started dating, he told me that he’d seen a therapist, and the admission was basically a seduction; it could not have been more attractive had he started reciting Keats. I told a friend about it at the time. “Oh, my God, he’s gone to a shrink?” she said. “What an aphrodisiac!”
We kicked off our movie treatment with a screening of Meyers’ It’s Complicated, and we both fell freshly in love with Alec Baldwin and also with Meryl Streep’s character’s rambling Spanish-style ranch, complete with sun-bathed vegetable gardens, and sprawling Dean & DeLuca-style bakery, in which she teaches a besotted Steve Martin how to confect a perfect petit pain au chocolat. The Meyers immersion was an intense and luxurious delight, and most of the therapy, it seems to me, was simply from my husband and I spending actual leisure time together. Because when, as Ephron put it, the dust settles and a couples-only trip to the grocery store suddenly passes for romance, watching a Nancy Meyers movie on a weeknight while our son slumbered in the next room may as well have been a weekend trip to Paris in the springtime.
If lately I’m thinking of the allure of strolling a Hamptons beach in fresh whites (see, again,
Something’s Gotta Give), I am also thinking about words shared by Brooklyn-based author Jancee Dunn in her brilliantly titled book How Not to Hate Your
Husband After Kids (a romcom waiting to happen if I’ve ever heard one). She writes about once-the-dust-has-settled nuptial distress: “While I carefully apply sunscreen to the back of [our daughter’s] neck and shield her from the harms of too much sugar by scrutinizing the label of her Nature’s Path EnviroKidz Organic Lightly Frosted Amazon Flakes, I apparently feel free to trash her sense of peace by yelling horrible names at her father,” she writes with obvious sarcasm. “We save our best selves for our children.” I mulled that over as my husband and I curled up to watch The Way We
Were. Devoting time to our tired selves—instead of confining our only moments together to, say, attempting to extract a bawling child from a bouncy castle—was therapeutic in itself. It didn’t hurt that it was my husband’s inaugural viewing of The Way
We Were and he loved it, thankfully. Otherwise I might have had to file.
This movie-based therapy, I can only conclude, might have a decidedly different effect on dust-covered marriages than it does on the freshly wed. Watching Redford and Streisand fight about Marxism was restorative, but not because it kindled profound conversation. The romance we discovered felt instead like a fling with our younger, more rested selves—a flirtation with the way we were, when time was as abundant as the California sunshine and kitchen-counter space in a Nancy Meyers movie and as expansive as the Tunisian desert in The English Patient.®
“IT PROBABLY ISN’T ENOUGH TO SIMPLY WATCH MOVIES TOGETHER— COUPLES ALREADY DO THAT. THEY NEED TO THINK ABOUT HOW THEIR RELATIONSHIP IS WORKING OR NOT WORKING.”