The write couple

Our parents provide us with a template of what it means to be a couple, as Adam Phillips reminds us in Going Sane, and this can be very helpful and also quite depressing. For most of my life I’ve grown up with the idea that relationships don’t really work, at least not in my family. And I’m really hoping that I can improve on this sometime soon! I know it takes a lot of time and patience and effort (and a good sense of humour) but I think I could also do with a bit of literary inspiration here.

So I’ve been racking my brains to think of famous couples — in fiction, in movies and on TV. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far (in no particular order, and mixing media): Elizabeth and Darcy; Hope and Michael (from Thirtysomething); Beauty and the Beast; Homer and Marge; Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (in Pretty Woman); Heathcliff and Catherine; Romeo and Juliet; Anthony and Cleopatra.

The first couple I thought of was Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Not surprisingly, some psychologists use this as an example of “Cognitive Therapy” – how misperceptions and “faulty cognitions” lead to, well, pride and prejudice. And how emotions can change once those thoughts are addressed and proved to be incorrect. Psychologists have also used Hope and Michael in couples therapy – showing husbands what it’s like to be a bit more sensitive for example (this was the early 90s after all). I’ll leave Beauty and the Beast to another time maybe – but as with Cinderella and her Prince there’s a strong transformational element here (and also some perceptual issues). Homer and Marge? Well, Homer’s basically an overgrown boy but he loves Marge and he makes it up to her so I suppose they make it work. Pretty Woman is a variation on the Cinderellas theme. And here is where I confess that I’ve never actually read Wuthering Heights. Shocking I know. The closest I’ve come to that is hearing my sister play the Kate Bush song “Cathy I’ve come home” about a million times. Romeo and Juliet is a whole discussion in itself but there are a number of different levels to this – invididual vs family and society, how love is stronger when it’s forbidden, and how pleasure is amplified by anxiety perhaps.

From a therapy point of view, I get to see many examples of what not to do in a relationship – all the disappointment, the settling for less, the frustration and resentment and bitterness. But I’m interested in couples that manage to make it work. Not so much the smug-marrieds as the inspirational-marrieds. Let me know if you have any enlightening or inspiring books I can add to my couples-education reading list.

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9 Responses to The write couple

  1. Let me tell you, Heathcliffe was not marriage material! No sense of humour, for one. A couple who I’m fond of in literature is Mr and Mrs Darling of Peter Pan fame. It’s partially the cute name, which means you’ve got to love them, but also the way they are so forgiving of each other. Mr Darling makes a series of mistakes which result in the children escaping with Peter Pan, which he regrets so badly that he insists on sleeping in the dog’s kennel by way of self-punishment. Mrs Darling is patient and forgiving with him. She allows him to make his mistakes and she allows him to suffer his own guilt. I like how she doesn’t try to make him grow, but allows him to grow at his own pace.

    Unfortunately, happy couples don’t make great literature, so they are few and far between. I would love to see your full list once you have it.

  2. Emily Barton says:

    Well, don’t know if I can recommend any books, but I would say (echoing Charlotte), stay away from Heathcliffe and Cathy, unless you’re planning on talking about what doesn’t work. I’m convinced it takes three things: love, strong commitment from both members, and the ability for both members to laugh at themselves. Oddly, Marge and Homer do seem to fit that bill. If I can think of others, I’ll return and let you know.

  3. litlove says:

    When my blog was quite young I asked a similar question about happy marriages in literature and really couldn’t come up with any! But they are often there – have you read any Anne Tyler? I think she’s fabulous at showing relationships evolve and devolve. Do read The Accidental Tourist if you haven’t already – it’s one of my all time great books. I would also recommend Richard Russo’s Straight Man (which I’m sure you’d love) for the marriage in that. If I think of any others, I’ll get back to you.

  4. verbivore says:

    I can’t help but agree with the everyone else here, truly nuanced, happy relationships in fiction are few and far between. I like Litlove’s suggestion of Anne Tyler, she tends to get the realistic (both ups and downs) of marriage right. Alice McDermott works in that direction as well but her focus is never specifically on the marriage. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the couple in Gordimer’s The House Gun was one of the most realistic, loving but in crisis, of any I’ve read.

  5. Pete says:

    Charlotte – thanks for the suggestion re the Darlings of Peter Pan fame – they sound like a sweet couple. I think forgiveness and patience are definitely under-prized virtues.

    Emily – yes I think that love, commitment and a sense of humour can get people through almost anything. And Homer and Marge do seem like a really odd (but workable) couple.

    Litlove – Yes I loved reading Anne Tyler. Can’t remember if I’ve read the Accidental Tourist but I really enjoyed the movie with William Hurt and Geena Davis. And will look out for Richard Russo’s The Straight Man. Thanks.

    Verbivore – Thanks for the suggestion re Alice McDermott. I’m writing down all these suggestions for the book voucher I’m going to cash in soon! And I just went to check Gordimer’s The House Gun and that couple’s resilience in the face of their family crisis sounds interesting. Thanks.

  6. seachanges says:

    I don’t think you’ve got Lancelot and gGuinevere in there yet, but this was of course an adultorous love and probably does not fit your question/description! I’m with Litlove as far as Anne Tyler’s books are concerned. The Accidental tourist is definitely one of the best. There are some short story collections specifically on ‘best marriages’, but I haven’t read any of those. Here’s a website on Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere: http://www.sir-lancelot.co.uk/Guinevere-Lancelot.htm

  7. Pete says:

    SeaChanges – thanks for the link and would be interested to read more about Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. I don’t think you can write off relationships just because they don’t fit the mould of what’s considered desirable / generally accepted. In such a situation divorce is generally unthinkable (as with Princess Di) so is it really fair to judge? But not an easy topic to consider.

  8. musingsfromthesofa says:

    Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. It may take them a while but by the time they get married, it seems safe. They gave me hope.

  9. smithereens says:

    I think you should differentiate building relationships and established ones: the first type make novels look like fairy tales, the story ends when the couple gets married (and lives happily ever after). The second is often a situation when the marriage is threatened and either fails or is saved.
    On positive couples, I would say Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence (but there would be a lot to say about their non-sexual relationship).

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