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.