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How Couples Watch TV: A Valentine’s Day Investigation

As trivial as it may seem, TV plays a significant role in romantic partnerships, and not always a frictionless one. This is a story about how our choices around what to watch can be about so much more than entertainment.

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My partner likes to joke that if he actually watched TV, it would ruin our relationship.

A lifelong insomniac, Hunter spent one too many nights in college mainlining whole seasons of TV from dusk ’til dawn. Eventually, something had to give—so he went cold turkey, cutting himself off in the name of good sleep hygiene.

One might think this would pose a problem when dating a professional TV critic: I watch TV for a living, and love to discuss it even off the clock; he doesn’t watch TV at all. But in the two and a half years we’ve been together, our media habits have proved strangely complementary. With no preferences on his part, Hunter is essentially a blank slate. Meanwhile, I have the trump card of needing to watch things for work. Most of the time, we stick to movies or the odd episode of Iron Chef. Occasionally, we’ll watch a screener I didn’t manage to squeeze into my workday, and he’ll offer his thoughts as I scrawl down my notes. It’s a system that works well for both of us.

In other words, it’s rare for us to debate whether or how to watch a TV show. But from conversations with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—the kind of discussions that come up organically, given my interests and profession—I know that’s a rare luxury. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve brought up a weekly, plot-heavy show like Succession to a friend, only to be ordered not to spoil: They’d promised to watch with their girlfriend, but she’d had a busy month at work, so they were weeks behind. Or gotten a text from someone freshly caught up on the latest Below Deck because their reality-phobic partner was out of town. Or heard from a couple who needed advice on a compromise pick and laid out their respective tastes in the hopes I’d suggest a show in the center of their Venn diagram.

As trivial as it may seem, TV plays a significant role in romantic partnerships and not always a frictionless one. It makes sense when you think about it. Part of what’s always fascinated me about the medium, beyond any specific show or trend, is how intimate it is—the literal place television has in our homes, and how bound up it gets in the rhythms of our daily lives. It’s only natural that TV would get bound up in other forms of intimacy, especially as a relationship gets serious. We often associate movies with going out to the theater on early dates. (Streaming complicates this somewhat, especially during the pandemic, but we’re speaking in generalities here.) TV is for the home and the people close enough to share yours with.

So for this Valentine’s Day, I decided to look into how other couples manage their media diets and the potential related issues. What follows is hardly a scientific study—though if any anthropologists are reading this, I’d love to read one. Instead, it’s a glimpse at how our choices around what to watch can be about so much more than entertainment.

“I was joking the other day that I want to write a paper titled ‘The Dishwasher,’” says Orna Guralnik, a practicing psychologist and psychoanalyst based in New York City. “But I think ‘The TV Show’ could be the same thing,” she says: It’s a symbolic, deceptively mundane site of conflict and compromise. “The number of discussions and the way that people talk about how to navigate watching TV together is pretty extraordinary,” she observes.

You may know Guralnik as the titular therapist on Couples Therapy, the Showtime docuseries. After all, who better to talk about couples and TV than a couples’ therapist who’s on TV?

The primacy of TV to some relationships partly reflects the primacy of TV in culture at large, especially during the past couple of years. The rise of prestigious, conversation-driving shows creates pressure to watch buzzy shows attentively and fast; the pivot to streaming has made it possible to summon massive catalogs with the push of a button, leading to endless scrolls and decision fatigue. Add in a pandemic in which watching TV at home becomes one of a drastically limited set of options and it’s little wonder TV becomes a flashpoint.

When I put out a call on social media for examples in this vein, I was instantly flooded with replies. Some of the most amusing were from couples I knew in real life who could share both sides of the story. “Justin won’t watch any science fiction or fantasy,” vents Ringer Jeopardy! correspondent Claire McNear of her husband. (Replies Justin: “my spouse keeps spoiling Jeopardy! for me please help.”) Adds McNear: “He calls them all ‘the dragon show.’ He’ll be in the other room watching old men burst blood vessels in their eyes screaming about Ben Simmons and he’ll be like, ‘Oh are you watching the dragon show?’” McNear says the genre ban is so complete it even extends to shows like Yellowjackets, where the supernatural element is ambiguous: “The man should be sent to television Azkaban.”

My friend Steven told me the different speeds at which he and his partner Allegra watch TV is “our biggest relationship pain point” in a relationship that, for context, now spans seven years and multiple moves. Allegra is a serial binge-watcher who often inhales TV seasons across several devices, motivated by the need to keep up with the larger conversation; Steven is more methodical, watching a handful of episodes at a time to relax before bed. “He likes to luxuriate in a story,” Allegra explains. “For me, the luxuriating comes when I listen to five different podcast episodes after I’ve watched it as quickly as possible.” There are also less philosophical, more logistical concerns: Steven goes to bed several hours before Allegra, so she’ll often watch shows on their bedroom set wearing headphones while he sleeps with earplugs and an eye mask.

These anecdotes touch on some of the challenges of watching TV in a relationship: different tastes in what to watch; different reasons for watching it; different approaches to how we live our lives. There are matters to consider as practical as free time available in the house or whether we focus best on work with white noise—say, reruns of a sitcom playing in the background—or total silence. TV exists at the intersection of these practical and subjective concerns, making it a relatively low-stakes venue for essential questions about the life you build with your partner.

In Guralnik’s experience, it’s often revealing whether each half of a couple even wants to watch TV as a pair. For some people, “Watching things together means something to them. If each watches their own thing, they feel like something’s wrong or they’re missing something. And other people are more naturally inclined to [say], ‘You do your thing, I do my thing. What’s the problem?’” Thinking of my own church-and-state approach to viewing schedules, I feel a thrill of recognition. It turns out even 20 minutes with a TV counselor can be surprisingly revelatory.

Tolstoy would have us believe that all happy families are alike. But in collecting stories for this piece, I found the opposite to be true: There are as many ways to reach a mutual understanding about TV as there are shows to watch—which is to say, a nearly infinite amount.

Some couples respond to the overwhelming array of options, not to mention their own complicated schedules, by getting businesslike about leisure time. Andrew, a reader who wrote in via email, outlined in exhaustive detail how he and his spouse keep track of everything on their docket: “We keep a spreadsheet of all the shows we watch across the various streaming services, in addition to a tab for the current season of broadcast shows we watch. We have been doing this since the fall of 2014 (believe me, I understand this is nuts).”

Other systems are less scientific, but still formal enough to have names. Rob and his wife, Stacey, play what they call “The TV Game”: One partner suggests three potential shows, which the other then chooses from. They alternate who proposes shows and who picks, but both source their options from a shared, constantly updated Google Keep note. It’s a play on the 5-3-1 rule that Rob says works to maximize their limited free time: “Having a system in place really helps to cut down on scroll time and indecision—it’s way easier to choose from three options than it is from infinite options!”

I also heard about the “Shark Tank Rule” (either partner can declare themselves “out” at any given time); the “Cats Rule” (checking how each party feels 16 minutes in, exactly as far as they made it into the 2019 movie-musical Cats); and the “60/20/20 Rule” (around three-fifths of overall TV viewing is joint, while each half of the couple has their own solo picks). Whatever their practitioners choose to call them, these techniques largely stem from the building blocks of any healthy relationship: communicating your needs and accepting your partners’ priorities as part of your own.

Just because TV is seemingly trivial doesn’t mean it can’t be good practice for widely applicable skills. “Any conflict, any separation of ideas or divergence of ideas is an opportunity for couples to talk about how they feel and talk about what they want,” says Roman Gupta, a practicing therapist in the Los Angeles area. (It’s an opportunity he’s personally familiar with; once his wife went back to the office while Gupta kept working from home during the pandemic, he had to exercise restraint when tempted to watch some of “their” shows during his lunch break.) “It’s also an opportunity to really find out how to compromise”—or in some cases, work on honesty. Gupta says he once worked with someone who admitted to covering their tracks by restarting a streaming show, so it wouldn’t be obvious they’d gone ahead to future episodes.

On the flip side, TV habits can also be a red flag. If you can’t be flexible and open about what to throw on before bed, what are the chances you’re any more receptive about how to decorate your home or where to spend Thanksgiving? “If someone’s not bending with watching something on TV, then they’re probably the same person who’s always saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to that restaurant,’” says Trina Leckie, a breakup coach and podcaster based in British Columbia. “They’re probably not bending in a lot of other areas in their life as well.”

Finally, as much as TV has the chance to be a shared experience, whether rooting for a contestant on Survivor or sobbing your way through Station Eleven, it can also serve as a numbing distraction. Guralnik says TV often comes up as a symbol a couple has fallen into a rut: “They sometimes talk about it as, all we do is watch TV together. It’s sort of a sign of the fact that everything else has evaporated,” she says. “In a way, sometimes the TV can become a place of retreat from anything else.” In both cases, the issues at hand are much bigger than whether or not one party can tolerate The Mandalorian. But something as omnipresent as TV still serves as a temperature check—a kind of canary in the content mine.

At its best, though, TV doesn’t have to be a problem to solve. One couple’s obstacle is another’s chance to connect and make shared memories. And since this is Valentine’s Day, maybe it’s best to go out on a positive note.

Jason and his wife, Sarah, met almost 15 years ago. Shortly after they started dating, Sarah convinced Jason to join her rewatch of the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy on DVD. (Remember those?) Around the same time, the two marathoned the fourth season of Top Chef, which introduces franchise staples Richard Blais and Stephanie Izard. Somehow, both shows remain on the air, making them two bedrocks of a decade-and-a-half-long relationship. “I have my shows that I watch without her,” Jason says. “And she has her shows she watches without me. But there’s something special about these two shows that started before we got together and are still going.”

Many of the heterosexual couples I talked to shared stories that fell along somewhat stereotypical gender lines: women who were into Real Housewives; men who were into sports or the Star Wars extended universe. (Though a few flipped the script: Christine, who’s pregnant with her first child, has negotiated custody of the TV for all Denver Nuggets games, any “good” NBA games, and a fair share of NFL games, because “letting the woman with the squirmy basketball on her waist get her way more often is safer for everyone.”) Despite the dangers of gender stereotypes, these were often the stories I found the sweetest, because they involved one of the purest forms of love I can think of—growing to like something you have zero personal interest in because your partner likes it, too.

“It’s felt like learning the language by living in the country for a while,” my friend Evan tells me of his wife’s enduring Bravo habit. “One day you’re clueless; the next day you find yourself saying, ‘You know what? Andy Cohen is probably the only honest interviewer on TV.’” Others took less convincing. Nate is a self-described theater nerd who met his wife in college. It may not have been the hardest of sells for someone who was already a fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but she still provided his introduction to the wonderful world of RuPaul’s Drag Race, now in its 14th season. “I was hooked from the moment Raja walked in with that wild headpiece and I called her winning,” he says. He’s since made fan art of Season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen.

Guralnik thinks of this kind of acclimatized enjoyment as a sign of a mature relationship, comparing it to children who learn how to share toys. “When they’re really little you can’t really ask them to negotiate or share,” she explains. “So in that sense, for a couple in that stage of development, they might really each need to have their own screen.” Eventually, the kids learn to take turns; finally, they don’t need to. “Then couples can be at a stage where they actually want to join the other person’s experience,” Guralnik says. “You might open yourself up to something that you didn’t know could be a gift to you.”

If every relationship is a mix of passion and practicality, TV is where the two meet. It’s hard enough for one person to decide what to watch these days. Add in another human being and, depending how you look at it, you have either an added degree of difficulty or someone to share the burden of figuring out what to watch. No matter how you view the experience, it’s at least one you won’t experience alone. As I’m writing this paragraph, I overheard my neighbor walk in and announce to her partner: “We have to watch The Tinder Swindler. I heard it’s good!”

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