There's just something about forever that puts on a fatalistic spin on things. Confronted with the knowledge that your spouse's bewildering idiosyncracies are never ever going away, you might find yourself reaching for that extreme metaphor of ultimate escape — a fantasy about your beloved's untimely demise. And apparently, this is totally normal. (And not to be confused with people who actually murder their spouses. Sheesh.)
It comes up often in This is 40, (which I have not previewed) Judd Apatow's latest relationship comedy out today, and The Atlantic's Alexis Coe has an interesting rumination about one of the comedy's darker undertones: a recurring theme of the fantasy of the dying spouse.
One highlighted convo goes like this:
Pete: This sounds horrible, but do you ever wonder what it would be like if you and your wife were separated by something bigger? Like death. Like her death.
Barry: I have given it a fair amount of thought.
Pete: Not in a painful way, but like a gentle, floating off...
Barry: Its gotta be peaceful. I mean, this is the mother of your children.
Pete: And then the new wife would be great.
Barry: God, I can't wait to meet my second wife. I hope she likes me better than this one.
Though half of marriages end in divorce, Coe writes, there is still apparently enough stigma to make imagining widowhood as at least a temporary respite (and face-saver) from the fallout of an actual split.
"There's no failure involved," said Benjamin Karney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also conducts research at the Marriage Lab. "They all have an unstated fear of screwing up, and of taking responsibility for failure." Karney compared it to people who fantasize about suicide. "People like to think, 'That person will miss me and regret treating me so poorly.'"
A perfect solution for the passively unhappy person! Helped by the fact that there are not, Coe writes, that many options for unhappily married people to deal with their shit. You can do the work to fix it, not do the work and endure the shitty marriage, or head for splitsville, a scarlet letter of wah-wah emblazoned across your chest. Unless! Great Scott! They die first! And then! You are free!
Who wouldn't opt for the much more respectable widowhood, AKA the ultimate divorce, with the added bonus of being cosmically failure-free? Because however bad it was, at least you stayed. Points for staying! Practical question, tho: Are you fantasizing about them dying of natural causes, or inadvertently by your hand? To wit:
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, said the dialogue remind her of a joke her mother enjoyed telling. When asked if she ever contemplated divorce during 71 years of marriage, "She loved to say, 'Murder, yes, but not divorce.'"
And the film takes it there, too:
Debbie: Why do we fight?
Pete: I don't know. You get so mad at me. Sometimes I think you want to kill me.
Debbie: I do want to kill you.
Pete: How would you do it?
Debbie: I would poison your cupcakes that you pretend not to eat every day. I would enjoy our last few months together, but while killing you.
Tannen, who wrote a bestseller on male/female conversation style, points out that these movie conversations resonate as realistic, and that the extreme expression of the frustration of the movie couple's recurring unresolved problems is murder. And although no one knows how often people are imagining their spouses die, it is apparently considered commonplace.
Coe points out that were the man doing the murder-imagining in the scene, the reality of male-on-female spousal violence stats might make it downright depressing. (Proving that comedy can walk the narrowest lines, Apatow counters that the full scene actually ends up with Pete far outdoing Debbie's tale of cupcake poison with a decapitating-by-wood-chipper plan.)
But this is all funny, of course, in the context of a funny film with funny actors reading a funny script. Harder to imagine the admission of murder-plotting going over as well for most couples struggling in a real-life marriage. It's why I'm excited to see this film, or any film where people actually talk about what it's like to be married.
Of course, what it's like to be married depends on who you are and who you are married to, but marriage problems have a way of all looking the same, and it's not surprising that we resort to fantasizing about death as an escape from unhappy unions when we have so few reliable guides for how to actually navigate them.
There are few films that explore marriage realistically, and fewer in the mainstream. We see relationships begin all the time in movies, and of course, we see their often stormy end time and time again. But what is often missing is a roadmap through the messy, ambiguous, sometimes tedious, often unremarkable, middle — where all the work gets done, where all the feelings get felt out in more reasonable proportion, where all the real stuff happens.
Real-life middles are full of highs and lows, but mostly lots of gently cresting waves. This never makes for as easily digestible cinema as the bookends, but it makes for something more like actual life. (It's why I'm a big fan of many Woody Allen films, who takes great pains to rip off Ingmar Berman in his portrayal of relationships, precisely their irrational, yet mundane, chaos. See: Annie Hall, Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters.) Even if that actual life is kinda boring.
But maybe that also explains why fantasizing about ends would be so utterly commonplace, and ultimately harmless. It's sure as shit more exciting than the middle. Hopefully, it's also harmless enough to talk about these morbid diversions with your spouse. But hey, if you actually have the sort of rapport with your husband or wife where such discussions are actually possible, rest assured your marriage probably isn't as bad as you think after all. And if you count yourself among those who've never indulged this fantasy, maybe you were never in love in the first place.