For the most part, TV shows and movies aren’t known for realistically portraying relationships. Losing a shoe as you dash out of an evening ball doesn’t guarantee your prince will show up on your doorstep. Asking your direct report to fake an engagement so that you can avoid deportation is not a recommended way to find love.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s super-fun to take a break from reality, but as a licensed clinical professional counselor, sometimes these plotlines make me wince.
However, two Golden Globe–nominated TV shows, The Crown and Big Little Lies, offer surprisingly realistic relationship lessons that actually relate to the real world. The Crown covers the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of England starting with her marriage to Prince Philip. Big Little Lies (a seven-part series on HBO) follows the lives of a group of women in the days leading up to a death at their children’s school. Both of these series take a realistic, intimate look at the difficulties and messy challenges that can happen in relationships.
At times, it can be hard to watch the grittier portrayal of these challenges (especially Big Little Lies), but it’s a welcome shift from the boy-meets-girl-and-rides-off-into-the-sunset plotline. Here are three solid lessons in love we can learn from these nominated series.
(Note: spoilers ahead!)
01. When good relationships hit a breaking point, it takes real vulnerability and frankness to salvage things.
In The Crown we follow the ups and downs of the marriage between Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) throughout both seasons. What’s so great about this running story line is that it shows that relationships take real, thoughtful compromising.
For what felt like the entirety of season one, Elizabeth and Philip were drowning in a sea of romantic tension—but rarely the good kind. More often than not, Philip, bitter about his loss of freedom and diminished authority, and Elizabeth, desperately desirous of support while also trying to command respect, resorted to passive-aggressive behavior and withdrawal from the relationship.
Thankfully, in the second season, we see a breaking point when the couple is reunited after being separated from each other for five months. It wasn’t perfect, but Elizabeth and Philip finally have a frank discussion about how to make their marriage work after years of growing apart. The two royals discuss their “terms,” in which Philip shares that he wants to be taken seriously by the monarchy instead of dismissed as irrelevant. It’s not overwhelmingly romantic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t build intimacy. The key is to face these difficult discussions head-on and to address what’s not right in the relationship, instead of ignoring the issues and letting resentment build over time.
This difficult but honest conversation—where both Philip and Elizabeth are wholly vulnerable to what was at stake—helped them to move toward repairing their marriage. It is only after Elizabeth truly empathizes with her husband’s situation that she discovers how necessary it is to take big steps for things to change.
02. Leaving an abusive relationship involves a fundamental mind-shift—and a lot of bravery.
One of the story lines in Big Little Lies follows the relationship between Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). It’s heartbreaking to watch how Celeste struggles to decide how to respond to Perry’s abuse. She thinks about leaving but tries to have Perry attend couples’ therapy with her as a last-ditch effort. As she begins to come to terms with the fact that Perry is an abuser—and isn’t going to change—she gathers the courage to prepare to leave by renting an apartment and furnishing it so that it’s ready whenever she decides she must go.
If you haven’t seen the series yet, I won’t spoil the ending, but the lesson to be learned is that Celeste’s example shows us how both startling and sad it can be to finally acknowledge that you are in a poisonous relationship—and that taking real steps to protect yourself and break the cycle involves changing your entire world, both emotionally and physically. Only once Celeste was brave enough to acknowledge that she was in an abusive relationship was she able to take these steps. Don’t be afraid to look at your relationship objectively, and if the situation is extreme and unbearable, remember to have the courage to do what’s necessary to protect yourself.
03. Lack of drama doesn’t equate to boring—but comparison can cause issues when there aren’t any.
Another story line in Big Little Lies follows the relationship between Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott). When her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), marries a cool hippie girl, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), Madeline struggles with feeling bored in her healthy marriage to Ed. She sees Bonnie as someone who is exciting and exotic and feels like she can’t quite compare. Using superficial qualities to measure her own marriage, she now sees her calm and supportive husband as boring and mundane and starts to resent him for it. Competing to make her marriage just as interesting as her ex-husband’s, she takes steps to artificially change things up with Ed, which winds up falling flat.
In the end, Madeline learns to appreciate Ed’s steadfastness and begins to see it actually as an asset to their relationship. Ultimately, she stops trying to change him and starts to fully accept him as he is. We see Philip come through a similar transition with Elizabeth in season two of The Crown. He has to work at seeing her as his wife, a woman who needs his love, rather than just the queen and all her constraints. These stories help us to see how even when a relationship has lost its initial newness and the elusive honeymoon phase is over, the possibility for a deeper growth and love for one another is even more present. Those everyday moments in your relationship aren’t a sign that things are falling apart—rather, they are opportunities to continue challenging each other’s best qualities as a real team. That spark will come back with the potential for something lasting and deeper, but chasing the adrenaline-drenched newness of love isn’t going to make anyone happy.
Though Hollywood still regularly churns out story lines that you should most decidedly not use as a guide for healthy relationships, these Golden Globe–nominated shows stand out as accurate portrayals of the complexities of marriage and love. Also, in my personal and professional opinion, I think it’s what makes these shows wholly deserving of their nominations. (We’ll get to see if they win this weekend!)