Binge-Watching: Modern Love’s New Frontier

When hitting "next episode" is more alluring than fidelity to your partner

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At first glance, the Friday release of the second season of Netflix’s political drama House of Cards seems like a fun Valentine’s Day treat. But make sure you set aside enough time to “binge watch” all 13 episodes with your sweetie over the long weekend. Otherwise, you’re at risk of succumbing to a growing threat to modern relationship harmony – television infidelity.

This is exactly what happened to my friend who recently cheated on her husband of 13 years with Game of Thrones. The couple who love watching serial dramas together made up a rule that while he was away on business trips, they would both abstain from watching future episodes until he returned. But in the throes of a gripping season two of Thrones, she sneaked in two extra episodes without telling him. Her plan to re-watch them with him and pretend to be surprised at the plot twists lasted until she got so absorbed in the storyline she shouted “You’re not going to believe what happens next!” Busted.

Such romantic kerfuffles were bound to happen as we became a nation of binge watchers. Last December, Netflix released the results of a Harris poll that found that 61% of 1,500 respondents regularly watched two to six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting, and more than half of them preferred to do so with company. So why can’t we pull ourselves away from the likes of Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Walking Dead? Well, there are the addictive storylines with little-defined episodes that seem to flow seamlessly into each other. Plus, Netflix encourages the habit by releasing all the episodes of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black at once. “As long as they’re released when I’m sitting in front of the TV set – over a holiday weekend, for example – and it passes a basic quality threshold, I’m going to keep hitting the ‘Next Episode’ button,” explains Slate’s culture critic June Thomas. “This feels much easier than, say, broadcast television, where I need to come back at the same time every week to get my fix of a show.” Or if you’re a latecomer to older shows, as I was to Breaking Bad, you can devour all past seasons by streaming them through Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, or HBO GO, or ordering them old school on DVD.

The opportunity to experience television in such an intimate and all-consuming way is deeply bonding between couples. I know one woman who regarded her boyfriend’s desire to “share” a show as an important milestone in their relationship and not just an activity for Snow-mageddon weekends. (YourTango released a Valentine’s weekend binge-watching guide.) These are no casual viewing arrangements, but commitments that are governed by unspoken rules. “People are negotiating agreements when they both find shows they adore,” explains cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, PhD, author of Culturematic who studies how people watch television and conducted interviews for the Netflix survey. “When these rules are broken, it’s a source of mild irritation to outright hostility.” It doesn’t help that Netflix’s “recently watched” feature makes it easy to get caught.

When you “go ahead” in the lineup, your partner feels excluded and denied the chance to share a special pleasure with you. “Some people perform rescue missions in which the guilty party has to watch the show over again as penance or as a symbolic gesture that this is something that matters to you and should matter to me,” says McCracken. The offense can be perceived as more serious if your partner wasn’t that into a show in the first place. This would be the case if my boyfriend didn’t really like Downton Abbey, but watched it because he knew how much I liked it. “Your partner suffered on your behalf, and you’re not even appreciating the sacrifice,” says McCracken.

Another challenge is when a couple enthusiastically adopts a show but one partner’s commitment starts to wane. They have deadlines or trips, although The New York Times reported that some couples manage to “sync-watch” episodes by watching them together while apart. Or they’re like my boyfriend, whose eyes seal shut exactly seven minutes into any show past 9:45 p.m. One writer suggests heading off conflict by clearly designating shows as “mine” or “ours.” Another solution: Declaring an “open marriage” on your favorite shows if your partner can’t keep up.