Since getting married, I’ve had to add to my TV watching line-up. No longer can I subsist on Bravo and E! alone. In hopes of accommodating my husband’s preferences, there is now an endless parade of action heroes, zombies, and murderers (and that is just on the regular stations…don’t get me started on the movie channels). One of the shows that I’ve actually grown to like is NBC’s The Blacklist. Although not designed to be a series about close relationships, I’d argue there are a number of interpersonal dynamics at play in each episode. For now, I will skip the obvious daddy-issues between Red Reddington and Lizzie (who I’ve long suspected to be his daughter). What I find even more baffling is the relationship between Tom and Lizzie.
For those who are unfamiliar with the storyline, Tom and Lizzie Keen are married. Lizzie is a FBI Profiler and, in an unexpected twist, her husband Tom is a covert operative (i.e., a spy and, when it suits him, killer). Needless to say, this couple has had a pretty tumultuous time since the revelation of Tom’s true identity. To my shock and discomfort, during this time they have repeatedly battled (both verbally and physically). What I find so perplexing is that, since separating, Tom and Lizzie have continued to gravitate back to each other. Yep, even after his repeated attempts to kill her, Lizzie keeps ending back up in the arms and bed of her estranged husband. (Just as an aside, their destructive behavior is a two-way street. Lizzie held Tom captive in the hull of an abandoned ship for over four months. Just your typical couple, clearly.) Every episode I find myself asking, “Why do they keep get back together?!?”
As any self-respecting relationship scientist would do, I’ve come up with some hypotheses to explain this behavior:
- Option #1: Their magnetism may be the result of their large investment in the relationship. The Investment Model holds that continued commitment to a relationship is the result of satisfaction, alternatives, and investments. Thus, the resources (e.g., time, energy, money) partners have invested in the relationship, as well as the shared assets (e.g., home, pets, friends) they stand to lose from permanently separating may keep them from making a quick exit.1
- Option #2: Their attraction may be the result of having no other options. Given their busy schedules and top-secret lifestyles, Tom and Lizzie may have difficulty finding suitable romantic alternatives. (Who would want to be in a relationship with either one of them? Their frequency of life-threatening circumstances is way too high!) Available alternatives impact our dependence on a relationship, and this in turn, impacts our persistence and continued commitment. With no better options presenting themselves, they may remain reliant on upon each other to fulfill connection needs, despite being otherwise dissatisfied with the relationship.
- Option #3: The human tendency to embrace familiarity may also explain their draw to each other. Given their shared history and experience, both Tom and Lizzie likely feel very comfortable with each other and quite literally prefer “the devil they know to the devil they don’t.” Although change can be positive and exhilarating, the mere-exposure phenomenon explains how tried-and-true experiences may become our preference, as habit often leads to increased liking.2
As Tom and Lizzie demonstrate, many of the same relationship dynamics impact one’s commitment, whether they are in a healthy or abusive relationships. At first blush, investments and alternatives may appear to pale in comparison to one’s safety. Nonetheless, researchers have shown that these factors remain central to one’s decision (and ability) to stay vs. go.3
As I’ve said before, it’s hard to predict what will happen with TV relationships, as they are subject to influences that are different from real life (e.g., focus groups). However, the unnerving tendency for these two lovers to stay together may have its roots in our shared need for connection, circumstances leading to commitment (particularly investments and alternatives), and comfort with familiarity. For now, I’ll keep hoping that these two find a way to quit each other so that I can go back to focusing on the crime-solving aspect of the show.
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1Rusbult, C. E., (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(2), 172-186.
2Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 255–276.
3Rusbult, C. E., & Martz, J. M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 558-571.
Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.