How did Friends With Kids get romance right? According to Eric Sentell, the movie accurately illustrates romance through shared meaning and relationship rituals, not stereotypical Hollywood sex.
In the recent dramedy, Friends with Kids, the principle characters discover that romance isn’t everything they thought it was. To which I reply, “Duh.”
Serial-dater Jason Fryman (Adam Scott) convinces his aging best friend Julie Keller (Jennifer Westfeldt) to conceive and raise a child with him while they continue dating other people. After witnessing the toll children take on their friends’ marriages, neither Jason nor Julie want to ruin their romance with the yet-to-be-found “right person” by adding the stress and turmoil of raising children together.
Twenty minutes into the film, who could blame them? One set of their married friends, Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), struggle to maintain their love while also raising children. The other, Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph), remain fully in love, but they are nearly at their wits’ end as the children run screaming around their apartment. Since Jason and Julie have no romantic interest in each other but want children, they think co-parenting will allow them to experience the best of both worlds.
They mutually agree to be 100% committed to their child but only 50% of the time. The deal works surprisingly well as Jason and Julie support each other in raising their son Troy while also taking refuge in their separate lives. But jealousy and conflict creep into the arrangement as both Jason and Julie become serious with other people. It turns out that raising Troy together has its own rewards and romance.
Through child-rearing, Jason and Julie create shared meaning together, the seventh—and most important—of John Gottman’s principles for making marriage work. Gottman describes “shared meaning” as “a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together—a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become.”
Every diaper-change, nap-time, and outing becomes part of an “inner life” or family “culture” for Jason, Julie, and their son. As they transfer Troy at bedtime, for example, they make a mini-ritual out of saying goodnight. These scenes vividly illustrate how the simplest things can sometimes become the most important and meaningful.
It’s about time someone (i.e. Jennifer Westfeldt, the film’s writer, director, and star) finally got it right. Hollywood has conditioned us to think of romance as sex, deception, more sex, redemption, and make-up sex. Boy meets girl, boy deceives girl and/or girl deceives boy (either way, it’s the boy’s fault), boy and girl sleep together, and boy humbles himself in a heroic chase-scene culminating in a public apology and expression of love. Then they have sex again.
Romance doesn’t necessarily involve either sex or ridiculous public apologies and affirmations.
As Kids with Friends shows us, it always involves creating shared meaning through family and relationship rituals. And yes, that may sometimes involve wiping the baseboards with bleach after your baby has explosive poop.
Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.