When Relationships "Jump the Shark"

the teen, the shark by egarc2.

Photo by egarc2; creative commons license.

The next time I’m in a “serious” relationship, I’ll take my cues from TV.  It’ll either stay true to its uniqueness and sense of adventure and thus become a long-running show or it’ll fizzle after a season, or even just the pilot.  But I don’t plan to have my next serious relationship “jump the shark.”

Jumping the shark is a term that references that 70’s show Happy Days’ stunt where Fonzie jumped a live shark while water skiing and is often used these days whenever a TV show does something ludicrous to hold onto ratings–a big wedding, a pregnancy, a UFO abduction….hmmm, not so far off from things relationships do.

Probably the two biggest stunts a relationship tries that ends up jumping the shark are 1.  getting married and 2.  having a baby, in no particular order.    After that, people try to save a doomed relationship by buying a house or moving or even taking on a new partner when at least one of them isn’t in favor of a third party.  The couple isn’t happy either separately or together and think that some big even can make them happy.  They seek it from outside rather than within.  A relationship doesn’t seem to be going anywhere so suddenly the way to save it is to have a big wedding.  Or the marriage is falling apart, so one or both of the pair decide to save it by getting pregnant.  In most cases, they just delay the inevitable. 

I thought about this today when a friend showed me pics of his children.  I guess he read the confusion on my face, but one of the children was so obviously not his that I just couldn’t hide it.  He smiled and told that they’d been breaking up when his now-ex announced she was pregnant.  After the wedding, it turned out she hadn’t been pregnant but by the time he knew this, she was.  After several miserable years, he tried to divorce her but suddenly another child was on the way and he delayed again.  Finally, after a decade, they both admitted the relationship had been over before they married but they kept trying to do things to keep it alive (and writhing in its misery).

I’ve seen this so often in my life–people who get to the point of nothing happening in their relationship or they want more.  They decide they have do to something–something BIG–to salvage it and if they only got married or if they only had a baby or if they only bought a big house in the suburbs, then…then they could have a happy relationship. 

As with most TV shows, it’s not the grandiose stunts and ratings-getters that keep the show running at its peak. It’s the little things–the everyday conflicts, tensions, resolutions, and rewards–that make the show. No big white wedding or dangerous/hilarious childbirth scene is going salvage a dying TV show…or a dying relationship. 

Looking back, I think my relationship with my ex had already jumped the shark by the time we got married, and our children–though I wouldn’t trade them for the world–were probably little sharklings, too, because they gave us hope that we could pull it together.  Meanwhile, no one around us knew.  Not really.  He was very secretive about our problems and even in the last year of our marriage, he publicly praised me to his colleagues at office parties and seemed the ideal spouse, even while things were miserable at home.  No  stunt could have saved us then…we just didn’t have many viewers. 

I doubt that, given the health issues another child would create for me, that I will be jumping the shark in the future with another pregnancy.  And I know better than to think that a couple of rings and an exchange of vows will automatically save something that’s past its prime.  A relationship has to be worthy of tuning in to every day it’s on, not just when there’s a big stunt in play.