When Couples Get Poor Reception From Each Other, It’s Time for a TV Break


John and Rita sought professional counseling when they realized something serious was coming between them: their television set.

The couple, both in their 20s, watched so much TV they had stopped communicating with each other.

“They weren’t talking; they weren’t intimate. They were avoiding each other. They had other problems and escaped into TV,” says Deborah Hendlin, a clinical psychologist in Irvine who counseled the couple, whose names have been changed.

She proposed a simple experiment: Unplug the set.


“The first day without television was really awkward,” Hendlin says. “They didn’t know what to say to each other. The house seemed eerily quiet.”

Yet slowly the communication barrier that had built up over years of sitcoms and sports came down. The couple began playing games together and taking walks. They started talking and dealing directly with their problems. These days they still watch TV, but now they’re much more selective and careful to limit the viewing to a couple of shows.

Television can cause all kinds of static between a couple. They can fight over what to watch, how much to watch and when to watch. Such squabbles are fairly common and usually harmless, say psychologists, but sometimes TV troubles can signal deeper problems within the relationship.

“It’s almost as though TV viewing habits are a barometer for the relationship,” Hendlin says. “The way people fight about TV viewing is indicative of the way they fight about other things. It’s one more arena of conflict.”


Often TV troubles focus on the remote control. Before there were remotes, “Nobody wanted to get up and change the channel. That was the fight in the early days,” says Joe Saltzman, a USC professor of journalism specializing in broadcasting. “Now they argue over the remote.”

Typically one person, usually the male, will want to “channel surf” while the other, usually the female, wants to stay put on one station, Saltzman says. Such a difference in the sexes may not amount to much if one person doesn’t care about what’s on the tube, “but it can evolve into a real power struggle.”

The remote control is a “power weapon,” much like the couple’s checkbook.

“Sometimes a person likes holding the remote because they can change the channel at will, frustrating the other person,” Saltzman says. Serious arguments over the remote can indicate that a couple needs to examine the relationship and its balance of power.


Perhaps a more serious problem is the insidious way TV can come between a couple.

“TV seems to rob couples of a lot of their together time,” says Lesley Donovan, a marriage, family and child counselor in Newport Beach.

“Just sitting down and having a conversation gets pushed back later and later,” she says. “I hear wives say they get all of their communicating done during commercials and half-time. It gets absurd.”

Communicating can be uncomfortable, Donovan says, and watching TV is a way to avoid that. One can turn on the TV to tune out a mate.


The TV becomes “an unconscious way to dial up and dial down the intimacy level. You can make it impossible for someone to communicate with you,” she says.

Donovan has advised couples to get away from the TV and go to a place like a restaurant, park or beach where they’re “really going to just talk . . . . It’s a conscious effort to turn off the distraction.”

In some cases, couples can find that one or both parties have become TV-dependent.

Studies have shown that after two or three hours of watching TV, viewers go “into a kind of trance” that can become addictive, Saltzman says.


“They don’t care what’s on. They’re getting a buzz,” he says. “The minute they come home the TV is on. It’s a sign something’s wrong with the relationship beyond TV. Probably the person is bored with the relationship.”

His suggestion for curing a TV addict is to slowly wean him or her from the set--although some addicts have quit TV cold turkey.

“I’ve been a TV addict,” Saltzman says. “I used to watch 20 hours a day. When you shut off an addict’s TV, there’s a lot of anger. Being in the room with a TV and not putting it on is very painful,”

When first talking about cutting back on TV, “It’s best for a couple to leave home and go to a neutral territory,” he says.


One couple that attempted to work through their problems by escaping the house were foiled when the wife noticed her TV-addicted husband was distracted:

“He’d found a TV in the corner of the bar,” Saltzman says.

Addicts need to gradually cut out the number of shows they watch until they turn off the set.

“You have to replace it with something; one would hope it would be the relationship,” Saltzman says.


Hendlin counsels one thirtysomething couple who have been married 10 years and now find the TV is a major source of disagreement. He has a demanding job as a lawyer and when he comes home at night “he just wants to flop in front of the TV,” Hendlin says. Because her job is less strenuous, she comes home wanting to do something active like work out together.

“She feels neglected and ignored. She’s come to resent the TV. She sees it as the enemy,” Hendlin says.

Hendlin has been helping the couple work out a compromise: He’s agreed to watch only one or two half-hour shows but without any interruption from her. She’s trying not to degrade him or “make him feel like a lazy slob"--which makes him withdraw even further, Hendlin says.

“She’s giving him a little more down time, and he’s more willing to compromise. They’re actually doing a lot better,” Hendlin says.


Some people turn to the TV out of dissatisfaction with a mate or for the stimulation that’s missing in their relationship.

“The TV becomes a love object,” says Henry Cloud, a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach.

When couples don’t develop a healthy attachment to each other, they’ll often substitute something else, he says.

“For some, their most important relationship is with the TV. Instead of loving an imperfect spouse, they will focus on an idealized TV character,” Cloud says.


“When (they) can’t work through some of their disappointments and non-ideal parts that every relationship has, some turn to the idealized world of TV, where all the women are ‘Baywatch'-perfect or all the men are successful, dashing Remington Steeles,” Cloud says.

Couples who are fighting over the TV need to examine their connection, he says. They need to look at the power and control dynamics of the relationship and “how they’re dealing with metabolizing the loss of ideals.”

Recognizing that a relationship isn’t perfect can be the first step to making it better, to “making something good out of the real person they have,” Cloud says.

TV isn’t all bad for relationships, psychologists say. If watched in moderation, it can even have benefits.


“Maybe it’s a person’s only time to escape the pressures they’re responsibly dealing with during the day,” Cloud says. “There doesn’t have to be a redeeming motive to every 30 minutes we spend.”

TV can even draw two people closer, Saltzman says, if they watch a program together and talk about it afterward. In some ways it can enhance reality:

“Watching TV in bed as a couple is very erotic and comforting,” he says. “It’s a nice way to be.”