One of America’s most enduring fictional TV couples is Homer and Marge Simpson – The Simpsons have been on the air for over twenty years. Is their marriage a model example of how to make a long-term relationship endure, or is it an example of what not to do?
On the surface, the Simpsons' marriage seems riddled with trouble. Homer is overweight, unintelligent, bad at his job, and often makes bad relationship choices. In the episode called “The Fat and the Furriest,” Homer decides to get revenge on a bear that attacks him. When his friends try to warn him that Marge will be upset, he responds, “Gentlemen, sometimes a man must put his marriage at risk, for reasons that are confusing, even to him.” But Marge isn’t perfect either--she consistently pushes her feelings down and avoids confrontation. For example, when Homer is kidnapped in “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” the kidnappers send a fake Homer to take Homer's place. Marge immediately knows something is up, but the fake Homer says, “Please forgive my unexplained absence. To make it up to you, we will go out to dinner at a sensibly priced restaurant, then have a night of efficient German sex.” Instead of continuing to try to look for her missing husband, Marge’s response is, “Well, I sure don’t feel like cooking...”
But are there good parts to their relationship? Certainly. For one, their sexual life seems healthy; several episodes show them having fun in the bedroom. They often display their love for each other, including jealousy over sexual rivals. Over the years, we see countless examples of them working through difficulties through dedication and eventual communication.
What does psychological theory have to say about their relationship? One answer comes from the Investment Model,1 one of the most popular and established methods in psychology for examining basic relationship dynamics. The theory suggests that to predict whether a certain relationship will last over time we need to know three things: (1) the couple members’ satisfaction, (2) dependence (based on perceived alternatives), and (3) investment level. Let’s start with the first factor for this post (the other two are coming in future posts): Satisfaction.
Satisfaction comes partially from weighing the pros vs. the cons in any relationship, which were described above. In addition, to decide if you’re satisfied, you not only compare the good and bad; you also compare what you have relative to the other relationships you see, or what researchers refer to as the comparison level. What other relationship examples does Springfield offer? When Homer and Marge threw a couples dinner party, the Van Houtens (Milhouse’s parents) screamed at each other and ended up divorced. Neither Patty nor Selma can stay in a relationship, and Homer catches Apu having an affair with the girl who delivers squishee syrup!
So while their relationship—like any other—has some problems, the Simpsons actually appear to have the most satisfying relationship in their community. Step one of the Investment Model is fulfilled: they appear satisfied--their outcomes are generally good, especially relative to their comparison level. Do they have the other two factors as well—dependence and investments? Two future posts will answer this question.
1Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 16, 172-186.
Dr. Wind Goodfriend - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Goodfriend's research focuses on cognitive bias within romantic relationships: how partners view each other in a subjective, instead of objective, way. These biases can sometimes be positive, but they can also perpetuate unhealthy or violent relationships.