On the surface, Friday Night Lights is ostensibly about the culture of high school football in Dillon, TX. Yet, the central characters of the show aren’t football players at all. In many ways, Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami Taylor, and the relationship between them, will likely be the show’s legacy. What may very well be television’s best depiction of a quality relationship will end when the series comes to a close after 5 seasons. Or, as a much more accomplished television critic said,
“Friday Night Lights has always been the story of a football team and its coach, but it’s also been the story of a marriage - one of the most well-rounded, admirable, memorable marriages ever portrayed on television.” – Alan Sepinwall
Here’s the best part. The Taylor’s fantastic relationship not only makes for compelling television but, as you’ll see below, research supports the secrets to their on-screen success. Here are the top 3 qualities that make the Taylor’s relationship so special:
1) Their Relationship Is Not Perfect. Yup, you read that right: it is NOT perfect. Imperfection is a good thing because it means the portrayal of the Taylor’s relationship is realistic. Do they argue? Do they get mad at each other? Is that normal? Is my repeated asking of rhetorical questions getting annoying? The answer to each of these questions is YES! In fact, the mistaken beliefs that relationships are perfect or that relationships don’t require a lot of work are among a host of what researchers refer to as dysfunctional beliefs about relationships.1 Not surprisingly, when people hold dysfunctional beliefs, such as the idea that relationships should be perfect or easy, their relationship satisfaction suffers.
2) They Communicate Clearly and Respectfully. Like any imperfect couple, Tami and Eric have their fair share of disagreements. Since disagreements are inevitable, a couple’s approach to resolving them is important. The Taylors display a pattern of regulated communication, which means that they disagree in a manner that shows respect.2 For example, when discussing a potential move to Austin for Coach’s job, the following exchange takes place:
Coach: We done fighting?
Tami: Uh huh.
Coach: I love you. I respect you. I am proud of you. I am in love with you completely. I'm sorry for the way all this happened.
Compared to non-regulated couples, those with a regulated pattern like the Taylors convey more affection and interest in each other, while avoiding stubbornness, whining, anger, defensiveness, and withdrawal. The benefit of employing a regulated style is that it increases positive feelings over time and increases relationship satisfaction.
Perhaps as a result of their regulated style, Tami and Eric routinely discuss any issues they may have. (As Coach Taylor says in the series finale, relationships are about listening and compromise.) For example, when Eric planned a team BBQ at the house without consulting Tami, during the party (while cleaning up under a table) Tami clearly explains exactly why she is upset:
“I threw the party for over 100 people in 2 days’ time. I did it with no help and I’m cleaning up after your football stars...who, by the way, happen to be pigs. I’m doing it, but I’m not gonna pretend to like it...not right now...not down here. When I go back up there, I’ll give you a big smile, alright...just like I know you need, but down here I am pissed. And I’m gonna stay down here until I can go back up there and give you your smile, alright?”
Research supports the utility of this approach and finds that disagreements are not problematic provided that partners handle them well.3 In fact, avoiding disagreements is much more problematic and ultimately undermines relationship satisfaction.
3) They Are Highly Supportive of Each Other. Whether it was after the loss of a game, or the loss of a job, Eric and Tami were a "marriage of equals" that continually served as each other’s primary source of social support. For example, Coach and Tami would often provide support by checking in and saying things like “you alright” “want to talk about it” “I’m here for you” or simply “how was your day”. Perhaps equally as often, both of them would show support physically with a hug or a kiss. Their support demonstrated caring, understanding, and validation for each other in a way that facilitated their ability to cope with the various challenges they experienced (e.g., school board meetings, quarterback decisions, or issues with their daughter Julie).4 In the end Tami supported Coach’s career, and he supported her career as well.
As anyone who watched the series finale can confirm, Friday Night Lights was much more of a relationship show than a football show. Because of the wonderful qualities in the Taylor’s relationship, and this isn’t something that I can often say, you can improve your relationship by watching TV (reruns of FNL are on ESPN) and incorporating some of what you see into your own relationship. Most importantly, you can do so with the confidence that the scientific research is in favor of such model TV relationships.
1Metts, S., & Cupach, W. R. (1990). The influence of relationship beliefs and problem-solving responses on satisfaction in romantic relationships. Human Communication Research, 17(1), 170-185.
2Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: Behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 221-233.
3Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57, 47–52.
4Cutrona, C. E. (1996). Social support in couples: Marriage as a resource in times of stress. Thousand Oaks, CA US: Sage Publications, Inc.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.