Support for TV Mistresses? Experts Suggest Millennials Place Too Much Emphasis on Love and Not Obligation

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A couples therapist and a life coach want millennials to be very realistic about what marital love is and isn’t.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on Sept. 13, 2015.

In Scandal, U.S. President Grant Fitzgerald, played by Sam Goldwyn, is having an affair with Kerry Washington’s character, Olivia Pope.

In the Starz drama Power, Jamie St. Patrick, a club owner and reluctant drug dealer played by Omari Hardwick, is having an affair with his high school sweetheart Angela Valdez, played by Lela Loren. 

Both men are, again, married and have children with their wives. But there’s the idea that both men are sincerely in love with their mistresses. 

As a result, something interesting is happening culturally with regard to how those extramarital affairs are being perceived. When you look at social media reactions to both television shows, people aren’t afraid to identify as #TeamOlivia and #TeamAngela. Fans—and, it seems, we millennials in particular—seem to support or, at the very least, are fond of the affairs. And the reason typically given is that we’re witnessing true love.

There’s a tolerance and a pinch of admiration for the affairs because they’re not seen as salacious hookups based on just sex. They’re being marketed as "the real thing." I’ve even had conversations with people who suggested that it would be OK, understandable and perhaps even just if both men, wait for it, actually left their wives to be with Olivia and Angela—the loves of their lives. 

The concept of love kept popping up over and over again in these discussions. There seems to be an unrealistic emphasis placed on love and being in love, and the role those concepts play in marriage and commitments.

The Root asked Washington, D.C.-based couples therapist Drew Joseph and New York-based life coach Pervis Taylor III to weigh in on whether it’s a bad thing that millennials hold being in love in such high regard—especially when it comes to marriages and long-term relationships. The experts also dished out advice they would give to millennials who are wrestling with how to process these extramarital affairs that they seem to empathize with. Their responses were edited for clarity and brevity.

The Root: What do you make of the support that Olivia and Angela are getting from millennials, who seem to be OK with this kind of extramarital affair? 

Drew Joseph: It totally makes sense to me. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, he speaks about the concept of dreamersthe idea that we are all obsessed with this permanent happiness that we think we deserve and can achieve.

That capitalistic mindset—that you’re entitled to take what you want in order to achieve happiness—is what is at play here. There’s a profound blindness to the moral contradictions of that system. I feel that explains this weird (and disturbing) championing of the extramarital relationships in Power and Scandal by millennials. 

Simply put, there’s a way to talk about love as a practice. And yet millennials are thinking of love as something that you consume. They’re making love a commodity. 

Simply put, there’s a way to talk about love as a practice. And yet millennials are thinking of love as something that you consume

TR: How much emphasis should be placed on the importance of "being in love" with your partner when it comes to maintaining a healthy marriage?  

Drew Joseph: A lot. I think if you’re going to marry someone, it can’t only be based on calculation. We have to feel seen and wanted. We have to feel that this is someone I could allow myself to need. There has to be some feeling of aliveness. 

But we also need to ask: Is this someone I can actually communicate with? Would we both be willing to struggle when things get tough? Being married inevitably entails loss of the "in-love" experience. It forces us also to cope with feeling disappointed, alone and unwanted, too. Marital love challenges us to bear much disillusionment. If you are not willing to experience those things, you shouldn’t get married.

Pervis Taylor III: Most successful marriages are based more on friendship than eros love. If you are not friends with your significant other, then your marriage will likely not work. It’s your friend that will be willing to come back and say, "Let’s work it out." The lover aspect ebbs and flows. But the friendship usually is constant. 

 Most successful marriages are based more on friendship than eros love.

TR: Do you have any concerns about how some millennials seem to empathize with Olivia Pope and Angela Valdez?

DJ: There’s something really deceptive about the fantasties that these shows are projecting. Viewers fantasize that if we could be Olivia or Angela, we’d be happy. We are seduced into seeing Olivia and Angela as heroic role models: They have what we all want. They have the plum job. They have the house in the elite neighborhood. They have a partner who sees through their personal masks and can match their intensity. 

But real people in those situations—like Olivia and Angela—are in a great deal of pain and agony. They have to suffer the pain, the secrecy, the contradiction and the risk of … being involved with a married man. Beneath the thrills of transgression, the cheaters feel anxious, groundless and alone. Their pain is posturing as triumph. 

TR: How much emphasis should be placed on obligation and commitment when weighing if a marriage is worth saving? 

PT: I don’t like the word "obligation." It sounds so negative. Millennials will likely choose who they marry. They’re not being assigned a spouse like how it’s done in arranged marriages. I think a better word to use would be "investment." I think the emphasis should be placed on the partnership and oneness that can come from staying married.

TR: If you’re sincerely (and deeply) in love with someone who is not your spouse, is it ever OK to explore that love? To explore the possibility of being with that person? 

DJ: I would never say it’s not OK to follow your curiosity or hope. But as a psychotherapist, I would challenge the straying person to consider what is driving the attraction to the new person? Are you avoiding something that’s happening in your primary relationship? In my experience with clients, the affair usually represents an escape. The straying person is not being honest about what they’re really thinking and feeling and wanting.

More important, they’re not being honest about that in the presence of their spouse—the person who, up until that point, has known them the best. They’re being cowards. They’re not willing to stand by the truth of what their experience is. So they don’t need a lesson on morals, but they often need help finding their courage.

More important, the straying person is not being honest about that in the presence of their spouse—the person, who up until that point, has known them the best. 

PT: Right. Because what happens when that new person no longer makes you happy? Cheating is always rooted in an unmet need. It’s important to know what that need is and address it. No, it’s not OK to explore that person. Ask yourself what’s going on in your own life. Explore that. 

It would be interesting to see how those new relationships play out if the men were to leave their wives. I guarantee you the dynamics of Jamie and Angela, and President Fitz and Olivia’s relationship, would change.

TR: What can millennials learn from the marriages that President Fitzgerald and Jamie St. Patrick are in? What can they learn about their extramarital affairs?

I think millennials are confusing love as a sensory, aesthetic experience, instead of love as a kind of practice or a labor.

DJ: I think millennials are confusing love as a sensory, aesthetic experience, instead of love as a kind of practice or a labor that’s founded on the commitment to a person, or the people that you live with. Love is working to promote the well-being of the other and intervening in a way to protect the freedom of the other.

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