The Five-Year Engagement: Just Love and Compromise

Last weekend, I ventured out to see the newest in a series of Judd Apatow-inspired movies that were billed and marketed as more “woman-friendly.” For those of you who don’t know, Apatow has loomed large on the comedy scene ever since his cult hit TV show Freaks and Geeks won viewers’ hearts, followed by a succession of movies about a certain type of man-child.” I’m thinking of films like The 40-year-old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These were movies about  a generally good-hearted, but often immature, “schlubby” and underachieving, man who we follow along a hilarious journey towards love and a certain new level of maturity (although the development can only go so far—often the women involved in the stories learn to cope with and/or love a certain level of awkwardness).

Last year, Apatow forayed into new ground, producing the wildly successful movie Bridesmaids, which followed Kirsten Wiig and a team of comediannes on a crazy journey to the altar (you can read more of my thoughts on female comedy here). The Five-Year Engagement draws on much of the same production team from Bridesmaids, and pairs Apatow-staple Jason Segal, as an up-and-coming chef, Tom, and Emily Blunt as Violet, a doctoral student in Psychology. The films begins with the pair’s engagement, and follows them over the course of the next 5 years. At the beginning of the film, Tom is experiencing great professional success, while Violet is waiting impatiently to hear from graduate programs about post-doctoral fellowship opportunities. To the pair’s dismay, Violet does not get accepted at Berkeley, their top choice in their hometown of San Francisco, but instead is offered a position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Initially, Tom is glad to make the move with Violet, since it is temporary (two years) and will advance her career (this is a refreshing twist, since a majority of movies seem to focus on women following men and then “finding themselves” and/or struggling with their own identity). However, soon after they arrive in Ann Arbor, it becomes clear that while this is a place and a position where Violet will thrive, Tom is not at home. He has trouble finding work and eventually takes a job at a deli, friends are hard to come by, and he moves listlessly throughout day-to-day life. Violet, on the other hand, becomes something of a protégé at work, and is offered extensions and eventually a full-time position at the University. The movie follows the pair’s struggles to communicate about what they both need and want, and to decide whose happiness or career goals should be prioritized.

This movie has many funny moments. There’s a toddler with a crossbow, a gag involving Elmo and Cookie Monster of Sesame Street fame (my personal favorite moment), and a “traditional Michigan” dinner that utilizes every possible part of a deer possible. But for me, and for several of the other young, married female graduate students that I went to see this movie with, parts of this struggle almost hit too close to home to be funny. We are all “staring down the barrel” of possible eventual academic careers for ourselves, as well as for our significant others. When the time comes to make decisions about where to move, how do those decisions get made? Everything you learn while in grad school paints the picture that a future in full-time academic work is quite hard to attain, so if one partner does get offered a tenure-track-type opportunity, even if it is located far from family and in the middle of nowhere, is this an opportunity that you can say no to?

Unlike many movies, the Five-Year Engagement does not gloss over some of the inherent struggles with compromise that exist within relationships (although unfortunately it does seem to resolve these struggles all too neatly at the film’s end, but I guess that’s Hollywood for you). Real relationships are as much about a commitment to choosing to continue loving one another and working through things, even when things are difficult. They are not all about engagement and/or honeymoon bliss. And likely, even though a good relationship should prioritize the needs of both partners, there are times when decisions get made that involve a deeper loss for one partner than for another.

Margaret Farley

In her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Margaret Farley proposes that the realm of love and sex should be understood as an area open to ethical consideration. She suggests that not all love is inherently good, and for love to be ethical, it must also be just (you can read a great summary of her book by Caroline Kline at Feminism and Religion). She writes that “good love” or just love will be concerned with loving a person as a person, and not as a thing. This is love that “affirms the beloved in ways that do not miss the actualities and potentialities of the one who is loved.” She also notes that, while love begins as a reaction and response that is not always willful, it eventually must “offer itself to freedom.” This means that, as love develops, there is a choice inherent in continuing to love a person and to “identify our deepest selves” with them.

This all makes conversations about relationships more complicated, when we are bound to one another by love but also must continue to choose to make choices together that will help both partners to feel like their personhood and gifts are affirmed.

The Five-Year Engagement certainly doesn’t get it all right, but it does raise some interesting questions about what it looks like for two career-driven (or at least career-interested) people to navigate the terrains of success and partnership. If you are existing in a post-complementarian framework (I will reflect more on complementarity models tomorrow), and value equality, what does this mean for the ways that decisions get made?


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