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What Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth Can Teach Us About the On-Again, Off-Again Relationship

Miley and Liam breaking up (again)—and so quickly after what was intended to be a lifelong commitment—makes me wonder about the nature of an on-again, off-again relationship. In rom coms and romance novels, love doesn’t have room for an on-again, off-again narrative: A couple meets (probably in an adorable New York Times “Modern Love” essay sort of way), falls in love at first sight, gets married, and embarks on a lifetime of Instagram captions of “This one is okay, I guess 😘”

On television, though, pop-culture has introduced a new narrative for the on-and-offs: the meant to be. Ross and Rachel might have dealt with more than their fair share of break-ups and make-ups on Friends, but he was her lobster! No matter how many times they were or weren’t on a break, when Rachel got off the plane it still felt right. Same goes for Carrie and Mr. Big on Sex and the City, Seth and Summer on The O.C., Nick and Jess on New Girl, and Luke and Lorelei on Gilmore Girls. Everything these couples went through made their relationship stronger, gave it history and depth that made the ultimate resolution all the more satisfying for an audience who’d been rooting for them for years.

Cyrus and Hemsworth in 2019.

Jon Kopaloff/WireImage

But real life does not operate by TV rules (this writer, a genius, pointed out). Break-ups are messy—cruel things get said, feelings get hurt, people become jealous or resentful. Coming back together isn’t always the magical reunion it so often feels like in the moment.

Think back to your high school physics class: a ball dropped from ten feet in the air might bounce only eight feet back up after it hits the ground, then five feet, then two, and then no bounce at all. Wind resistance, friction, whatever—it all causes diminishing returns. A relationship can act the same way. Each new iteration of a relationship re-introduces the ghosts of old grudges, pet peeves, resentments thought dormant.

TV necessitates pacing and drama. But we don’t need, nor would we care for, drama in the relationships of whichever real-life couples in your orbit constitutes #CoupleGoals. Chances are, the healthiest relationship you know involves more nights watching Netflix and playing Scrabble than races to airports and dramatic declarations of love in the pouring rain. Ross and Rachel never need to exist in the dull, awkward, boring moments that aren’t written by a crack team of sitcom writers. They’ll never need to exist with Rachel resenting the fact that she sacrificed her job in Paris for Ross, or realizing he was pretty screwed up for not being OK with a male nanny. (And we all know Ross never actually got over his indignation they were on a break.)

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