Couple Crushes: The Relationships We Idolize

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Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Back in olden times, which is to say last February, a social media fan site called Buzznet declared Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson “the perfect couple.” They didn’t have much to go on — mostly a bunch of cute pictures. But Buzznet extrapolated from that non-information, lauding “Robsten’s” authenticity and down-to-earthiness and interpreting their disinterest in romantic exhibitionism as a sign of True Love. The evidence: Robsten didn’t feed the Twitter machine. They didn’t dress to impress. They didn’t go out to clubs, seeming to prefer each other’s company. They didn’t feel the need to hoot and holler about their infatuation by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch (as Tom Cruise did, to promote his relationship with Katie Holmes). Nor did they make a spectacle of their sexual chemistry, à la Jay-Z and Beyoncé or Brad and Angelina. No, Stewart and Pattinson were “rock solid and drama free.” Buzznet let its little-girl-fantasy-self show: Stewart and Pattison, the site declared, have “the kind of relationship we all want to be in and have last forever.”

Buzznet had a couple crush.

A couple crush is not a crush on a person who is not your partner. It is a crush on a couple by another couple or, more frequently, on a couple by an otherwise romantically engaged individual. A couple crush makes you think about all the could-have-beens and would-have-beens in your own partnership and all the ways in which your own relationship satisfies your expectations and — more pointedly — fails to do so. A couple crush is the fantasy standard against which you measure the romantic love in your own life. Celebrity couples are the best targets for crushes, because like all crushes, they flourish best in an absence of real information.

I sat down to write this piece harboring a sentimental couple crush on Madonna and Sean Penn. In even longer ago times, Madonna and Sean sat down next to me in an uncrowded restaurant during a lazy lunch.

“I feel like shit,” he said.

“So call in sick,” she responded. Then they made out.

“I really feel like shit,” he said.

“So call in sick.” More making out. Then hand holding. Not too much eating.

They seemed perfect together — physically compatible, similarly rough around the edges, ambitious in that thrilling, dirty, New York City post-punk way. Then I gave myself an Internet refresher course and was reminded that he once tied her to a chair and allegedly hit her with a baseball bat. (Poof! went my couple crush.)

Most married people I know also have couples crushes on real people — on certain friends and acquaintances who seem to be doing the whole marriage thing better than they are. One of my friends idolizes a couple she knows that cooks every single meal — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — together. Another holds up his older relatives who bring relentless good humor (and even actual jokes!) to life’s travails.  A marriage crush is especially stimulated by a observing another couple appear to do effortlessly the thing(s) that you and your spouse find difficult: exotic foreign travel, the throwing of frequent parties, child discipline, home renovations, date nights, negotiations over family visits. The upside to witnessing weakness or conflict in a couple upon whom you are crushed — Pattinson and Stewart come to mind again, as do Madonna and Sean — is that it reminds you that nothing is perfect. No couple has it all together. (A truth you knew already of course, but had temporarily forgotten due to the blinding happiness of the couple in your sights, made up entirely by you.)

If I may overpsychoanalyze the poor Buzznet writer for a minute: What he (or she) found crushable about Stewart and Pattinson — and indeed, the reason the whole entire world seems so outraged at the dissolution of that relationship — is that in spite of their celebrity and the hothouse in which they lived, they actually seemed to be good friends. And a good friendship, says John Gottman, of the famed Gottman Institute in Seattle, is the fundamental ingredient of a good marriage, marked by mutual respect and admiration, fondness, and a lack of contempt.  

If I may now long-distance overpsychoanalyze the entirety of Hollywood coupledom: That being the case, which celebrity spouses really seem to have the friendship thing down? Which appear to be truly committed to the marriage in spite of the crazy circumstances in which they live? I crowd-sourced the question on Facebook.

The nominees, in no particular order: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard (for hiding in plain sight). Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner (for epic cuteness); Portia and Ellen (for setting much more than an example); Will and Kate (for breaking the mold, sort of); Amy Poehler and Will Arnett (for their mutual appreciation society); Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber (for fusing glamour with earnestness); Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (for understanding that even celebrities grow old); Meryl Streep and Don Gummer (for letting Meryl be Meryl); John and Yoko (no explanation necessary); Annette Benning and Warren Beatty (for having lived through it all and having the heart to try it all again);  Posh and Becks (for knowing their strengths); and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (for setting the standard). My second favorite suggestion was Kermit and Miss Piggy, who I believe have all the hallmarks of a happy-ish and enduring couple, including an inexplicable but undeniable passion, as well a concomitant undercurrent of nearly constant irritation.

My very favorite post came from my husband. “You and me!” he wrote. “Unless you married me for the publicity.”