One of the zanier storylines in Friends inexplicably spoke to a universal truth about love. Remember when Monica walked in on Chandler watching pay-per-view porn in his Tulsa hotel room, and a frantic switch of the channel to a nature documentary led her to think her husband was “getting his jollies to Jaws”? Monica is horrified, but is willing to go with it. Later, back at home, she puts on a toothy shark movie for him, and even offers to thrash around in the bath to turn him on. When he finally figures out the mix-up, Chandler tells his wife that he’s in awe of her “strength and understanding”. “I’m very drunk right now,” she admits.
OK. So I’m not saying I’d put a plunge pool in the living room or try to grow gills for my partner, but I’m certain that watching this episode about 17 times (as I have most Friends episodes), has made me a more accepting girlfriend. And more appreciative when my own weird things aren’t questioned. I accept it, for example, when my boyfriend buys a 15th blue jacket, practically identical to the previous 14. And I like that he doesn’t judge me for the uniquely frenzied way in which I eat mini mozzarella bites. Since Matthew Perry’s death at the weekend, so many of us have reflected on how, through Chandler, he mirrored our own insecurities and anxieties, and how he practically shaped the way that millions of us speak and make each other laugh. He also taught me so much of what I know about love.
Acceptance, says counsellor Georgina Sturmer, is paramount to a strong relationship. “From the moment we’re born, we look to other people to understand how we can elicit attention and approval and affection,” she says. “As counsellors, we talk about attachment theory: we will feel at our most comfortable and confident if we feel that we are genuinely accepted by those around us. So as grownups, when we are in relationships, we are looking for someone who is going to offer us unconditional, non-judgmental love, accepting each other warts and all.”
Across 10 years of the stratospherically successful US sitcom, Chandler and Courteney Cox’s Monica also demonstrated how important it is to be friends with your partner. They are best mates for an entire four seasons before it turns into something more. Over all that time, they look out for each other. In season two’s “The One Where Heckles Dies”, Monica reassures Chandler that he won’t die alone, and is the only person he confides in about his third nipple. Chandler comforts Monica when Phoebe moves out, and when, in season three, Monica is sad about not having a child or a boyfriend. They continue to be good friends when things turn romantic, too. It’s not enough to just fancy each other. “All of our looks will fade over time,” says Sturmer, so “unconditional positive regard” is key to a relationship, and “really that comes from friendship: it’s not about, ‘You look good in this outfit,’ it’s about, ‘I respect you, appreciate you and unconditionally care about you and connect with you.’”
Being such great pals before you take it to the next level can make it awkward when you eventually get together. After Chandler and Monica first have sex, she asks him not to look at her body as she slithers out of the bed to get dressed. “I don’t wanna look!” comes his juvenile reply. A friend of mine, who had a relationship with one of her friends, once told me that, while snogging him was easy from the off, it took her a while to venture to territories further south.
Friends though they are, Chandler and Monica are very different. Sturmer says this can be good – as long as we deal with our differences the right way. “It’s important to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and be able to learn from each other,” she says. “It’s not always about being better than each other or scoring points. You can also have a sense of humour about your differences – one of the reasons Monica and Chandler are so appealing is because they’re very self-aware about them.”
My partner is a furniture maker, but no one sane would leave me alone with a hammer, let alone a lathe. And I’m a writer, but he just cannot get to grips with commas. “Where,” he often wonders aloud, “do they go?” Chandler and Monica are also chalk and cheese. He has a chick and a duck for pets, which saunter around his apartment and use the La-Z-Boy reclining chair as a toilet. She, on the other hand, will combust if a house guest doesn’t use a coaster for their drink. But while she is a clean freak, she is never reduced to the nagging, eye-rolling wife we see in so many other sitcoms. They’re a team, strengthened by their differences.
Over the course of numerous relationships, I’ve learned that you can’t change people or mould them into your ideal “type on paper” – as much as dating apps and reality TV may force you to think that way. Instead, you slowly grow around each other, curling against the bends in your partner’s strange shapes.
Some of the toughest parts of Chandler and Monica’s storyline arrive when jealousy comes into play. While Chandler’s living in Tulsa, Monica gets worried about a hot colleague who’s flirting with him. And the spectre of Richard, the dreamy, moustachioed older doctor who Monica was madly in love with before Chandler, needs a whole think piece of his own. Jealousy is a bit of a taboo in a relationship – we don’t often talk to each other about that sharp pang you feel when your partner’s ex’s name comes up – but Friends tackles it head-on.
“Jealousy is a very normal, healthy, human reaction,” says Sturmer, “and like all of our feelings, it’s developed to protect us and to teach us something. It shows us that we care. It shows us that we value the person or thing we are feeling jealous about. Where the wheels come off is when we express jealousy in a way that makes other people feel bad.”
She explains that different people will feel jealousy to varying extents, depending on what they’ve experienced in the past. And to some people, hearing that a partner is jealous can sometimes be “flattering”, or at the other end of the spectrum, “really frightening, if they’ve been in a situation where it’s been used to manipulate”.
There are plenty of things for Chandler and Monica to fall out about. As with all couples. But not everything needs to turn into a row. In one season eight episode, they skip an impending argument altogether and agree to call it even, opting instead for a high five. Obviously, we can’t all be this annoyingly agreeable in real life. But perhaps we should sometimes take a leaf out of Chandler and Monica’s book, and pick our battles. Don’t fight the shark porn, essentially, just go with it.