In season five, episode five of Broad City, Ilana and Lincoln celebrate their anniversary by going to dinner and holding their “annual renegotiations”—a process that involves wine, cocktail attire, and two padfolios. The scene opens with Ilana referring to her notes. “Moving on with the proceedings: I would like to look at the next article, which is a suspension period in monogamy,” she says. “If we are going to do this for another beautiful year I would like to make out with…five…ty…fifty people.”
“Ilana,” says Lincoln. “Two. And I have to know about them.”
“Okay, dooooooope! I mean, deal,” says Ilana. “Communication is dope.”
The scene is funny because actors Ilana Glazer and Hannibal Buress have perfect timing—at one point Lincoln says he wants to get married and Ilana replies, “Lincoln I’m 27. What am I? A child bride?” And also because it’s absurd: They’re celebrating their anniversary with legal jargon and emotional bargaining. It’s Hallmark heresy, and yet, something about it feels aspirational. Maybe not in a literal sense—the padfolios were a bit much—but their commitment to being honest with each other is romantic in its own way. And even though the discussion doesn’t end up going exactly as planned, months later, I’m still thinking about the fact that it happened at all.
The scene returned to the forefront of my mind a few months later, while I was reading a memoir by Claire Dederer called Love & Trouble. In it, she talks about how her 15-year marriage is great—still full of lively banter and passionate sex—and yet she has become a bit bored. And not just in her relationship, but in her life, too. She wants for something else, for novelty, for anything. This sense of ennui haunts her, because didn’t she do everything right? Go for the passion job, find a good guy, nurture her friendships, raise nice kids? But as she settles into middle age, she can’t seem to stop crying.
This is all casually covered in the first few pages, which I found so alarming I sat straight up in bed. The idea that a life so thoughtfully lived could land you in this kind of emotional purgatory descended upon me like a bad dream. The more I read, the harder it became to skirt the question us mortals are supposed to avoid: Why even try if all the right moves can leave you in inexplicable tears? (Of course, the answer has something to do with the journey, but show me a person who doesn’t care where their journey takes them and I’ll show you my meditation practice.)
I zipped through the rest of the book in two days, then called a family meeting.
“Avi,” I said to my boyfriend. He was stretching on the floor, I was above him on the couch. “Remember that renegotiation meeting Ilana and Lincoln have in Broad City? I think we should do something like that too.”
“Okay,” he said, smiling a little. “Still freaking out about that book?”
“Yes!” I said. Love & Trouble was sitting in my lap. I held it up and shook it a little. “This woman Claire and her husband have this great relationship, and they still end up feeling trapped. At one point she goes to this party and meets another writer who is notorious for cheating on his wife, and she lets him kiss her. And she’s totally exhilarated. Not even because she likes him, but because he’s new. And before the kiss happened she was drawing all these comparisons between her and this man—about how they may feel the same boredom but he acts on it and she doesn’t, and then I thought to myself: What’s the difference, really? Just action? Is imagining kissing someone really so much more noble than doing it? Why does the sanctity of marriage come down to your ability to not press your mouth to someone else’s when doing so could actually make your marriage so much better because all you needed was one fucking second of novelty?”
I took a breath. He looked at me. “Are you saying you want an open relationship?”
“No, no, no.” I looked crazed. We both started to laugh. This wasn’t about my current desires, I assured him, it was about concern for our future. I was (and am) afraid of letting our good relationship become a trap by the simple means of assuming it won’t. How could we make sure to not let that happen? Constant communication? Annual renegotiation? A willingness to always endeavor to understand each other even if it meant accepting that we couldn’t always be what the other person needed?
It sounded like I was denouncing monogamy, I knew that, but I wasn’t really talking about sex. I was talking about the kind of complacency that flourishes when you blindly subscribe to someone else’s ideas—like that “love is all you need”—even when those ideas eventually depart from your own and start to make you feel ashamed of yourself. I’m sure everyone who has been through divorce at one point assumed it wouldn’t happen to them, for instance, so couldn’t that happen to us?
“I just want to be with someone who is down to revisit the rules every once in a while,” I told Avi. “And I don’t just mean sex rules—I mean all the little assumptions we make about what it means to be in a long-term partnership. It may be that we never want to change anything! But at least then we’ll feel empowered by our choices rather than controlled by someone else’s, you know?”
“I’m in,” he said. “I totally agree.” And we proceeded to have our first official relationship check-in, and I was reminded why I like him so much, and he was reminded of who he is dating, which is a mildly anxious person who’s obsessed with trying to learn from other people’s mistakes, even though she knows it doesn’t always work that way. Luckily, he’s a bit like that too.
Of course, it’s easier to commit to honesty than to carry it out over the course of many years—and by presuming radical communication can allay all of love’s challenges, you run the risk of assuming that emotions aren’t complicated, and that preserving a relationship is as simple as telling the truth. But in the case of Ilana and Lincoln, their negotiations lead to their demise. Instead of helping them navigate their incompatibilities, it brings them to their logical end. And while they may accept that with a sad smile, coming to terms with these things can be gut-wrenching in real life.
It’s a good reminder that there is no avoiding pain, ever, even if you make all the “right” moves. Maybe one day Avi and I will end up feeling bored, just like Claire, despite our best efforts. Maybe Claire ended up feeling bored despite her best efforts. But what her midlife crisis and Ilana and Lincoln’s negotiations showed me is that there is an undeniable grace to admitting you’re not where or who you thought you’d be. And the real mistake is plugging your ears to that.
There’s an insidiousness to assumptions left unchecked over time, and romantic love—maybe more than any other facet of life aside from our relationship to ourselves—seems particularly susceptible to it. There is so much social and financial capital surrounding the idea of true love lasting forever. But maybe what we really need is the foresight to assume otherwise. To be active rather than passive where the rules of love are concerned—and renegotiate when necessary.
Feature photo by Matt Peyton/Comedy Central.