This week, I encouraged almost every therapy client I see to tune into Downton Abbey. Not for the fabulous clothing, the witty dialogue, or the historical intrigue. Couples, whether married, engaged, or in committed relationships, can learn a great deal from the way that two of the key protagonists -- Mary and Matthew Crawley -- have fiercely disagreed over money. Money is one of the most common topics couples fight about, and season three's opening episode depicts a stellar example of the way healthy, open communication can enhance a relationship. Open, honest communication does not make disagreeing easy, but it can allows couples to save their union simply by agreeing to disagree.
For those of you who may have been living under a rock, here's the gist: Matthew is a distant cousin and unlikely heir to Downton and Mary is the daughter of Earl of Grantham. They have been madly in love since they met, but they didn't know it at first. They spent most of season one fighting and most of the season two engaged to others and secretly (but obviously) wishing they could turn back the clock and find a way to be together. Toward the end of season two, Matthew's fiancée, Lavinia, dies of the Spanish flu and from her deathbed she admits awareness that Matthew's true love is Mary and she urges him to make a life with her. She even goes so far as to say that her death is a blessing in a sense, as she knows that Matthew would be too loyal to back out of a wedding; but she also knows that his true affections lie elsewhere.
Instead of taking her dying words as a blessing, Matthew is tortured by the thought that sweet Lavinia left the world feeling unloved. He eventually pulls it together and proposes to Mary during the season two finale; and with their magnificent passion, genuine friendship and palpable chemistry there is no question that these two are meant to be together.
When season three opens, Mary's family learns that they have lost their entire fortune by investing in the wrong railroad company. Facing financial ruin, they realize they must sell Downton Abbey and leave their many servants to lose work they depend upon and fend for themselves in the bleak economy of the 1921 english countryside. Times are changing and the family is struggling to face the reality of a rapidly modernizing world. Mary was raised to believe that her destiny is to become the next lady of Downton, and now she must prepare to say goodbye to this lifelong dream.
As the wedding plans progress, Matthew unexpectedly learns that he stands to inherit a tremendous fortune from Lavinia's distant relatives since there is no other next of kin. While Matthew's inheritance is easily large enough to solve Mary's family's financial dilemma, Matthew insists that it is wrong to take the money as it was willed to him under the false pretenses of his love and devotion to a sweet girl whom he betrayed. Furious, Mary tells Matthew that she is not on her family's side and they almost call off the wedding. To Mary, it is unimaginable that Matthew could turn away money her family needs to save a longstanding institution and her position. To Matthew, it is unimaginable that he could compromise his honor by taking money under what his moral compass tells him are false pretenses.
The wonderful lesson learned by this couple is not that they choose to marry in spite of their disagreement -- many, many couples move forward in marriage with a fantasy that marriage alone will make their partner change and see the light. The lesson lies in the extent to which they fully enjoy their early marriage in spite of this ongoing disagreement. One moment, they speak openly about how much the completely disagree with one another. The next moment, Mary says "now kiss me and let's go to bed!" One could even say that the series is making a great case for the abstinence of the old days, as it seems that this couple is so overjoyed to finally be able to have sex with each other that they are able to sustain a healthy perspective on the fact that even disagreements of huge proportion are not worth destroying a relationship that is incredibly happy, healthy and sound.
It will be psychologically fascinating to watch this young marriage evolve. As it stands, their ability to contain themselves with respect to this issue is an ideal model for even the most modern of marriages.
Follow Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, LICSW on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elisjoy