Why did we all love Downton? The period costumes. The stunning interiors and table settings. And, of course, those gorgeous hats. But mostly, I’m thinking, it was the dialogue.
No blaring electronics. No foul language. No one used “like” as a verbal tic or ended a declarative sentence with a question mark.
Conversation on Downton was intentional. It grew out of a clearly defined moral code and a sense of belonging and responsibility to one another and to Downton itself. It was thoughtful and often elegant. No disagreement grew so heated, you might imagine, that it couldn’t be handled on a stroll among the hydrangeas. Even when Maggie Smith’s dowager countess issued one of her zingers, she was telling her truth, not falling into the snarkiness that passes for wit on much of network television.
All that said, in its narrow, lovely certainty the world of Downton in its early seasons, was, of course, breathtakingly bigoted and repressed. Decades after those rigid days, many of us lived through a backlash, when “sharing your feelings” became the most important thing a person could do in a relationship. We would never want to lose the ground we’ve gained since Downton, but that no-holds-barred, encounter-group style of expression didn’t work so well either.
Still doesn’t. Up close we’re all — yes, even New Yorkers — tender creatures who want the people we love to handle us gently. We reveal our vulnerability when we feel emotionally safe. (As the dowager countess observes, “One way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.”) That ongoing intimate sharing is a dance that partners do together in the midst of busy lives and setbacks, one that takes years for most of us to learn.
Couples counseling is like a dance lesson. Often, I find, people imagine it’s a forum for dropping the bombs you’ve been hiding for years. Or an extension of the thinking-aloud that often happens in individual therapy. But it’s really a chance to learn how to bring a little Downton decorum into your New York relationship.
Couples therapy offers an opportunity to practice genuine, caring ways to talk about the tough stuff. To nurture a connection strong enough to hold up through years of change and misunderstanding and conflict. I think of Cora asking her mother-in-law, “Are we to be friends then?” and Lady Grantham’s reply: “We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”
Today we’re so much freer than the women and men of Downton to create the relationships we want, but learning to build an effective alliance is more essential than ever. Learning down-to-earth skills, we can become loving partners for a lifetime.