"If you don't like how the table is set, turn it over." — Frank Underwood
I’m a late adopter.
While the Netflix-produced political drama House of Cards premiered back in February of 2013, and four seasons have already aired, with a fifth in the works, I only started viewing very recently. Though I’ve been binge-watching it, I’m still in the middle of Season Two.
The Underwoods, the main characters in the show, have been married a long time when we meet them — 26 years as the series begins.
Evidently by mutual decision, they have no children, but they seem to be a very solid two-person family. For instance, Frank expresses the depth of his love for Claire in an aside to the audience when he says, “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”
From what I’ve seen so far, it’s certainly apparent that both Claire (played by Robin Wright) and Frank (Kevin Spacey) have ethical flaws, and some pretty major ones, at that. Nonetheless, putting these aside for the moment, it has struck me that the Underwoods may have much to teach us about how to have a successful, fulfilling marriage — at least in the early episodes.
Below are some helpful pointers on marriage improvement suggested by watching the fictional Underwoods interact in “House of Cards.”
(Despite the possibility that the series may have been designed to fool or mislead us about them somewhat in the early going, the guidelines I’ve noted are still valid.)
1. When your spouse comes home stressed out after a hard day, ask, “What can I do?”
Frank and Claire Underwood lead very stressful lives. At the start of the series, Frank is the Democratic majority whip in the US Congress, trying to do his part to run the country. Claire is the executive director of Clear Water Initiative (CWI), a highly regarded nonprofit organization promoting global clean-water access.
The Underwoods’ Washington, DC townhouse is their refuge. They come home each evening after complicated and difficult workdays and look to each other for comfort and support. At least in the episodes I’ve viewed thus far, those are things they give each other authentically and freely.
When Claire comes home stressed, Frank will often ask, “What can I do?” or “How can I help?” If Frank is strained by his work in Congress, tense from the attendant political intrigues and his associations with world powers with their own agendas, Claire might say, “I’m here if you need me.”
“How can I help?”
It’s amazing how powerful those four little words are. It’s always helpful to say something like “What can I do for you?” or even just “I love you” to your spouse, assuming that you can do so sincerely. When said with deep honesty and caring, as the Underwoods seem to do, they are relationship builders.
Frank and Claire exchange such words often as they undertake their demanding responsibilities and trials (albeit sometimes caused by their own behavior). The way these words of care and comfort are spoken indicates a deep level of emotional intelligence and personal connection, which bodes well for their marriage. Okay, yes, I know these are just actors, but as they deliver them, the words do not seem faked; they apparently come from a depth of true compassion for each other. Maybe nothing will really help, but just knowing that the other Underwood is there to help makes a difference to each of them.
2. Value each other’s contribution to the marriage.
In divorce law, contribution to the marriage is a concept that describes how each of the parties contributed to a union. The contribution can be monetary (earning a living) or offered in another way, such as managing a household or even working in public service. In a divorce court, spouses who each put forth effort on behalf of a marriage, even if in different realms, are generally viewed as equal contributors to the marriage.
The concept of “contribution” also applies to ongoing marriages. When a marriage is balanced and thriving, both parties acknowledge and appreciate each other’s work, or contribution, no matter what form it takes. When that happens, each party feels he or she is getting a “good deal” in the marriage. When a spouse sees his or her own role or contribution as the more important one or thinks the other spouse is not carrying equal weight, the marriage begins to be troubled.
We can see some contribution troubles in the early episodes of House of Cards, but overall, Claire and Frank are able to appreciate each other’s efforts. Still, because Frank works on an arguably larger platform (the highest echelons of the government), he sometimes places his goals above Claire’s.
When Claire’s nonprofit has an urgent need for funding, she receives an offer of a $5 million donation through Remy Danton, a lobbyist for SanCorp, a natural gas company that is trying to influence Congress to promote fossil fuel interests. Previously, SanCorp had withdrawn its funding to CWI to punish Frank for not playing ball with them. Claire tries to convince Frank that the donation would be separate from SanCorp’s lobbying efforts, but Frank responds, “I can’t have SanCorp breathing down my neck again.”
Frank and Claire’s interests are in conflict. But though Frank will put his work goals above Claire’s in this case, he suggests, “Let’s find another way to raise the money.” And that’s what happens. With Frank’s active participation, he and Claire work out other channels for funding. They have both valued each other’s work and found an accommodation that supports the work and goals of each of them.
3. Don’t ask too much of your spouse, or you may get whacked.
When married couples do not support each other’s goals, bad things can happen — very bad things (warning: spoiler alert) — including death by murder.
Remy lobbies many members of Congress with SanCorp monetary offers in order to shut down the Delaware River Watershed Act that Frank and Peter Russo, an up-and-coming congressman controlled by Frank, are supporting. Claire has $200k worth of water filters for a flagship water project that are trapped in Sudan and need to be released. She proposes to Frank that she use Remy’s influence to get them out. Frank angrily and firmly says no.
Then Frank asks Claire for a favor: to personally meet with two wavering liberal congressmen who don’t think the Delaware River Watershed Act goes far enough. Their two votes are needed to pass the Watershed Act.
Frank is certain that Claire would be able to encourage them to change their minds and support the bill. He asserts, “They respect your opinion.” Claire pushes back, replying, “So what you’re saying is that my goals are secondary?”
Feeling devalued, Claire sabotages the meeting with the two congressmen, making herself directly responsible for the failure of the bill, and also (warning: spoiler alert), due to its failure, proximately causing the death of Peter Russo.
So we can see that it’s important not to ask too much of your spouse and not to place your goals above your spouse’s. After all, you might just get whacked ... or someone else might get whacked.
4. Value your spouse as an attractive person, and do things your spouse likes.
These are simple rules but are often forgotten in a long-term marriage.
We’ve seen that Frank evidently adores Claire and finds her attractive. In Season 1, Episode 8, they are at Frank’s alma mater, Sentinel Military College, where Frank is being honored. The college has built a new library and has named it after him. Remy Danton (ubiquitous this season) asks Frank, “Where’s Claire?” Frank’s response: “Oh, she’s here somewhere, fending off admirers.”
Speaking positively and naturally of your spouse is a good thing. In a conversation with a college buddy at Sentinel in Season 1, Episode 8, Frank’s old friend notes about Claire, “She seems like a real prize.” Frank’s response: “She is!”
In addition, spouses who do little things to please each other have the happiest marriages. In an example of spouse-pleasing behavior, Claire calls Frank “Francis” (his given name) because he likes her to do it. In Season 1, Episode 8, Frank is asked by one of his military college drinking buddies, “Does anybody ever actually call you Francis?" He responds, “Claire does. She’s the only one.” In Season 2, Episode 4, in Claire’s TV appearance, the interviewer, Ashleigh Banfield, comments, “You call him Francis.” Claire responds, “Well, back home they call him Frank, still. But he likes that I call him Francis. He’s said that it makes him sound more sophisticated.”
He likes when she calls him Francis; she does it. End of story.
Sometimes an act of giving between the Underwoods may be presented in a rather unusual way. But it’s still a gift. For instance, in the Underwood marital contract (albeit probably unwritten), one special practice is to give a spouse control over when the other spouse’s affairs should end. In Season 1, episode 5, when Frank comes home the morning after beginning an affair with Zoe, Claire asks him if it’s “just this once.” He responds, “I’m not sure.” Claire asks, “What does she offer us?" When Frank responds, “The moment you want me to end it—,” Claire interrupts and assures him, “I know, Francis.”
5. Have goals and purposes outside the marriage.
As Claire puts it in the Banfield TV interview in Season 2, Episode 4, “We’re just two independent people who have chosen to live our lives together.”
This is a significant part of the reason for the strength of the Underwood marriage. They have personal goals outside the home and the marriage that are important to each of them. Having outside goals increases satisfaction and brings energy back to the marriage.
When we meet Frank and Claire, they appear to have higher goals than just their own comfort. For both of them, at least in the early episodes, altruism is shown to be a motivator. Despite his willingness to indulge in unscrupulous behavior to achieve his goals, Frank seems to believe that he is motivated to make the world a better place through influencing national laws and policies. Similarly Claire’s nonprofit assists developing countries to improve clean water access and thus save lives, which gives her a strong sense of purpose and self-actualization.
As Claire says to old beau Adam Galloway, from the time she was a girl she was interested in being more than an observer in life. She wanted more than just to be seen. As she says, “I wanted to be significant.”
Frank comes from a more hardscrabble background than Claire. His family was impoverished and nearly lost their farm when he was a child. His dad, an alcoholic abuser, died at age 43 from a heart attack.
Frank is something of a “blue dog” Democrat, whose political views are at times aligned with those of Republicans. In the Southern tradition, he relies on personal connections and operates somewhat as a free agent between the political parties. That’s one of the reasons that he is such a good deal maker in Congress. His ambitions seem to stem from the belief that he knows better than most others what will be most beneficial for the country, a notion that gives him goals and tremendous purpose, as well as a sense of individual identity outside his marriage to Claire.
6. Think of your spouse as a long-term choice, and commit to that.
After a major spat with Frank caused by her sabotaging the Delaware River Watershed Act, Claire escapes to New York City to be with Adam Galloway, an old boyfriend. But after a few days with Adam, she realizes that Frank is the spouse who is there for the long term and decides to return home.
As she explains it to Adam, “What I chose was a man I could love for more than a week. I have a history with Francis. I have a future with him, and it’s bigger than a moment.”
A marriage is bigger than a moment. That’s why it’s usually a bad choice to have an affair, even if both spouses agree that they will allow that as part of their modus operandi.
7. The best marriages are ones where the spouses make it so that they never get bored with each other.
Work at your marriage, and don’t let yourself become lazy in regard to your partner. After all, the best marriages are ones in which the spouses make certain on an ongoing basis that they never take each other for granted or put their relationship on remote control. Be active in separate interests, as well as engaging in common interests with your spouse. Boredom is a marriage killer.
When Claire visits Frank’s previous bodyguard Steve, she opens up to him about the way Frank proposed to her. She recalls his exact words: “Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I’m not going to give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you’ll never be bored.”
And that’s what happened.
Despite behaviors they exhibit that arguably few people would emulate, in some regards it might not be such a bad idea to learn from the Underwoods.
Realize that deep intimacy in your marriage can take many forms, such as spending quality time talking together (and sharing a cigarette) at home after a hard day’s work. Make sure to have outside interests. Be mindful and appreciative of the investment you have made in your marriage and in your choice of a partner. Know that a spouse is for a lifetime, and not just for the moment.
And remember, though the Underwoods may be rich and powerful and in many ways even ruthless and amoral (and even though they are just a fictional couple appearing in your home on streaming video), in some respects your marriage is not so different from theirs.
Keep that in mind while striving to improve it.
This article was originally published at The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.