A VALENTINE'S DAY REMINDER THAT LILY AND MARSHALL ARE A TERRIBLE COUPLE
Since its premiere in 2005, How I Met Your Mother’s Lily Aldrin and Marshall Eriksen have been featured in lists of “TV’s best couples”, profiles of how adorable they are, and articles about #RelationshipGoals. They are each other’s only love! They have adorable nicknames! They go all-in on couples costumes! Sure, fine, whatever. They also keep major secrets from each other and make life-changing decisions without the other’s input!
I am here with your Valentine’s Day reminder that Lily and Marshall are a terrible couple whose worst tendencies remain entrenched throughout the show’s nine-year run.
When Marshall and Lily get engaged, Lily worries that marriage means giving up her dreams. Instead of discussing her fears with Marshall, she secretly applies for an art fellowship in San Francisco that would conflict with their wedding. She decides to take it even though it will hurt Marshall, saying it’s “a mistake she has to make.”
Marshall finds out and they fight, since it sucks to learn that your own fiancée isn’t going to RSVP “yes” to the wedding. He asks some legitimate questions, like “What if you decide to go be a painter, and then you realize I don't fit into your life anymore, and three months becomes forever?” Lily doesn’t answer and runs away to San Francisco, leaving Marshall to tell everyone that the wedding is off.
She returns to New York after her fellowship instructor declares her Bad at Art. She proposes to Marshall and they get married the following spring.
But that breakup and reunion highlight many of the issues which would define Marshall and Lily’s relationship. They keep major secrets from each other, Lily runs when things get hard, and they ignore their underlying fears in favor a fantasy version of happily-ever-after.
In Season 3, when Marshall has to choose between a high-paying corporate job or his dream job at an environmental firm, Lily doesn’t want to confess that they need the money to pay off her secret mountain of credit card debt. His decision to take the corporate job gets her off the hook, so she just doesn’t tell him… until they want to buy an apartment and their mortgage lender hands over a monstrous interest rate due to her consumer debt.
She and Marshall fight but, because the fantasy of their future living there outweighs adult decision-making, decide to buy the apartment anyway. As Donna Bowman notes in her insightful review, “So they blunder on toward disaster — with Marshall… tied to a job he doesn't believe in for a boss who will be led away in handcuffs in a few years. The whole surprising downward spiral has got me wanting to scour the first two seasons to make sure Aunt Lily and Uncle Marshall are still together in the show's framing story.” The two never discuss Lily’s debt in a meaningful way, and when Marshall suggests Lily sell her clothes to pay for home repairs, she angrily resists.
The issue isn’t Lily’s debt, but the fact that she hides it from Marshall for years despite its impact on them both. To be fair, he never questioned how she bought designer clothing on a teacher’s salary, but hey, he’s not a prosecutor.
Marshall also cuts her out of major decisions. He quits his corporate job to take an unpaid environmental gig right when he and Lily decide to have a baby. Though she tries to be supportive, Lily nearly flies to Madrid by herself because of the stress of Marshall’s financial curveball. Again, her first instinct was to run rather than talk to Marshall. He thanks her for believing in his dreams and says he’ll look for paying work, but they don’t discuss how blindsided Lily must feel.
By their fifth anniversary Marshall works (for money) at an environmental firm. Lily is a private art consultant (that can’t come with dental and vision, right?) for a wealthy man who offers her a job in Rome for a year to build his collection. She initially declines so Marshall won’t have to leave his dream job. However, Marshall hasn’t told her that most of his firm was let go. Setting aside Marshall’s job security or the feasibility of supporting a family of three as a private art consultant, Lily almost missed out on her dream job because Marshall lied by omission about his.
Marshall’s secrets don’t stop there. He applies for a job as a state judge (not how New York judgeships work) and accepts without telling Lily. The fight about this particular secret leads us to our next point…
Both Marshall and Lily think Lily settled for him
Lily returns from San Francisco because she misses Marshall, but also because she failed her art program. Throughout the series, Lily never succeeds as an artist and Marshall never quite gets over the fear that they’re married only because art didn’t work out.
When Ted and Robin suggest that every relationship has one person who “reaches” out of their league and one person who “settles,” Marshall badgers Lily (now married three years) into admitting that she was the “settler.” Later that week, Marshall’s hot coworker makes a move on him. Lily thinks he’s inventing the story to make her jealous, and her patronizing response makes him even more insecure. When Lily learns the truth she attacks the other woman proving, somehow, that she didn’t settle - your love is only as strong as your fear of losing it (???).
Marshall’s fears surface again when he and Lily fight about his decision to take the judgeship. She insists that accepting the role is more selfish than anything she’s ever done to him. He counters with her art fellowship and asks, “What if you had found success in San Francisco? How do I know that you even would've come back to me?” Were he and their son “just some consolation prize?”
Lily storms off - as she does when things get hard - and the fight exposes their deep trust issues. How can Marshall trust her when she abandoned him and kept huge secrets? How can she trust him when this isn’t even the first time he excluded her from a major decision?
Instead of confronting the long and studiously-ignored fallout of their breakup, Marshall has an imaginary conversation with two ghosts of Lily and his father’s ghost, all of whom dismiss his pain. He decides that if he thinks about marriage as winning and losing, he’ll lose Lily. It’s a fair point, but again Lily and Marshall refuse to address their problems or Marshall’s lingering resentment. Again the show dismisses the ways in which their insecurities cultivate distrust.
Lily returns to tell him she’s pregnant with their second child, Marshall declines the judgeship, and they move to Rome. Marshall later gets elected to the New York Supreme Court (because someone with a spotty legal career is totally judge material). They live happily ever after as an illegitimate mainstay in the internet’s round-ups of best TV couples.
There is value in showing a married couple who maintain friendships and enjoy having sex with each other, but secrecy and betrayal are Lily and Marshall’s most consistent patterns. A marriage infused with with that level of distrust would erode no matter how cute the nicknames. No wonder Marshall worries that Lily settled for him. No wonder Lily feels stifled as a wife and mother. No wonder Bowman wanted to make sure they didn’t get divorced.
How I Met Your Mother is about five friends stumbling towards adulthood and supposedly maturing along the way, yet Marshall and Lily never grow beyond their insecurities and distrust. They are an example of how not to communicate with a romantic partner. This Valentine’s Day, aim your #RelationshipGoals higher.