Social change in the Twentieth Century knocked the old American models of relationship out of their orbits. What men and women were supposed to do collided, shattered, and came back together in new combinations. The old models of relationship are still common, but we have a bunch of new ones we are still trying to understand. Modern sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory, look at how we can come to terms with new combinations, especially if we are in one.
If you watch the show, you know Penny and Leonard, Bernadette and Howard, Amy and Sheldon, and, as of Season 8, Raj and Emily. Despite the exaggeration that sitcom writing brings to their stories, I have seen their core themes show up in the therapy room.
For the rest of this post, let’s focus on Penny and Leonard. If the practical, commitment-averse partner was called Patrick and the clingy one was Laura, we might be watching a sitcom from the 50’s—but they aren’t and we’re not. A clingy man and a distancing woman swap the expectations we have even now, and this creates a large part of the humor in their show.
However, fifty years ago, Leonard would be dismissed as a wimp and Penny as a woman who doesn’t know her place (or worse–tradition is not kind to assertive women). Today our attitudes have changed to the point where these two characters can earn the loyal compassion of millions of Americans. This reflects, I think, the fact that swaps in stereotypical gender roles are becoming more common in the real world.
Leonard’s mother. There. I said it. Did you hear him finding an excuse to leave the room? One of the greatest paths to compassion is to imagine someone else’s emotional experience, especially when you’re looking at defining personality traits or emotional challenges. Leonard’s mother, Beverly, had a huge impact on his experience of affection and acceptance.
Leonard makes pained jokes about how his mother used the giving and withholding of affection as a reward and punishment to condition his behavior. Beverly lives her life from the cold perspective of scientific behaviorism, an approach that ignores internal processes. We can speculate that she was attracted to this branch of psychology because she feels uncomfortable with emotions.
We can imagine four-year-old Leonard seeking a hug from his mother, only to be held away and told he must first pick up his toys. Leonard would feel rejected and naturally want to fix the rejection. Keep in mind that we are all hard-wired to seek connection, particularly children. Even when Beverly did not intentional withhold emotion, her ability to tune into Leonard’s needs would be erratic and he would sense that.
To a child, rejection by a parent is alarming—the parent is their protector and provider, and they may die without them. If Beverly was using affection as a tool to condition her son, he would have had this experience again and again. And the tasks his mother sets him would seem arbitrary—his four-year-old mind just can’t anticipate everything she might see as worthy or reward or punishment. With all this shaping his psyche, is it any wonder that Leonard has deep-seated anxiety to please and wants more consistent and committed intimacy?
Meanwhile, Penny has some of the traits of a traditional male, particularly her ambiguity about commitment. We know less about her formative years, but she has said that her father, Wyatt, raised her as if she were a boy. In an episode of season 4, we meet Wyatt and see him act as a strict but loving dad in the traditional mold. When we see them together, it’s obvious Penny respects and trusts him. If he raised Penny as a boy and she admired him, she might well have absorbed some of his attitudes about emotion and relationship–messages like “be close but not too close” and “don’t be a girl about it.”
In the episode, we see hints at what it might have been like growing up with Wyatt. In a climactic scene, Wyatt is angry because he has learned thatPenny kept her breakup from Leonard a secret. He scolds her for lying and sends her to her room. Normally outspoken and assertive Penny submits immediately and leaves the living room. When Wyatt turns on Leonard, Leonard cringes, expecting to be chewed out. Instead Wyatt falls on his knees and begs Leonard not to give up on his daughter. It’s clear he cares deeply about her, but can’t show her that directly.
This scene shows us a number of things that, if Penny experienced them throughout her childhood, could easily have made deep impressions. On the one hand we see the love and fear produced by Wyatt’s strict parenting. Penny’s gut level experience of a relationship with a man is both attraction and fear. Likewise, while he may have tried to keep a manly facade, Penny must have seen Wyatt push aside his tender feelings many times–and perhaps seen him be ambigious about feelings even with her mother. So in addition to have a subconscious ambiguity around relationships with men, she has an important parent modeling the dismissing of tender feelings.
Finally, Penny probably suffers from a kind of perfectionism because of her role among her siblings. What we know that she is the “good one” and that could set her up for panics when she feels she can’t live up to expectations. We’ve seen this in the early seasons when she felt insecure about her lack of academic development in the face of Leonard’s PhD and in-depth nerd knowledge. Imagine the panic of not being good enough combining with discomfort about being close and vulnerable!
With Leonard and Penny, as in most couples’ cases, we find the couple’s problems comes from a kind of reflexive ping-pong. Leonard’s history of conditional love and Penny’s fear of closeness and uncertainty about her worthiness are wounds that run deep. Both feel discomfort and even pain when those wounds are touched. Leonard’s drive for intimacy pushes directly at Penny’s discomfort with being close and that causes her to push back for distance, which just makes Leonard more crazy.
Keep in mind that neither is to blame. The game of ping-pong can start with either side serving. The path to a better relationship starts when one or both partners start to gain some awareness of their own behavior and the wounds that drive it; as they come to terms with their contribution to the game, they can help de-escalate it. We’ve seen Leonard and Penny go through this, one realizing he’s lovable just for who he is and the other realizing safety of closeness and the worthiness of the gifts she brings.
The truth is this pattern is old; only the gender of the players has changed. As I said earlier, our society is changing: it’s becoming okay for men to have feelings and be followers. It’s becoming okay for women to be assertive and ambitious. It’s becoming okay—it isn’t yet. We’re still all working it out. That’s why The Big Bang Theory is funny — we see both the truth and the pain of redefining ourselves and our relationships.
Of course, real world couples don’t have sitcom writers to help them work out their story. That’s something a couples’ therapist can help with.