Don’t ‘Stream Cheat’ on Your Spouse

Because you don’t want to Netflix and be killed. And also because, in marriage, little things, like that TV show you promised to watch together, matter.

by Jeff Ashworth
An illustration of a black and white hand using a remote control on a beige background

I was sitting in my apartment alone, watching a grown man pleasure himself into a shoe. I felt shame. Not because I was watching porn, although you could argue that elements of Netflix’s series Mindhunter are exploitative and semi-pornographic. I felt shame because I’d managed to plow through seven episodes of the series by myself. My wife, who had left me home alone for the weekend while visiting family, hadn’t yet started episode one.

This is tantamount to a crime in our household. Like many modern couples, my wife and I watch a lot of television together. In this golden age of on-demand everything, there are a few shows we watch on our own, and there are those we enjoy together. As our tastes have aligned, there are very few series I want to watch that she flat out isn’t interested in seeing. This presents a problem: What do I watch while she’s away?

Following what my wife and I occasionally refer to as “The Mindhunter Incident,” we developed a few rules to tackle this problem. They work for us; maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Communicate about the things you want to watch

While it’s not your responsibility to pre-approve every single television show debuting this spring, there’s a better than zero chance that you know the types of shows you enjoy, the type your wife enjoys, and the stuff you might theoretically enjoy watching together. For us, if it’s airing on HBO it’s worth talking about. Secondly, because we don’t watch a lot of live/network television, we typically hear about shows via word of mouth.

So if, for example, I hear about a show (either through the media we consume or the people we trust) I mention it to my wife as a “Hey, I heard about this thing, do you want to watch it?”-type conversation. If she says no, I can watch it on my own time. If she says yes, we’ll make time to watch it together (or, as is more and more common in this period of maximum content, forget about it entirely). Opening up a consistent line of communication about what you’re interested in ensures she knows where you stand, and you know what you’d be in trouble over watching on your own.

Agree to Watch More Than One Episode Together Before Bailing

Before establishing a semi-system for determining which shows we ought to watch together, my wife and I kind of winged it. But there was one underlying premise to our individual viewing habits: If I watch one episode of something on my own and determine my spouse might enjoy it, I’d stop progressing and invite her to join me in watching it. Yes, this often required watching a pilot more than once, but, for me, it was worth it to engage in the conversations often born out of simultaneous viewing.

But there’s an issue with this premise: Sometimes first episodes aren’t that great. In the case of Mindhunter, I felt like the first episode — which I chose to watch on my own — revealed a show that was not the sort my wife would enjoy. Unsettling, violent, and with a particularly peripheral view of women, the first episode in the series wasn’t bad. But it also didn’t immediately scream “My wife will love this!”

As such, mainly out of good faith for the series’s creators, I watched another episode on my own. It was great. So I watched another. And another. By episode four, arguably when the series reveals what it plans to be, I was hooked. I was also four hours ahead of my wife, and it was becoming more and more clear to me that the series was the sort she’d enjoy. It was too late to say “we should watch this!” So I just kept watching alone.

I suspect we might have encountered a similar problem if we’d watched Mindhunter’s premiere together. For example, the first episode of Black Mirror is a notoriously difficult 44 minutes, forcing the viewer to consider the merits of beastiality and examine the futility of power at the same time. It was not my wife’s favorite episode of the year. As such, I assumed she wouldn’t want to watch Black Mirror anymore. But as I watched more of the series, I decided she’d sworn it off too soon and we recently started watching episodes of it together— even a few I’d already seen.

Which is to say, sometimes a show takes an episode or two to hit its stride, or at least establish itself. Before deciding which shows one of you can continue to carry forward with alone, watch at least two episodes together. Your mileage may vary (we tend to give something three episodes total before one of us calls it quits).

Determine Your “Must Watch” Series — And Stick to a Schedule

Is it weird to schedule time to watch television? Sure. But in this age of millisecond spoiler alerts, you’ll be seeing links to think pieces and full-blown veiled reveals to content you’re interested in watching on Facebook almost as soon as it goes live. If being a part of a national conversation around a particular piece of pop culture is important to you (or if you just hate having things spoiled) share that sentiment with your spouse, and determine whether or not she’s interested in being a part of that conversation with you. After all, knowing who shot JR or that St. Elsewhere was an autistic boy’s snowglobe fantasy or even that Eleven loves waffles and hates that new ginger girl is often more exciting if you can discuss those revelations with other people.

If your schedules don’t align, try watching the show separately on your own within 48 hours of each other—that way you’re not falling too far behind the rest of the country, but you’re still able to discuss it together in semi-real time.

Maintain An Open Book Policy

Yes, you’re going to be tempted to sneak in an episode of Game of Thrones or whatever if she’s exceptionally busy and unable to sit down and watch it with you for days (or, gasp!, weeks), but resisting the urge to watch a television show is the same as resisting the urge to do anything else you know your wife would view as disappointing. Transgressing in this regard will likely require hiding the truth at some point down the line, which will make it easier for you to lie about other transgressions in the future — which is to say that watching Stranger Things behind your wife’s back could very well make it easier for you to cheat. Is that an absurd statement? Yes. Is it equally true and sad? Studies say yes.

That’s why my wife and I also adhere to an open book policy when it comes to the things we’ve watched behind the other’s back (sharing the same Netflix and Hulu account makes this policy nearly redundant). If she says “Did you start watching Happy without me?”, provided I’ve adhered to the other rules in our system, I have no reason to lie. And because we agree to talk about the things we’ve watched, it also allows for conversations about shows we think the other might like or the series we are looking forward to watching.

In short, as pop culture continues to influence the way we talk to everyone we encounter, it’s only natural that our relationship to television would become a more volatile aspect of our most intimate relationships. Deciding how to navigate the potential landmine of “stream cheating” shouldn’t be an important marital discussion. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it.