Disregard gradual relationships, Gen Z embraces the excitement of failed marriages

Two images, one featuring Succession's Tom and Shiv and the other showcasing Challengers' Art and Tashi both unraveling.

Many enthusiasts draw connections between Tom and Shiv and Art and Tashi’s dissolved marriage.Credit: Composite; MGM / HBO / Warner Bros. / Jelena990 / iStock / Getty Images

“If there’s a broken marriage in there, nine times out of 10 that’s what’s gonna draw me in more than anything,” Azhar, a 24-year-old student in London, expressed.

Online, there’s a habit of meticulously classifying everything you watch and read into categories and clichés. And this inclination is especially evident in romance realms. There’s slow burns, friends to lovers, enemies to lovers, and most recently, Azhar’s beloved: the failmarriage. 

“It’s a marriage where the couple, whether they love each other or not, has issues and acknowledges these problems, but chooses not to separate or divorce,” Isabella Montoya, a 20-year-old student in Texas, shared. Usually there’s infidelity, high stakes, and someone utilizing pleading gazes. Thus far, its application is confined to describing fictional relationships — and for many young people, the dynamic is a significant attraction in a film or TV series.

Unsuccessful Marriages on Screens Big and Small

“It’s truly dull when you’re watching something and the couple is together and adore each other. No one desires to watch that,” Noa Bourne, a 24-year-old student and writer in Maryland, commented.

The term gained popularity to define Tom (Matthew Macfayden) and Shiv (Sarah Snook)’s relationship in Succession due to their marriage of convenience fraught with animosity. However, failmarriage enthusiasts retrospectively apply it to couples ranging from The Sopranos’ Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) to Mad Men’s Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) to Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) from Better Call Saul.

The newest fictional relationship christened with the label is Challengers’ Tashi (Zendaya) and Art (Mike Faist). The tennis film transitions through time, oscillating between different points in Tashi and Art’s careers and relationship. It portrays their initial meeting as teenagers and their period playing tennis at Stanford before Tashi experiences a career-ending injury. In the present day, Tashi is Art’s coach and they’re in the midst of an unsuccessful marriage.

Tashi and Art’s relationship — and their individual relationships with a third tennis player, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) — is unraveled as the film unfolds. It’s filled with intricacies, offering enthusiasts plenty to delve into. However, there’s one scene that epitomizes what viewers adore about their failed marriage. The evening before Art’s faceoff with his former doubles partner and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend, Patrick, he pleads with Tashi to assure him that she’ll still love him even if he loses. She retorts, “What am I, Jesus?” He replies, “Yes.” Later in the conversation, Tashi informs Art that she’ll abandon him if he loses. 

“When she mentions that if he doesn’t win the match she’s going to leave him, that signals to me that her marriage is solely about tennis. And if there’s no tennis, there’s no marriage,” elucidated Bourne. A marriage based on an external factor is a textbook failed marriage, but it’s not solely that drawing fans in. There’s a romantic tragedy associated with it.

“Even though that marriage isn’t meant to succeed, there’s still that magnetic attraction,” stated Azhar, who preferred to be identified by her first name solely for privacy reasons. “He knows Tashi isn’t in love with him or even affectionate towards him, yet he will still go to any lengths for her because of this intangible bond he has with her that hasn’t wavered in the 12 years they’ve known each other.”

Psychological Aspect of the Failed Marriage

Failmarriage is one of numerous terms that has spread online in recent years. It’s an illustration of compounding — combining two words to form a novel word with an inherent meaning — as explained by Nicole Holliday, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Pomona College.

“It’s a lot of words to say, ‘Well, Tashi and Art are utilizing each other and nobody’s content,’ so we’ve devised a shortcut for this phenomenon that we observe,” stated Holliday. 

It’s akin to other compounds and blends that gain popularity online like tradwife, attributed to creators striving for a viral moment. “With these terms, particularly when they’re compounds that represent very accessible concepts, someone with a broad audience coins it and others begin using it, circulating it across the web,” shared Holliday. “On TikTok, individuals compete to introduce new terms, as it garners them more interaction.”

She credits the term’s appeal to its usefulness and that it taps into an existing dissatisfaction with the institution of marriage.

From 2006 to 2020, the percentage of high school seniors anticipating marriage in the future declined from 81 to 71 percent, according to Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research. While the divorce rate in the U.S. decreased from 2008 to 2022 as per the same center, so did the marriage rate. An obsession with doomed marriages aligns with these shifting attitudes.

Aside from the absence of love and insistence on remaining together, there’s another common thread in failed marriages: wealth. A prerequisite of a failed marriage is that there’s a benefit to staying together. “Tashi and Art can provide each other with tennis and Shiv can offer Tom Waystar Royco, but you don’t see that in middle-class marriages because what is there to remain wedded for?” posited Bourne. Montoya concurred, “A failed marriage only functions when there’s a substantial amount of money or power at risk.” 

Despite the lack of affection in failed marriages, those enticed by this dynamic perceive it as deeply romantic and poignant. “These individuals persist together because it’s convenient for them, and isn’t there something somewhat romantic about that?” pondered Bourne. “Art loves Tashi, but he understands that she loves tennis more and he remains with her.”

Montoya pondered if finding failed marriages romantic is delusional and a symptom of detecting romance everywhere. “I’ve never experienced a romantic relationship. But I’m a die-hard romantic. I adore romcoms. So, if there’s any interaction with chemistry, I’m all for it.”

Evan Brooks

Hey there! I'm Evan Brooks, a tech journalist based in New York City. With a knack for distilling complex industry jargon into engaging narratives, I've… More »

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