What We Can Learn About Relationships from Joel and Sheila Hammond of The Santa Clarita Diet

 Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant.  Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant. Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Oftentimes, when I’m watching a TV couple, I’m shocked by how poorly their relationship is depicted: they lie, nag each other, and are reactive in stressful situations. I have become accustomed to seeing tragic relationships portrayed in shows where storylines like the couple who doesn’t have sex, the nagging wife, or the single, thirty-something-year-old woman who can’t find love, is used time and time again.

But then I watched The Santa Clarita Diet, a new show on Netflix that tells the story of Sheila and Joel Hammond, a married couple who faces the challenges that arise, as Sheila, played by Drew Barrymore, turns undead and begins eating human flesh. While the plot line sounds morose (and it is), the show has real humor and depth, particularly as we see how Sheila handles the change with the help of her husband, played by  Timothy Olyphant. As it turns out, Joel and Sheila are the most present couple on Netflix.

In one scene, Sheila awakens after having blacked out. She is in her car, covered in blood, and she is holding a human heart in her hand. Joel finds her and freaks out. As he is asking her what happened, he realizes that she has no idea who she killed, and he shouts, “This sucks! This really sucks!” His initial emotional reaction is to scream, but almost instantly, he becomes conscious of his behavior, and he lowers his voice, attempting to calm down, “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the situation.”

Joel Hammond, who is provoked beyond all measures of the imagination, continues to stay present and keep his reactions in check. Throughout the course of the show, he experiences moments of upheaval, such as walking into the kitchen to find Sheila gorging on a body, fighting off an undead man after his skin has fallen off, and having to come up with a plan to steal and destroy hundreds of poisonous clams. The challenges that arise as a result of Sheila’s new zombified state (as outrageous as they are) only seem to bring the two closer together, as they learn how to navigate their new realities while cooperating, communicating, and expressing a profound level of support for each other.

Here's what we can learn about relationships from Joel and Sheila Hammond:

1.Apologize to your partner.

“I’m sorry I was so insistent on killing Boone. You know, being selfless doesn’t come easy to the undead.” Sheila and Joel apologize to each other frequently on the show, and further, they forgive each other easily. Many of us cling to a desire to be right, and in doing so, we create a list of grievances about our partner, refusing to look at our own actions, and moreover, refusing to let go of our partner’s past mistakes. The key is: We can either be right, or we can be happy. For the sake of our relationship, it would serve us to look at our own actions, apologize, and forgive our partners when they do the same. Otherwise, we prolong disagreements, which only fuels animosity and causes people to drift apart. A relationship is healthy only when two people who are willing to take ownership of their actions, apologize, and let go of grievances.

2.Remember that you’re on the same team.

Gary, the first person Sheila consumed as a zombie, says to Joel, “Look, you two are awesome, really. You listen to each other. You make decisions together. I’ve never had that.” We have two choices: to treat our partner as if he or she is our opposition (by fighting, sneaking around, or being mischievous and deceptive), or we can treat our partner as if he or she is on the same team. We can choose to believe that our partner loves us, is trying his or her best, and has the same end goal in mind (being happy). This requires a willingness to listen, see things from other perspectives, and compromise. When we are adamant about seeing things one way (our way), and when we constantly challenge our partner, it’s like we’re in a power struggle at all times. Instead, our relationship thrives when we give our partner the benefit of the doubt and learn to really listen and support one another.

3.Being present means being flexible.

Joel sighs. “I just wanted to have one normal day...I wanted to buy wood for the bookshelves. And there’s this new Chinese place on Riverside I’d like to try. We haven’t had a date night since this all started. You know, normal stuff.” While Joel wants to buy wood and eat lo mein, he surrenders to the moment, which asks that he accompany his wife to deliver a deed to a stranger who lives far away. Being in a relationship means joining with another person and integrating his or her life with our own. This can require scheduling changes, a change in commute, being around a new group of people, or being flexible when it comes to everyday matters such as where to eat or what movie to rent. It’s easy to get stuck in our routines and ask that our partner fit neatly into our life, but a conscious relationship requires a willingness to change and step out of our comfort zones.

4.Don’t give up on your partner.

Oftentimes, we are ready to end a relationship at the slightest hint of difficulty. Part of being in a relationship is dealing with challenges and problems as they come up (because they will certainly come up). At the most difficult times, when we are in the midst of a fight, or when we feel like it’s too hard to be in a relationship, those are the moments to remember the love we have for our partner and commit to working through the problems. At one point in the show, Sheila is on the verge of going feral, as her impulse control is growing weaker. While she waits for a cure, she has to be locked in the basement, as she is a danger to her family. Joel tells her, “It’s gonna be alright, sweetie...We’ll get a desk down here. We can paint the walls...I’ll be nice.” Sheila says, “Just don’t give up on me,” to which Joel replies, “Never.”