Sex and Relationships in 'Conversations With Friends'
Sally Rooney has a lot of fans. Her novels, which typically center around artistic, introverted Irish girls and their love lives, have gripped millennials all over the world. The New York Times went so far as to call her the "voice of a generation." So when the latest Rooney adaptation, "Conversations With Friends," hit screens in May 2022, fans naturally ate it up.
What is so appealing about Rooney? For one, she's able to capture the complexity of modern relationships. Love is thornier and messier than ever, her books seem to say, and yet just as all-encompassing and painful as it always has been.
In "Conversations With Friends," we follow two 21-year-old college students through their final tumultuous year of school. Frances and Bobbi are best friends and roommates—and exes, too. When they meet Melissa and Nick, a married couple in their 30s, their lives soon become intertwined and relationships get a little messy. Frances and Nick begin an affair, Bobbi and Melissa strike up a flirtation, Frances and Bobbi rekindle their romance, Melissa and Nick begin to fix their marriage, and so on.
What do relationship experts think of Rooney's version of modern love? We spoke with Rachel DeAlto, the New Jersey-based chief dating expert for Match, to find out.
Can exes be friends, or are Frances and Bobbi playing with fire?
When the show begins, Frances and Bobbi are best friends. We soon learn that Bobbi was the first love of Frances' life and they broke up a few years ago. It soon becomes clear that their relationship has a few issues, such as jealousy, miscommunication and unresolved feelings. Just how healthy is this lovers-turned-friends relationship?
"There are certainly exceptions where exes can be friends without any emotion, but it's very difficult," DeAlto said. "Frances and Bobbi seem to navigate being friends after a breakup well in the beginning, but it was clear as the series went on that there was still an attraction and feelings there, which can be a recipe for disaster."
Is Nick and Frances' relationship healthy?
While Frances and Bobbi's relationship isn't perfectly healthy, Frances and Nick's secret affair is even less so. Not only do they conduct the affair behind Melissa's back, but there is also a significant age gap between the 31-year-old Nick and 21-year-old Frances.
"Nick is obviously very appealing, and not just because of his looks, but he is older, richer and more established," DeAlto said. "That can be very exciting for someone in Frances' position. However, with those differences between the two, there can also be a difference in power. As we saw at the end of the show, Frances is captivated by him and will likely continue to make poor choices in terms of her own self-worth."
While an age gap or experience gap can lead to a dangerous dynamic, possibly even grooming, experts agree this relationship is a little more complex.
"There is a power dynamic as he is older than her, and he is married and in a more mature stage of his life," said Kathryn Byberg, managing director of Little Leaf Agency and a sexual wellness specialist in Germany. "Frances is coming of age and coming to terms with mature relationships. She's coming to terms with what she's got herself involved with, so there is definitely a power dynamic there, but on the other flip side, there is another power dynamic in the relationship. We find out later in the story about his mental health struggles and the things he's had to deal with, and I believe he feels that Frances has more power than him."
What can we take away from the sex scenes?
While the relationships in the show may not be the picture of health, the representation of sex is surprisingly progressive, according to DeAlto.
"The most interesting part of the sex scenes was the power that Frances held in all of them," she noted. "Even though she was younger and awkward, she was bold and confident in her body in those scenes. There was definitely an empowered female perspective."
In other words, the show embraced and prioritized female sexual pleasure.
What does the show teach us about open relationships?
In one poignant moment in "Conversations With Friends," Frances and Bobbi debate the nature of love with their friends at a pub. While their debate is purely theoretical, the idea that you can love more than one person is put to the test several times: first when Melissa tries to conduct an open relationship with Nick, and later when Frances and Bobbi get back together in some form of an open relationship.
"Open relationships are difficult to maintain at a level that is healthy and good for both parties," DeAlto said.
She said the show gives us an example of how relationships get complicated and fall apart.
"If I were to predict the outcome, I would say that Frances and Bobbi will break up again, especially considering Frances asks Nick to pick her up at the end," DeAlto said. "Many people believe they can be in an open relationship until they are met with the openness, and I doubt Bobbi would have supported Frances' decision to rekindle the affair with Nick."
Of course, showing open relationships on TV is also an important step for depictions of modern society.
"It's lovely to see a polyamorous relationship, even in its infantile stage, make it onto a TV show of this size," Byberg said. "While not all poly relationships are born like this, it's still positive to see conversations woven into the storyline and normalized through the voices of Bobbi and Nick, for example. It's not for all couples, however, if there is interest in one partner, it's worth discussing to see if it's a viable route and how you might implement it in practice."
Ultimately, the show makes it painfully clear that while loving two people might be possible, committing to two is trickier in practice.