Another Thursday night gone, I thought, then sighed as I collapsed into bed. My husband, Keith, came in to the bedroom, wanting to talk, but I brushed him off to be alone with my melancholy thoughts. Frustrated, Keith huffed out of the room.

How insensitive! I thought. Just like last Thursday, and the Thursday before that, and the Thursday ?

That’s when it hit me. We had this same routine every Thursday night — not because Keith was insensitive, but because I was depressed. And the culprit was easy to find: ER. I loved that show, but boy did it wreak havoc with my emotions!

A few weeks later I started a new chapter in my life. For a past soap and Oprah-holic, it was a radical departure. I stopped watching television. And in so doing, I discovered my life, my husband, and my family, perhaps for the first time. I started playing with my kids, finding new hobbies, making new friends, and nurturing my marriage. And my conversations became deeper than, “Move, you’re in the way.”

April 21-27 has been designated TV-Turnoff Week, when around the country families will turn off the television, pull out the Monopoly games and the inline skates, and enjoy being with each other. If you’ve had the nagging feeling that the TV is on in your house far more than it needs to be, here’s your chance to experience what it would be like to live without it. Here’s what you’re likely to find:

TV steals our time

I learned long ago that gravity is heaviest on the couch that’s right in front of the TV. Once you start watching, it’s so hard to get up. Nielsen Media Research reports that the average American watches four hours of television of day. That equals five full days a month, two months a year, and almost 11 years by the time you reach 65.

Janice feels her husband is well on his way to that 11 years. When Tom comes home from work, he immediately flicks on the TV, yet never manages to flick it back off. For Janice, who always dreamed of a TV-free home, Tom’s viewing habits came as a shock.

“We hardly talk! He doesn’t even want to eat dinner together,” she reports. “He’ll take his food and eat it in front of the television. I know Tom loves me, but we have no time to build our relationship.” In the early days of their marriage, Janice tried to convince him to tune out, but these discussions usually progressed to fights. While she’s now realized she can’t change him, she still longs for the intimacy she believes they’re missing.

Another couple, Brenda and Jack, have only recently found that intimacy. For them, watching TV allowed them to spend the entire evening together without ever having to discuss anything touchy. It was the perfect tool for avoidance. As their marriage deteriorated, Brenda and Jack realized they needed to make a radical break. Though they recoiled at the thought of not watching TV, which to them meant losing their security blanket, their initial dread soon turned to joy as they discovered the richness their newfound friendship could bring. Instead of watching other people have relationships, they finally have one themselves.

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TV invades our minds

While watching television certainly hinders our efforts to build relationships, its effects don’t stop there. It can even start to affect our attitudes. While ER woke me up to the effects television was having on my mood, the final straw came one night when my husband and I were watching Friends. Here was a show about people our age who were substituting sex for commitment and ruining their lives in the process. Yet instead of being shocked or saddened, we were laughing! Slowly, insidiously, the world’s values were affecting ours. Something had to change.

The words of Philippians 4:8 kept running through my mind: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable ? think about such things.” The Christian life is a battle for the mind — and when the TV was on, it was a battle I all too often lost. Advertisers spend $40 billion a year because they believe they can influence our buying decisions. If TV can make us buy a certain brand of toothpaste, can’t it also loosen our convictions about sin?

Perhaps TV’s influence is most dangerous in the area of sexual fantasy. When pictures get into our head, they’re extraordinarily difficult to extricate. Men, who tend to be visually stimulated, fall particularly prey to this problem. Image after image show women with perfect bodies, often in various states of undress. Instead of “delighting in the wife of your youth,” as Solomon exhorts us in Proverbs 5:18, a man may wish his wife better resembled Jennifer Aniston!

TV affects our expectations

Not only can TV affect our fantasy life, it can also affect our expectations about our spouse. In 1999, The National Fatherhood Initiative announced that “few fathers are to be found on prime time television, and those that are usually are portrayed as incompetent or detached.” The typical TV father resembles Homer Simpson, a jolly buffoon who may mean well, but who constantly requires his wife and kids to bail him out of scrapes. Watching the way fathers are depicted on TV can make us more inclined to look for the negative in our own husbands.

Other shows highlight our husbands’ inadequacies by going to the opposite extreme: men on soap operas constantly bring flowers and chocolates while they hang on to their beloved’s every word. Brenda found that she often lived vicariously through these soap opera women, wishing her own husband would be that romantic. When she gave up TV, though, she discovered to her surprise that Jack’s previously annoying habits had stopped bothering her. She stopped waiting for him to live up to an impossible ideal, and enjoyed him for who he was.

TV’s depiction of women can be equally harmful to our relationships. Women on TV rarely concern themselves with the mundane things that take up so much of our time, such as cleaning, laundry, or errands. Instead, TV women are energetic and competent, juggling everything without getting a hair out of place. None of this tires them out, either, for at night they tend to be eager sexual partners, regardless of the state of the relationship. Men watching this are liable to find their own wives inexplicably unaffectionate and petty in comparison.

It’s these unrealistic expectations that worry Denise MacDonald, a marriage and family therapist from Ontario. “If you get your information about relationships from TV, you’re going to think there’s something inadequate about yours,” she says. Since such subjects are rarely discussed honestly among friends, the only window many of us have into how “everyone else” handles relationship and sexual issues is TV. What a disappointment when our spouses don’t live up to this elusive “norm.”

Reducing our TV time is a worthwhile endeavor in so many ways, but it’s certainly not easy to do. Tonight at Brenda and Jack’s house, though, the TV will be off while the family plays a game, goes for a walk, or just talks. Meanwhile, Janice prays for such a transformation in her home. For some families, that transformation can begin by taking the small step of turning off for just one week. We might be pleasantly surprised by the changes we’d find if we switched off, looked around us, and started enjoying our spouses and families again.

When Your Spouse Won’t Tune Out

  1. Negotiate. If your mate lives in front of the television, try to negotiate for some family time. Ask your spouse to reserve one night of the week for family nights, or to reserve an hour or so each evening to be with you and the kids. In return, don’t pester him or her about watching television at other times.
  2. Plan. Sometimes we watch TV because it’s our “default” setting: It’s easier to watch TV than to find something else to do. If you plan activities your spouse enjoys, though, you may be able to stop the TV from getting turned on in the first place! Invite friends to dinner, go biking, go for a walk together, or start a new hobby that appeals to your spouse.
  3. Join your spouse. No, don’t become a couch potato with him. But show some interest in his favorite shows. Ask him, without accusing, why he likes certain shows and not others. Once he sees you showing genuine interest, he’s more likely to return the favor and spend time with you doing something else.
  4. Back off. Don’t nag. Fighting about television is likely to strengthen your spouse’s resolve. Leave room for God to speak to your spouse.
  5. Do something else. If your spouse doesn’t cooperate, find something else to do on your own: exercise, read, spend time on a favorite hobby, play a game with the kids.
  6. Pray. Give this issue to God. Ask him to give everyone in your family the right attitude about their use of time, and trust God to do the convincing for you. — S.W.G

Copyright © 2004 Sheila Wray Gregoire, used with permission of author.