Everything I Need to Know about Divorce I Learned from The Odd Couple

After my husband and I split up more than a year ago, I began looking for work as a television writer. Recently, I was interviewing for a staff writing position on a half-hour TV comedy show.  The show runners asked me to name my favorite show of all time.  This was a no brainer: The Odd Couple.

The Odd Couple is a love story.  Here are these two guys whose “happy endings” didn’t work out; they both divorced.  But instead of sitting alone in their apartments getting depressed, they move in together and form a whole new social order.  They have weekly card games with their friends Murray, Vinnie, Roy, and Speed.  They double-date the Pigeon sisters from the 12th floor.  They tag along with each other at work events. 

Yes, they'e single, and complete opposites who often fight bitterly, and hilariously, such as when Felix chases Oscar out of the room with Lysol.  But they're there for each other. 

The original The Odd Couple, based on the 1965 play by Neil Simon, ran from 1970 - 1975.

The original The Odd Couple, based on the 1965 play by Neil Simon, ran from 1970 - 1975.

I could also have added that when my own parents split, when I was 10, The Odd Couple normalized divorce for me.  Sitting in my dad’s single-guy, modular, groovy New York City apartment, I learned everything I needed to know about divorce from the show.  It contextualized the life my dad and I were living, made it something to laugh about, and even enjoy for what it was. 

During my recent job search, I ordered a boxed set of the original show from Amazon, and started binging.  I was surprisingly moved by revisiting The Odd Couple an adult.

Going through my own divorce, I had a new appreciation for what the show was saying about the importance of community and support.  When my husband and I split, there was a seismic shift in my social structure.  I had episodes of loneliness and isolation. 

Oscar and Felix created a new family.  I needed to do this, too, I realized.

For Oscar and Felix, the new family was the two of them and “the guys.”  Some of the guys were married, some single, but every Friday night they assembled for poker at Oscar’s place.  They committed to hanging out, drinking, smoking, eating Felix’s gourmet appetizers, and having a laugh.  It was a great way to unwind and feel part of something. 

I don’t have an adult roommate, or a circle of poker friends.  But seeing their efforts to recreate a sense of family made me increase my own.  

I relied more on my sister and my friends.  My friend Susie and I love old movies, so we signed up for the Landmark theater email list, and went to some incredible events, including a screening of Bob + Carol + Ted + Alice, after which Dyan Cannon, Elliot Gould and Quincy Jones did a Q&A.  I started going to Sunday morning yoga classes with my friend and hairstylist, George.  My sister and I started having wine and cheese nights.  I began going to hear bands with my friend David.  These social connections filled the child-free hours with music, film and friendship.

While watching the 1970 pilot episode again, I understood another important aspect of divorce—we all have to go at our own pace. 

In the pilot episode, Oscar is anxious to have Gwendolyn and Cecily—aka the Pigeon sisters—over for dinner.  Felix agrees to the double date, but gets so obsessed with making the ideal canapés and creating a “perfect” evening, that he practically wrecks the date before it starts. 

There's another problem.  The date is set for 10:30, on the same evening as poker night.  Oscar wants to rush the guys out before the women arrive.  The guys are pissed, but agree to leave. Then Felix convinces Oscar that it is rude to kick their friends out.  The sexy English Pigeon sisters show up with their cropped, mod haircuts and mini dresses, prepared for a fun evening.  Oscar suggests that they grab a drink while the guys wrap up their poker game.  Felix somehow turns the drink into the four of them doing their laundry together in the basement.

Through the episode, Felix consistently thwarts Oscar's attempts to make this a romantic foursome.  At one point, he ropes Cecily into cleaning the apartment with him.  While Oscar is trying to get romantic with Gwendolyn on the couch, Felix roars up behind them with the vacuum cleaner.  The sisters eventually leave, exhausted.  Oscar is frustrated and pissed at Felix for messing up his potential “action.” 

When I was a kid, I saw this episode as simply a comedy of errors.  But as a newly single adult, I saw it differently.  Now I think Felix, still shattered over the end of his marriage, intentionally sabotaged the date because he was terrified of getting close to someone new.  He needed to go at his own pace.  Oscar was feeling frustrated, but Felix was feeling pressured.

We have to put ourselves out there when we’re ready—not when our friends or family push us to.  We have to honor our own pace.

I thought about myself, sitting in the rubble of a crumbled marriage, gazing out at the dating scene, which I had been removed from for 20 years.  Like Felix, the very idea of going on a date gave me agita.  It seemed unimaginable, as a mother of two who had been in the wife-and-mom role for two decades.

Later, contemplating another serious relationship, I saw Oscar and Felix's roommate situation in a new light.

A close friend can act as a type of practice-remarriage. 

In another episode, Felix and Oscar find their incompatibilities overwhelming, and they “break up.”  Felix moves out, then moves in with several different friends, driving each of them nuts.  Finally, exhausted and with nowhere else to turn, he stops by Oscar’s apartment.  It is clear that Oscar needs Felix’s domestic help.

Felix also needs Oscar's help to shake him out of his fear-driven, obsessive-compulsive behavior. Though Oscar is a grumpy curmudgeon, he shows Felix that life goes on after divorce.  He brings the needy, nerdy Felix into his group of friends.  He introduces Felix to some fun neighbors, and drags him into his own world, one in which divorce isn’t such a huge deal, nor the end of an enjoyable, connected life. Divorce is part of who he is, but it doesn’t define him.  Oscar is an unlikely "divorce guru," but we could all probably use a divorce guru or mentor.  That support might mean the difference between bouncing back and sinking under, at least for a while.    

They make up, agreeing to try not to drive each other so crazy.  In the show, they continue to drive each other nuts for five more seasons, because it’s funny for viewers.  In real life, learning to get along with someone’s “opposite” qualities can lead to real growth and mutual appreciation.

Learning how to get along better as this odd couple—communicating, expressing themselves—helps them know how to behave when they remarry.  In fact, Felix and Gloria remarry in the last episode of the series.

The show also taught me something about being a single parent.

In another episode, Felix’s teenage daughter, Edna, makes it clear that she prefers to hang out with Oscar more than her own, dull dad.  Felix is jealous.  He tries to connect by forcing activities on his daughter that he sees as fun.  Oscar helps Felix appreciate Edna for who she is, rather than trying to change her, and improves their daddy-daughter relationship.

Watching this episode now as mother of two teenage sons, I could relate to the fact that being a single parent can be overwhelming. 

There is this feeling that in their limited time with me, I want us to always have fulfilling, quality time.  But that’s not how healthy teenage boys operate. 

They spend a lot of time alone in their rooms, or out with their friends, and they are no longer the little fellows whose mother arranges the perfect day of playgrounds, beach, Nemo and ice cream.  I try to find the balance of planning things we can do together as a family, (breakfast at Brus Wiffle!), and letting them have their independence and social lives.

Although I swore off sappy “hugging and learning” sitcoms a long time ago, I realized the reason The Odd Couple has stayed with me is because it had a lot to say about friendship, love and leaning on others to survive even the trickiest curve balls that life throws your way.




Rebecca Cullen is a television writer and mother of two in Los Angeles who recently separated from her husband, after 20 years of marriage. She's now writing about her new single life.