It’s hard to talk about about the Hulu series Normal People, adapted from Sally Rooney’s 2019 novel of the same name, without paying mind to its steamy sex scenes. They’re notable because they’re a bit triggering. Or, at least, I found that to be the case as I watched the show’s 12 episodes with my boyfriend from a couch where we spend a lot of time not having sex. This discrepancy in sex frequency led me to compare our humble sex life to that of the two characters onscreen—and, well, it didn’t make me feel great or sexy.
But, as my clever boyfriend pointed out to me, sex is the only glue holding their relationship together at all—it’s basically all they have in terms of intimacy. And he’s right. Upon deeper thought, it’s so clear that despite all the hot Normal People sex, the actual relationship that the story follows is terrible and devoid of the communication skills required for success in romance and, really, relationships of any kind.
The two main characters, Irish high school (and then college) students Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) don’t court, fall in love, and then experience an awkward but sweet first time together. Instead their relationship begins with sex, which remains the entire point of the coupling throughout the show.
On the surface, the Normal People sex scenes are plain old hot (and my quarantine-induced horniness may help to explain my inclination to compare them wantonly my own relationship). Sure, I felt a little weird gawking at two naked teenagers onscreen (in real life, the actors are in their twenties, to be fair), but the intensity of their physical passion also made me nostalgic for my own sex-centric first love—when sex itself felt like intimate expression enough, largely because of its novelty.
Marianne and Connell never develop or even take baby steps to work on the communication skills required to evolve a relationship beyond intense physical chemistry.
In fact, relationship therapist Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, says in the early stages of a relationship, sex is actually designed to chemically make you feel closer to your partner than you actually are, with neurotransmitters like oxytocin, dopamine, and norepinephrine at work. It’s a critical part of the bonding process between two people that kicks off all sort of hormonal processes in our brains designed to keep us coupled, at least for a period of time. But if you’re not communicating effectively, using, you know, words, in addition to sex to express yourself, you run the risk of not connecting on all levels of intimacy. And that’s precisely the problem with Marianne and Connell’s dynamic: They never develop or even take baby steps to work on the communication skills required to evolve their relationship beyond this intense physical chemistry to true intimacy.
When sex is the main or only form of closeness between two people, a relationship’s longevity is put in jeopardy. “In a long-term relationship, [intimacy is] dependent on both partners having some degree of emotional intelligence, empathy, self-acceptance, and acceptable communication skills,” says marriage and family therapist Erin Nicole McGinnis, LMFT. It’d be hard to argue that Marianne and Connell check any of these boxes, save for maybe empathy.
Let’s look at the evidence: Instead of communicating that she was hurt that he chose to take someone else to the debs (which is like an Irish version of a high school prom), Marianne dropped out of school and stopped returning Connell’s calls. Later in the series, Connell’s unable to express to Marianne that he’d like to stay with her at school through the summer instead of returning home, and she’s unable to ask him not to go, and so they simply break up, unnecessarily. Beyond these anecdotes, throughout the series Marianne and Connell are unable to just say, “I love you and want to be with you,” and this inability leads to their frustrating on-and-off dynamic that gives way to hot yet emotionally stagnant sex.
None of this is to say real-deal, hot-and-heavy sexual intimacy in a high frequency is off the table for long-term couples, though. If the Normal People sex scenes seem like, oh, I don’t know, a regular Tuesday for you, that alone is certainly not cause for concern. To decipher whether well-rounded levels intimacy are happening, Cocharo suggests asking yourself, “Am I using sex to make up for what’s not there, or is everything there, and therefore we’re experiencing good sex?” If your go-to method for bridging any sort of gap between you and your partner involves disrobing, chances are true intimacy eludes your relationship.
It is to say, however, that if watching Normal People made you worry about the frequency with which you and your partner, whom you love in a holistic way, get busy, worry not. Put bluntly, Marianne and Connell have hot sex, but not much else.
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