What makes the 1995 box office hit While You Were Sleeping different from other rom coms? And why is it on my annual Christmas movie list? It’s not just Sandra Bullock’s gentle girl-next-door awkwardness, massive sweaters, and perpetual bad hair days to which she’s oblivious (though I love her for the bad hair!). It’s not only because of the scene which weaves four incoherent conversations into one delightful family dinner (“These mashed potatoes are SO creamy!”). It’s not even Bill Pullman’s Sexy Dad grin and classic explanation of “leaning”:Hugging involves arms and hands. Leaning is whole bodies moving in… like this. It’s about wanting… and accepting… Leeeeaning.

While You Were Sleeping is so traditional that it strikes me (now) as radical: family is a blessing rather than a barrier to Lucy and Jack, and healthy shame preserves rather than destroys their bond and the intricate web of family relationships.

Sigh. I digress. 

While You Were Sleeping is unusual for this genre because it shows the necessity of both family and shame for the storied couple’s well-being—two things which other tales are usually trying to avoid like the plague (toxic in-laws and toxic shame are all the rage these days). WYWS is so traditional that it strikes me (now) as radical: family is a blessing rather than a barrier to Lucy and Jack, and healthy shame preserves rather than destroys their bond and the intricate web of family relationships.

In other movies, the family is likely to be presented as an obstacle to the couple (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding), rather than as a primary reason for why they are together in the first place. The modern pattern of individuals dating and then bringing a date home to “meet the fam” (and hopefully pass muster) is inverted in While You Were Sleeping: Lucy (Sandra Bullock) is embraced by the Callaghans long before any real romance gets going. An understated truth about Lucy’s situation at the start of the film is that she is an orphan. Her mother died when she was little, and her father had gotten sick a few years prior, prompting Lucy to drop out of school, to move with him to Chicago (near a research center), and to help take care of him. When WYWS begins, Lucy is about a year out from her father’s death. She’s living alone (with a cat), making a pittance manning a token booth for the El train, and working holidays because she’s the only employee without a family. Lucy is desperately lonely.

She fantasizes about the handsome stranger who breezily passes her by each day on his way to work, wishing she had the courage to strike up a conversation with him. On Christmas day she gets her chance, though it doesn’t look at all how she’d hoped. When the man is mugged and falls onto the tracks, Lucy leaps down to rescue him without a second thought, then accompanies the tall, dark, and unconscious stranger to the hospital. Barred from entering his room because she’s “not family,” she sighs in quiet resignation: “I was going to marry him.” Overheard by a well-meaning nurse, Lucy is granted access to the room of the comatose Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher), and she’s present when the distraught family rushes in. Before Lucy can say much of anything, the policeman praises her for saving Peter’s life, and the nurse announces that she’s Peter’s fiancée. Once the hugs and tears start flowing, there’s no turning back the tide. She’s welcomed by the Callaghans before exchanging a single word with the man she’s supposedly going to marry.

Image via IMDb

Why Get Married? For the In-Laws, of Course.

As the story unfolds, Lucy’s loneliness is met and healed not through the romance of finding her soulmate, but by becoming an in-law. She’s placed in a family that accepts her immediately and wholeheartedly: they invite her to their belated Christmas festivities, hang a stocking with her name on it over the fireplace, and place her smack dab in the middle of family photos. With all of this love and goodwill coming her way, Lucy is loath to admit she’s actually never even met Peter. The terror of being caught in a lie (even if she wasn’t the one who started it), and her reluctance to hurt the family, are sufficient reasons to keep her mouth shut and enjoy them while she can.

WYWS is a reminder of an older approach to marriage, a practical and communal one. Modern love and marriage are in crisis partly because we load all of our expectations and desires onto the shoulders of one person—a historically new and rather precarious approach, according to couples’ therapist and author Esther Perel. She says that the attempt to reconcile our need for security and our need for adventure into one relationship (a.k.a. the “passionate marriage”) would have been considered a contradiction in terms for most of human history:

Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life, in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition, “I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidante and my passionate lover to boot,” and we live twice as long! So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity—but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge; give me novelty, give me familiarity; give me predictability, give me surprise.

What an entire village used to provide. That’s a lot of weight for one set of shoulders. The evangelical effort to honor marriage and preserve pre-wedding virginity—a worthy and biblical cause—has had the unfortunate side effect of contributing to this mythos of “finding The One” (and the disillusionment that follows when the magic of marriage is oversold and its practicality and difficulty set in). Christians are modern romantics just like our non-Christian neighbors, and we’re apt to overlay The One back onto the Scriptures (Gen. 2:18-25) without realizing we’re making a historically innovative move (I’m not saying this is bad; it’s just new).

Our ancestors weren’t as romantic as we are about marriage, but they knew that a firm foundation is a broad one, supported by many pillars. The fact that we gain a whole new family on the wedding day is not an unfortunate bug in the system that Adam and Eve were lucky enough to avoid, but is actually a necessary feature of marriage, according to historian Stephanie Coontz: “[S]ince the dawn of civilization, getting in-laws has been one of marriage’s most important functions.” The idea that extended family is a burden, a liability, or an intrusion (rather than a necessity) is another modern innovation.

And as evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein points out, the closest analogue to marriage is the sibling relationship between a brother and a sister (Why else do you call your spouse’s parents “Mom” and “Dad”?). Like siblings, a marriage is a functional male-female partnership of peers with overlapping (but non-identical) interests, having just as much potential for friction and tension as for connection and support. Lucy’s eventual husband describes her in terms equally suited to a sister: “She gets under your skin as soon as you meet her. She drives you so nuts you don’t know whether to hug her or, or just really arm wrestle her.” A spouse isn’t the fulfillment of all your desires: he or she is the unchanging partner with whom you must constantly negotiate competing desires to arrive at consensus. The hugging and the arm wrestling occur in equal measure.

The grand ambition of modern love—to discover and secure The One who makes you happy—is undercut rather than idolized in WYWS. The Callaghans’ ability to provide Lucy with belonging, identity, security, comfort, and companionship is honored as sufficient for her and (dare I say it) more important in the long run than her romantic, marital, and sexual desires. Instead of securing Mr. Right and spending the rest of the movie seeking her in-laws’ approval, she functionally becomes a Callaghan, and then spends the movie in a crisis of conscience and desire over which Callaghan son to marry: the one who’s sleeping (Peter) or the one who’s awake (Jack).

That’s right—you haven’t met Jack yet!”

Image via IMDb.

Healthy Shame Is the Glue of Good Families

When Lucy is introduced to the other son in the family, Peter’s younger brother Jack (Bill Pullman), things get even more complicated. Jack is naturally suspicious of Lucy because she’s not his brother’s type. Peter is a self-absorbed and emotionally clueless “putz,” while Lucy is kind, innocent, and unassuming. Jack pokes and prods around her story, testing her knowledge of Peter and acting as a gatekeeper, worried by how quickly his family accepted Lucy. By luck and serendipity alone, she manages to prove herself sufficiently. Jack lets down his guard and begins to appreciate and enjoy Lucy—so much so that he actually falls in love with her, and she comes to love him too. Their initial friendship and eventual attraction develops naturally in familial settings: the shared car ride, the family dinner, the hospital bedside, the walk home peppered with cheesy jokes, easy laughter, and slips on the ice.

The self-restraint they exhibit in a moment of palpable longing and loneliness is a beautiful moral example. They refuse to destroy the family to pursue their own personal desires illicitly, in secret.

If this movie were made today (and not in 1995), I imagine it would have thrown Lucy and Jack into a steamy affair behind the family’s back. The laughs would have been generated less by family banter and the awkwardness of an honest woman caught up in a falsehood, and more by the sneaky slapstick of two lying lovers trying not to get caught. In other words, it would likely have been shameless. The boundary-breaking freedom of the lovers would have been valorized (They’re true to themselves, no matter what the family thinks! The heart wants what it wants!). Traditional sexual mores and self-sacrifice would have been disparaged as “inauthentic” (since these days our identities are considered inextricable from our sexual desires). Thank goodness this movie is 26 years old! Tuned to the quiet background hum of traditional Irish Catholic culture, While You Were Sleeping is a moral story, and Lucy and Jack have healthy shame.

Once Jack realizes he is in love with Lucy, he finds himself envious of his brother for the first time in his life. But no matter the depths of his feelings for Lucy, he knows it would be shameful to make an overt play for his brother’s fiancée (all the more so with his brother in a coma). It would be a betrayal of family loyalty and the kind of scandal that would destroy the household. It’s out of the question for him. The very fact that, in a lonely midnight game of cards with his comatose brother, Jack suggests, “I’ll cut the deck. Highest card gets Lucy,” shows that he’s processing his envy and frustration out loud, not secretly planning to seduce her.   

As long as Lucy maintains the lie of her engagement to Peter (to keep herself within the loving family circle), Jack remains off limits to her. But to reveal the truth (so she and Jack could be together) would be to lose him forever: she believes he’d never forgive her for lying to his family, and the family would reject her for deceiving them. So our star-crossed lovers brace themselves for personal unhappiness and disappointment, all for the sake of keeping this family intact, with themselves as members of it. 

In The Ethics of Beauty, the Greek Orthodox ethicist Timothy Patitsas writes that

[h]ealthy shame is encapsulated in the beautifully untranslatable Greek word philotimo, which describes a disposition that, a) could not bear the shame of doing even the tiniest thing wrong towards God or others, and b) would be ashamed to count the cost of doing good.

While the cynicism of the world whispers that “everyone has their price”—the moment at which their good intentions buckle under the weight of desire—the glory of philotimo is a profound, deep-rooted, gut-level, “I would rather die than do that” kind of shame. Put another way, this healthy shame senses boundaries and limits, and creates within us the category of actions which are “unthinkable.” On the night before her wedding to Peter, Lucy asks Jack, “Can you give me any reason why I shouldn’t marry your brother?” After a lengthy, agonizing pause, he says, “I can’t.” She accepts his answer, and they part in sadness. The self-restraint they exhibit in a moment of palpable longing and loneliness is a beautiful moral example. They refuse to destroy the family to pursue their own personal desires illicitly, in secret.

The Wedding That Wasn’t 

When the timing is right for Peter’s convenient “movie coma” to end, he wakes up, unable to remember Lucy, prompting the doctor to announce that he has selective amnesia. After a gentle yet critical pep talk from his godfather Saul, Peter decides, rather nonchalantly, to “re-propose” to Lucy, a woman he doesn’t know the first thing about. Brokenhearted by Jack’s refusal to pursue her, and desperate for a new life as well as family connection, Lucy accepts. Her almost-wedding scene is rife with comedy and confusion, but is also marked by Lucy following her conscience. 

Before the priest has finished his “dearly beloved” introduction, Lucy blurts out, “I object!” and the whole series of accidents, mistakes, lies, and good intentions spills out. She confesses her love for Jack and apologizes to everyone.

[To the family] When we were in the hospital room, everything happened so fast, and I couldn’t tell you the truth. And then I didn’t want to tell you the truth because, um, the truth was that I fell in love with you… with all of you. I went from being all alone, to being a fiancée, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, and a friend. 

[Turning to Peter] I might have saved your life on the tracks that day, but you know what? You really saved mine. You allowed me to be a part of a family, and I haven’t had that in a really long time, and I just didn’t want to let go of that. So even though it was just for a little while, I will love them always. I’m very sorry.

It’s vital to the story’s ethic that Lucy reveals the truth of the situation (and of her feelings) before vowing herself in marriage to anyone: it’s just as important that she makes this confession publicly to the whole family. As she confesses, she is confident that this (as right and necessary as it is) will lead to the loss of her advantageous marriage to Peter, the loss of any future chance with Jack, and the loss of the Callaghan family as a whole. Her conscience prompts her to sacrifice all of this for the sake of honesty. It was one thing to fudge reality a little bit in the hospital room to keep old Elsie from having a heart attack, but making a false vow before God, the priest, and the Callaghans is unthinkable for Lucy. She leaves the hospital chapel just as Peter’s actual fiancée flounces in to contribute her own objection to the proceedings, swiftly followed by her husband who objects to her objection. The scandal of Peter’s real engagement to a married woman quickly eclipses the scandal surrounding Lucy’s well-meant lie. It turns out that Peter is the source of shameful behavior, not Lucy or Jack.

“Get down on your knee. It’s more romantic!”

Being a Christmas rom com, and an inverted Sleeping Beauty tale with a whiff of Twelfth Night’s passionate mix-ups, of course While You Were Sleeping has a happy ending. Jack comes to Lucy’s token booth the next day to propose to her, dropping a diamond ring in front of her instead of a token. And yes, the whole family (minus Peter) accompanies him to watch, to help move things along if need be, and to convey (by their obvious delight) that they forgive and accept her. When Lucy agrees to marry Jack, she’s also agreeing to join the Callaghan clan, and they are all thrilled. Jack and Lucy have quite the audience for their first real kiss.

Image via Weekend Fat.

In a day and age when a Google search of the word “in-laws” pre-populates with phrases like “my in-laws hate me,” “I can’t stand my in-laws,” and even “I want my in-laws to die,” WYWS shows us that in a healthy family, in-laws could be the best thing that happens to a person. The Callaghans were the means by which God set someone who was lonely in a family (Psalm 68:6). They’d already done this for their friend and neighbor Saul, a widower, and now they welcome Lucywith all her desires known, and no secrets kept hidden. They provide her with belonging, security, companionship, and the kind of rich home life she’d been missing. Having a husband who can make her laugh and who takes her on a honeymoon to Florence is the cherry on top.

This Christmas, treat yourself to the reminder that a happy home life is meant to expand and include the isolated, be they neighbors, friends, children, or a family member’s significant other. If you’ve been blessed with much, like the Callaghans, then you can open your heart and your door to the lonely, the bereaved, and the newcomer. Let While You Were Sleeping encourage you that a clean conscience and healthy shame are some of the means by which a household retains its center of gravity, warmth, and trustworthiness. The good kind of shame also keeps the inevitable “arm wrestling” of married life a game in which nobody really loses. Philotimo—that moral intuition by which we integrate our personal desires with the good of the group and the glory of God—actually tastes sweeter in the long run than forbidden fruit. And it also tastes a whole lot better than Elsie’s eggnog. Cheers!


  1. I have loved this movie for literally decades, watching it at least once a year–usually more than once a year! It’s wonderful to read the morality explained better than I could ever explain it. Fascinating, deeply researched, eloquent article by someone who is at least as much of a fan as I am! (My husband and I quote the mashed potatoes statement regularly.) Thank you for sharing your deep insights about both the film and about our culture. Many blessings to you!

  2. Alisa, I have never seen this film, but I intend to now! Your writing is so engaging and passionate. I love the delight you express for those who are making good culture. I pray for there to be a renaissance of such impulses for good culture making. BTW, if you have not yet read it, Makoto Fujimura’s Art and Faith is a wonderful book. I think you would enjoy lending an ear to it as you go about your daily routines. Thank you for writing with class and eloquence!

  3. Thanks for putting so much thought into your article. It brought into focus all the things I love about this movie. It is my yearly holiday movie. One of my favorite movies of all time.

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