Can this marriage survive Netflix?

THE LITTLE RED envelope justsat there. Night after night.Mocking.

You would think it was filledwith anthrax, the way no onewanted to touch it. But inside theenvelope was a DVD, rented fromNetflix by Louis Marino and hiswife, Trente Miller, in Brooklyn.

“‘The English Patient,’” saidMarino, 39, creative director for anad agency. “I never got a chanceto see it in the theater. My wifewas like, ‘Yeah, I’ll definitely watchthat with you. Put it on the list.’ Itgoes on the list.”

And so began their siege in thisnew trench on the front lines ofAmerican marriage: the sharedNetflix queue.

With a nation in recession andhouseholds cutting back on nightsout at the movies, even canceling cableservices, Netflix has thrived, witha growing number of subscriberslooking for cheap escapist relief.

The company announced inFebruary that it had surpassed 10million subscribers. The slim redenvelopes are everywhere thesedays, each packed with a singleDVD, pumping like plateletsthrough the nation’s mail system.

But for many couples, the queue— the computer list of which filmswill arrive next in the mail, afterthose at home are returned — is asimportant as everything else thatspouses and other varieties of significantothers share, from petnames to closet space to the bathroom.For some, this is fine. Forothers, the queue is the new toiletseat that somebody left up.Back to that disc at the Marinoresidence, dug in like an old grudge.

“I had ‘English Patient’ formore than six months,” Marinoconfessed.

“It just sat. My wife thought itwould be too depressing. I’m like,‘When are you going to be in themood to watch it?’ She’s like, ‘Idon’t know.’”

Eventually, it was returned unwatched.Marino and Miller are notalone. Far from it. Men andwomen from perfectly happy partnershipsreport their own dysfunctionalcohabitation within theconfines of the queue.

“It comes down to who gets thequeue,” said Michelle Newton, 37,a homemaker and mother in Leland,N.C.

“Let’s say there’s a couple thingsI want to see,” she said. In that case,she will sneak into the queue andmove her movie to the top, oftendashing the hopes of her husband,Grant, a reactor operator at a powerplant, at the last moment.

“My husband had looked at themail and thought a guy flick wascoming in, and it’s a chick flick,”Newton said of a recent dust-up.“He’ll go back through andmove stuff back up the queue. It’swho keeps up with the queue, asawful as that sounds.”

They recently cut back from atwo-disc $13.99 monthly subscriptionto the austerity plan of onedisc at a time, $8.99, putting all themore pressure on who wins thebattle of the queue.

“Right now we have ‘Man onFire,’” she said. (The 2004 film, decidedly not a chick flick, starsDenzel Washington.) “We’re notsure who put it there,” Newtonsaid skeptically. “He’s saying itwasn’t him. He hasn’t watched ityet. If he doesn’t watch it in thenext few days, it’s going back.”

Policing the queue is a delicatematter.

Tom Smith, 35, of Park Slopein Brooklyn, ran the queue heshares with his girlfriend, MichelleYarnick, with an iron fist, creatinga two-week rule for DVDs in theapartment. After that — out.

But a few too many of Yarnick’smovies went out unwatched,and he recently extended the limitto four weeks — a Netflix eternityto many, including himself, butwhat are you going to do?

Greg Albrecht, 28, a softwareengineer in San Francisco, hasbeen on the receiving end of thepremature return. “If I don’t watchit within a week, she’ll return it,”he said of his fiancee.

Dr. Adam Wolfberg, 38, inNewton, Mass., would be thrilledwith any sort of time limit for hisfamily’s rentals. Every month, hiscredit card is charged $17.84, withtax, for their three-disc subscription,and yet he doesn’t rememberthe last time a disc was watched.

“I don’t even know where theyare,” he admitted glumly.

Wolfberg is a cash cow for Netflix,having already spent manytimes over what he would have paidto buy the three DVDs. The businessmodel, wherein the busiestcustomers save the most money, isnot unlike a gym membership, andadds a familiar stress — finances— to the couple sharing a queue.

An unreturned disc is costingthem money. And just as gymmembers sometimes slack off afteran initial burst of dedication, Netflixusers become more carelesswith the disc-to-cost ratio as themonths of membership wear on.

Some couples need help froma third party, so Netflix came upwith its Profiles tool, sort of like atherapist for the queue. Each partnergets his or her own profile, andan allotment of discs, so that filmsfrom each list come and go and noone party takes over.

Netflix does not know how manyof its accounts are for individualsand how many are for couples.There has been at least one “Netflixdivorce,” in which a couple gaveup on trying to share a queue andinstead created two accounts, saida spokesman, Steve Swasey.

The number of accounts withseparate profiles is very small —so small that last year, Netflix announcedit was doing away withthe tool. The news was met withoutrage.

“Because of the strong responsefrom the very few who useit, we decided it was an importantenough element for them to keepit,” Swasey said.