Growing up most of us had two models for what adult romantic relationships should look like. One, we had our parents or caregivers––which for many of us means we only saw, divorce, single parenthood, or unhappy relationships. And, two, we had what we saw on TV and in movies. No wonder we have so much trouble finding and maintaining a healthy relationship.
The majority of relationships on TV and in movies are dysfunctional. They have to be. Functional, fulfilling relationships are, well, boring. They are satisfying, steady, and committed. What makes for good entertainment is conflict, sparks flying, tension, or humorous misunderstandings. We want our entertainment to be full of heartache and hijinks, so it’s understandable that when it comes to our own relationships, we don’t know what’s what.
Here are a few lessons we shouldn’t take from our favorite entertainment, and a few lessons we should:
The myth of “You complete me”
It’s the line we all remember from “Jerry Maguire.” Long after we’ve forgotten what that movie was about (football, I think), we remember that classic, romantic line: “You complete me.” The thing is, though, that that’s a terrible thing to say. Our partners shouldn’t complete us. We should be complete on our own. If you can’t be happy without your partner, you’ll never be happy with them.
The problem with “You belong to me”
I love the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” right up until George Peppard as Paul Varjak says to Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, “I love you; you belong to me!” She should’ve left her response at “No, people don’t belong to people” then gotten out of the cab and walked away. Instead, you’ve got the kissing in the rain and the wet cat and the swelling sound of “Moon River” playing over the end credits. A generation of men and women left the movie theater believing that when you love someone, they belong to you. A healthy marriage consists of two complete individuals sharing a life together. A marriage doesn’t mean the merging of two unique beings into a new organism.
(Fun fact: deep-sea anglerfish do, in fact, merge with their mates. Trust me, the process is not romantic).
Love means often having to say, “I’m sorry”
Like “Jerry Maguire,” 1970’s “Love Story” is famous for one supposedly romantic line, which is actually a terrible lesson. “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry,” the line in the film goes. As a therapist who specializes in anger and has written two books on anger, I promise you: love means having to say “I’m sorry,” and actually proving that you’re sorry, over and over again. A better film example of apologies that work is in the 1989 classic “When Harry Met Sally.” They fight; they apologize to each other. Yes, sometimes those apologies take years and obviously they shouldn’t take years in your marriage, but it’s a good example of a film in which characters successfully say, “I’m sorry.”
Why “We want to change each other” is terrible
I re-watched the film “Silver Linings Playbook” recently and a line stood out to me that I missed the first time I saw it that encapsulates the moral of the story. The Bradley Cooper character is explaining to the Jennifer Lawrence character about his idealized relationship with his now-estranged wife and he says, “We want to change each other.” In his mind, the fact that he and his wife want to change the other is a good thing. The moral of the film is, of course, that you shouldn’t want to change the person you’re with. Your partner should let you be yourself and bring out the best in you and you should bring out the best in them by letting them be themselves. In the film, the main characters help each other learn coping skills for their mental health issues, they learn to accept themselves, they learn how to communicate, and they learn how to ask for what they need.
Our most treasured romantic comedies and dramas are often rife with terrible lessons about romance and relationships. Healthy relationships in movies and on TV are few and far between (the couple at the center of “Friday Night Lights” is one of the standout examples of a healthy marriage on TV, so check that show out on Netflix if you haven’t yet). The healthiest way we can use film and TV to help us determine what our relationships should look like?
Ask yourself: Does my relationship have all the sparks, tension, and highs and lows of one that I’d see on the screen? If the answer is, “Yes” it means it’s time to see a marriage therapist.