The key distinction between relationships that perish and those that flourish.
In a famous scene from the Oscar-nominated film Jerry Maguire, dashing leading man Jerry — a successful and handsome sports agent played by Tom Cruise — suddenly returns to his estranged wife. He proclaims to Dorothy, portrayed by Renée Zellweger, “You complete me.” Touched and teary-eyed after his declaration, she is transfixed and tells him, “You had me at hello.”
Now contrast this famous scene with an equally popular one from another critically-acclaimed film, As Good as It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson plays Melvin, a curmudgeonly writer. He’s on a date with Carol, a warm-hearted and witty waitress portrayed by Helen Hunt. Carol remarks to Melvin that when she first met him, “I thought you were cute, but then you spoke.” Up to this point, their relationship has been struggling at best — certainly not what a storybook romance is said to be. Despite his best intentions, Melvin usually annoys Carol rather than uplifts her. In what seems like a final attempt to win her over, he tells her, “You make me want to be a better man.” She is rendered speechless.
These two famous move scenes, that we discuss in our upcoming book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (TarcherPerigee, January 16, 2018), present two markedly different reasons for being in a relationship. Jerry feels that Dorothy is his other half, and he’s not complete without her, whereas Melvin wants to be with Carol because he sees her goodness, which motivates him to become better himself.
Take a moment to ponder your own romantic relationship — or the one you’d like to be in — and your reasons for being in it. Are those motivations more similar to Jerry’s or Melvin’s?
“You complete me.”
Jerry’s motivations seem to be synonymous with what we may think of as a storybook romance — the romantic notion that there is one ideal person somewhere out there who will “complete” us and lead us to happily ever after. This popular concept of a soul mate figures prominently in literature, poetry, religion, and philosophy. It is often referred to as that deep connection we have with someone whom we feel immediately “gets us” like no one ever did and like no one else ever could. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. We, of course, do experience and appreciate deep connections. And we understand that they may happen early in a relationship.
However, we also realize there may be dangers if we are searching for a soul mate whom we expect will forever complete us. One danger is that it may lead us to think that our perfect partner is somewhere out there, and that fate will bring us together. This view doesn’t involve any intentional action on our part, but instead leads to us wait around for romantic lightning to strike. We can see how this idea is unhealthy in that it doesn’t encourage us to work on our own self-development or practice the necessary interpersonal skills to prepare us for a relationship. (As we mentioned in our first post, happily ever after doesn’t just happen. It takes work.)
Another potential pitfall of the notion of someone “completing” us is that it may lead to codependency, in which we come to rely on that person for all of our needs. Instead of growing and learning, we lean on that person to make up for what we are lacking. We don’t mature, and our relationship stagnates. Healthy relationships, however, are characterized by a type of interdependence. Rather than “completing” us, our partners “complement” us. In this type of relationship, we stand tall together and are open to one another. We feel whole in ourselves, while appreciating the strengths of our partner, and we benefit from a mutual giving and receiving of support. We grow individually and as a couple.
Jerry Versus Melvin?
If you had to predict whose relationship would thrive, would it be Jerry’s or Melvin’s? While Jerry’s proclamation is passionate, his motivation is self-oriented. He values Dorothy instrumentally, because she completes him. We suspect that if she stops completing him, he will stop loving her.
Our bets are on Melvin and Carol, whose relationship is based on goodness. As Aristotle argued, this type of friendship is ideal, and so it’s what we have coined an “Aristotelian” relationship. Melvin sees the goodness in Carol, in the way she interacts with her customers at work and lovingly cares for her sick child, not to mention the tenderhearted way she treats him, rather than merely tolerating him. Melvin values this goodness, and it motivates him to become better himself.
As Aristotle explains, when we are in the company of people with good character, we tend to improve our character as well. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to these experiences as being moved or “elevated” by seeing “acts of virtue or moral beauty.” Elevation, an “other-praising” emotion, brings about warm feelings in us, opens our hearts, and shifts our focus from ourselves to others.
This is what Melvin experienced. Carol’s goodness had a visceral and virtuous effect on him. By the end of the film, we see a stark difference in him. The once self-involved character with the hardened heart now shows compassion toward his neighbor and has indeed become a better man.