Realistic Romance: Keeley and Roy from Ted Lasso
Welcome to the Realistic Romance series, where I analyze and assess popular relationships in television and film. In each post we will explore an on-screen couples and look at relevant psychological concepts to better understand the quality of their relationship, and determine if these partnerships are setting realistic expectations for a good relationship.
For each of these posts I will be discussing examples and plots, if you haven't seen the movie or show, you may want to watch it first and read this after.
Ted Lasso has so many amazing relationships to discuss, it's hard to pick just one. The show includes nuances the reasons for and impact of divorce, complicated power dynamics between in both romantic and platonic relationships, and the challenge of being or feeling alone.
However, when watching Ted Lasso I was immediately struck by Keeley and Roy, who are undoubtedly the healthiest relationship I have seen portrayed anywhere on the silver screen.
And not only is it incredibly healthy, but it's realistic too.
They aren't a boringly fake couple; they encounter real challenges and they make real mistakes with each other. But let's look at why they're such a healthy example for all of us to emulate.
Note: Although I'm from the States and "football" is a very different sport to us here, to honor the show I will be calling soccer "football" (and, if we're being real, the name that almost everywhere else in the world uses).
Keeley Jones is, as she said, "sort of famous for almost being famous" (played by Juno Temple). She had early fame and continues to be well known as a model, she's active on social media and maintains a large online present in part by dating famous men, such as the footballer Jamie Tartt, but she appears to be losing interest in maintaining her image as the "it girl" and we see her transition into becoming a professional in branding/marketing.
Keeley dates Jamie at the beginning of the show, a relationship that unceremoniously ends when Rebecca helps Jamie see her worth and how she deserves to be treated. Keeley is savvy, kind, and just generally fun. She doesn't take herself or anyone else too seriously, she's professionally driven and talented, and she values her close relationships.
Roy Kent (Brett Golstein) is a football player past his prime. He was a star for much of his career, but after many years of the intensive sport, he is not as agile or skilled as his new up-and-coming teammates. Roy struggles with this reality from the first episode as he endures
snide comments about his age from the brash Jamie Tartt (Keeley's then-boyfriend) and tries to navigate a new identity outside of being a footballer. He is well known for being gruff and easily angered, but also for being a subtly kind and supportive person who irately demands people treat each other with respect. Roy battles this more emotionally sensitive side to his personality, but to no avail, for despite his sharp exterior he cares about people and will defend those who need it.
In healthy relationships, partners are able to hear and tolerate the other's feelings without needing to control, change, or fix these feelings. For example, they can hear their partner's complaint about their behavior and not shut down or become angry. Co-regulation is the goal for all relationships, which requires self-awareness and strong emotion regulation skills. Co-regulation is security- the belief that your partner is trustworthy and won't leave you, and that you can have separate thoughts/feelings, even those that are in conflict or will upset your partner.
Just for informations sake, In contrast, in codependent relationships partners are emotionally fused, where one person's feelings are instantly adopted by the other and partners are unhealthily close. Codependence is essentially insecurity- needing to keep the other person close, agreeing with them no matter what, and never risking the relationship with conflict so that they don't leave.
Although we never saw their dynamic, from Rebecca's description of her marriage, it sounds like a codependent relationship. She felt she had to fall in line with whatever Rupert said, even what she should eat or wear, or she would risk upsetting him and losing the relationship. However, even this level of compliance does not guarantee the other person won't leave, which of course he eventually did after years of infidelity. (Important side note: Rupert's behavior was abusive. Controlling your partner is never acceptable.)
For a little background information on attachment styles, check out my Bridgerton post, where I also explain characteristics of the avoidant attachment style. But for this couple we'll be looking at the gold standard: a secure attachment.
A secure attachment means that there is a foundation of trust. People with secure attachment believe that their partners will meet their important needs, won't abandon or reject them, will be supportive of them during difficult times or through difficult feelings, will encourage them to pursue their dreams, and will truly celebrate and value who they are as a person. There is an ingrained belief that people can generally be trusted in relationships; that people won't intentionally let you down or leave you. And there is also the belief that if your partner does make a mistake, that it can be repaired, and that if it's not repaired, that you can choose to leave the relationship can still be a happy, whole person without your partner.
Partners in a secure relationship are committed and deeply value their partner, but their relationship does not dictate the rest of their life. For example, if their partner is upset with them, the person can still function at work instead of being completely consumed with worry or distress about their relationship.
As is probably immediately apparent, co-regulation is a hallmark attribute of secure attachment. Partners in this type of relationship are comfortable with the other person have needs, thoughts or feelings that are negative, challenging, or in conflict with their own. They can tolerate hearing difficult emotions or information without becoming angry, scared, or defensive.
The second important concept here is genuine apologies. Not all apologies are created equal. There is an art to a genuine, heartfelt apology that is often overlooked by people in relationships. "I'm sorry you're angry" isn't the same as, "I'm sorry that what I did hurt your feelings and I understand why you're upset."
Genuine apologies have a few key ingredients: you must really empathize with how your partner feels, you must verbally acknowledge how your actions contributed to their hurt feelings, and you must offer a statement of repair and growth.
I understand why you're angry with me for talking badly about your parents at dinner the other night, I would be angry too. I know it was especially hurtful because it was in front of our friends, and you don't want them to think poorly of your parents. I know you love your parents and it wasn't right for me to vent my frustrations with them in that way or in that setting. I'm really sorry for hurting your feelings, and I'll be more mindful of how we talk about your family in the future.
One more key ingredient: you must refrain from including defensive or explanatory statements for why you did the hurtful thing. This is perhaps the hardest part because we all have an instinct to justify, explain, or defend ourselves. None of us like being wrong, and we usually do have reasons for why we do things, even damaging things. However, hurt partners need to feel you understand their feelings and have remorse for hurting them, they don't want to hear your justification (at least not in that moment).
Justifications and explanations always come across as excuses. They seem like attempts to convince the other person that you were right in your actions and that they shouldn't be upset. Even if this isn't what you mean to say, it's usually how it's perceived. "I'm sorry I ignored your calls, but I was busy and didn't have time to talk," doesn't feel as good as, "I'm sorry I ignored your calls today, I know you were excited to talk and I bet it sucked to feel like I was ignoring you."
At this point in the show, Keeley is still dating the self-centered football star Jamie Tartt. At a charity auction, Jamie has another woman bid on him to spark insecurity in Keeley and increase his perceived value. When Keeley learns of this, she retaliates (not a healthy coping strategy, but we can hardly blame her because Jamie is so infuriating) by bidding on the teammate he intensely dislikes, none other than the Roy Kent. After the auction, Roy approaches Keeley and very clearly communicates his feelings about being "used" in her retaliation attempts, voicing embarrassment about what she did.
Instead of being dismissive of his feelings or defensive about why she bid for him, Keeley immediately sees the negative impact of her actions, acknowledges his feelings, and apologizes. She was able to hear his feelings of hurt and anger, take them in and empathize with his perspective, and admit she was wrong. And even better than that, is that Roy saw her authentic remorse and accepted her apology. He didn't stay furious or say something cruel to continue the cycle of retaliation; he took her apology and the rupture was repaired.
The First Date
After their first kiss in the hotel room, Roy does not make his interest or intentions very clear. Although a direct sort of fellow, he does not share more than he thinks necessary. He tells her he's not free to grab coffee, but doesn't explain that he has plans and would otherwise would to go out leaving Keeley feeling snubbed. As a result, Keeley interprets his communications to mean that he is not actually interested in pursuing something with her. Thus, when her former boyfriend Jamie shows up at her house, Keeley welcomes the distraction and affection. The next day, Roy finally clarifies that he is interested in her, and explains his intention to take things slow so that they can build a real relationship that has honesty as a foundation. This is a critical point for them, as Keeley is in on way obligated to tell Roy about sleeping with Jamie, but she chooses to do so in the name of honesty. Roy has a hard time with this news, unsure of his feelings or how to react, and Keeley gives him space to process it, asking that he come back to her when he's able to speak again.
This is perhaps the perfect example of co-regulation I've seen on tv. Keeley is open and honest, she says something that she knows will risk their nascent relationship and could very well lead to its early demise, but is unashamedly transparent about her decisions. Then, when Roy is upset and unable to articulate his feelings, Keeley self-regulates and gives him space. She doesn't beg forgiveness, or break down, or spend the next several days in despair while she waits for his decision. She carries on with her own life in the meantime, showing how you can still be happy and live your life even when the person you like/love is upset with you.
The Pundit Debate
After retiring from football, Roy is adrift. He coaches his nieces football team but is otherwise uncertain about his career future or identity. In effort to help him find his way, Keeley encourages him several times to consider trying a pundit gig. Roy is resistant to this idea, but Keeley persists. At one point she even brings up the opportunity on a double date, where the other couple voices their agreement that Roy would be a great pundit and should do it. Later on, Keeley calls Roy to apologize for bringing it up and putting him on the spot. Instead of keeping the opportunity between them, she brings other people's opinions into this decision, and makes Roy uncomfortable in the moment. He didn't even need to tell her he was annoyed by it, she reflected on the situation and voluntarily brought up her error, acknowledging and apologizing for it without prompting from her partner.
However, the pundit debate also gives Roy an opportunity to show his emotional intelligence. After doing the first show, he realizes he enjoyed the experience and feels more like himself than he has since quitting football. He comes home and thanks Keeley for persistently encouraging him to consider the opportunity, succinctly saying, "you helped me to help myself." In doing this, he acknowledges that he was perhaps overly resistant to the idea, and that he sees Keeley's gentle nudging as her commitment to his happiness and finding a sense of purpose post-football.
And again, in both of these encounters, the person who received the genuine apology was open to accepting it. They don't see it as an opportunity to be one-up and hold it over the other person in a power play, as (unfortunately) some people do. They see the apologies as sincere and are happy to repair their relationship.
During Keeley's big photoshoot, both she and Roy share some difficult truths with each other. Roy tells Keeley that, after stating he wasn't married, he didn't clarify to his niece's teacher that he is in a serious relationship and he wasn't sure why he did that. Keeley then shared that Jamie admitted he's still in love with her. These are very difficult truths to tell a partner, because they risk triggering insecurity and anger. They both disclose that there are other people interested in being with them, and neither provide any concrete reassurance that they do not have interest in return. Keeley and Roy are committed to complete honesty, no matter how challenging.
THE OVERALL ASSESSMENT
It should come as no surprise that this couple gets a high score. Their willingness to communicate even on the most challenging of subjects, their strong co-regulation and self-regulation skills, and their healthy connectedness and independence makes for a very strong relationship.
They are a shining example of a good relationship. When clients ask me what a healthy couple should look like, I tell them this couple. Many of us look to television for information on what's normal or healthy, what we can or should expect from our partners, how to communicate or solve conflicts, and many on-screen romances fall very, very short. This couple, though, is the gold standard.
Naturally, I give them an A+ for the quality of their relationship. They care about each other, they show respect in their communication, they support one another, and when they make mistakes (which all of us do in our relationships), they apologize and repair. If only television had more couples like Keeley and Roy for people to learn from and emulate.
Want More Like This?
If you have a favorite on-screen that you'd like to be a focus of this series, let me know! I'll be writing on all couples, from the obviously healthy to the clearly destructive, and everything in between.