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.
Many people compare their relationships to those they see on screen. Whether it's the character who romantically races to the airport to stop their loved one from leaving, or a couple that thrive on sarcastic remarks and playful (although sometimes harsh) quips, we look to these examples to assess the quality of own connection. Sometimes we seek reassurance that other couples argue, too, or sometimes we look for examples why our partner isn't good enough in order to justify leaving.
It's important to remember that on-screen relationships show a range of relational quality. They can provide good modeling for a happy coupling, or they can confuse you into thinking an abusive relationship is normal. So with this series, let's look at popular dyads and see what a clinical assessment of them reveals.
Dear, sweet, Dr. Geller. Portrayed as the classic nerd whose affection is overlooked by the popular girl until one poignant moment where she realizes how genuinely kind and caring he is, leading to a happy union that their friends celebrate. He is loving and committed throughout their relationship, however, he also displays insecurity, perhaps because he has always seen her as "better than" and harbors anxiety that she will eventually leave him. Also a possible result of insecurity is his need to be right; to showcase his intelligence in order to prove his worth, even at the expense of alienating people. While friends mock him for his need to correct and show off, he continues to do this in attempts to maintain his self-worth. Never the handsome or witty one, Ross's intellect is what he grasps onto for esteem.
The pretty, popular girl since high school who hangs onto that role throughout life. She was the sought-after cheerleader throughout high school, and formed a best friendship with a sweet girl (young Monica) whom she knew would not be a rival. She prizes herself for her appearance, and her vapidness is almost painful at the start of the show. Rachel treats most people as second-class citizens, is highly self-absorbed, and believes (often correctly so) that she can use her attractiveness to get her way and manipulate those around her. Rachel has a history of dating men who were high status, attractive, or wealthy, but perpetually finds herself being ignored and discarded by these men. With Ross she finally has an attentive partner. Indeed, he has pined for her since adolescence, and his adoration is the ego boost that she very much needed.
While some people have a stable, positive internal sense of self, others have self-esteem that depends on traits or external feedback in order to sustain itself. We call this contingent self-worth, and there are many different kinds of it. For both partners, their contingent self-esteem plays a critical role in how they interact with each other and the world.
Competence Based Self-Worth
Ross's self-worth is contingent on his competence; he feels positively about himself because is more competent, smarter, and right. He needs to prove his intellect at every opportunity, correct people when they're wrong, and excel in his field. When he lacks this sense of competence, or when he enters a realm where intellectual prowess does not determine success (such as a romantic relationship), his self-esteem wavers and as we witnessed, he acts out.
We see this when Rachel begins to advance at work and forms a collegial (on her end, at least) relationship with Mark. Ross is no longer the only one doing well at his job and finding success at work, and in response he focuses on Mark as the reason for the threat to his self-esteem. Instead of being supportive of Rachel's progress (while also advocating for his needs, such as her still finding ways to prioritize their relationship), he starts getting in her way. For example, he insists on attending a fashion conference with her, where he distracts her, falls asleep, and startles awake to her embarrassment. Or let's not forget when he insists on celebrating their anniversary despite her important work deadline. He shows up unexpectedly, demands her attention, then acts wounded when she sets a limit. Some may argue that this was Ross's to show affection or communicate his needs to Rachel, but the strategies he used were inappropriate.
Appearance Based Self-Worth
Rachel's self-worth is appearance-based. Her confidence is derived from being the adored pretty girl, starting in high school and continuing into adulthood. Perhaps a reason she finds Ross so appealing is his long-term infatuation with her; a smart man who has quietly cared for and pursued her for years. Rachel is often shown discussing her looks, buying new clothes and spending time primping, desperately hoping to catch the eye of any potential suitor. She is willing to sacrifice other relationships if it means it feeds her appearance-based self-worth. For example, she was willing to date Jean-Claude Van Dam despite knowing how it would hurt Monica. And she is unable to tolerate those who do not revere her (recall her reaction when her then-husband in real life, Brad Pitt, expressed his hatred of her during a Thanksgiving episode).
For her, to be admired is to have self-worth, and here is Ross, a man with a doctorate who will not only admire her but consider himself unbelievably lucky to be with her. It gives her a sense of security because she believes she is more attractive than him and thus more desirable, and this dynamic makes it less likely he will stray. Especially after a broken engagement and a betrayal at the hands of her Italian amor, a stable and doting partner such as Ross must be especially appealing. She is able to overlook or tolerate a number of smaller fights or issues with Ross, but the breaking point is the infamous "break," when he drunkenly sleeps with another woman during an uncertain time in their relationship. This is a betrayal in itself, but for Rachel this truth is intolerable: Ross found someone else attractive. She is unable to forgive this transgression, ultimately finalizing the end of their relationship. For then, anyway...
We all derive self-esteem from different places, but ideally our self-esteem should not be dependent on one quality alone. People should have a stable sense of themselves as worthy human beings regardless of how they look, what grades they get, how much money they make, or how many people adore them. These external traits or accomplishments will come and go, and when this occurs, one's self-esteem should remain grounded in one's own certainty of being worthwhile and deserving. If you find your self-esteem soaring high on a day when you get positive feedback and then plummeting the next due to a mistake or complaint, you may need to work on establishing a more consistent sense of self-worth.
Ross and Rachel have an insecure relationship, in large part due to their own wavering self-esteems. They don't generally engage in abusive behaviors and do appear to genuinely like and appreciate the other, however, their attachment was not secure enough to be long lasting. The threats from other people outside of their relationship were ever present, their history of having a significant power differential during their younger years was never completely erased, and both of their self-absorbed personalities made it difficult for them to be fully present and giving to the other. Not a terrible relationship (like the one I'll discuss next), but also not a forever one.
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.