Bella explains that buying into the ‘you complete me’ mentality does not necessarily protect you from emotional loneliness, especially when you are married.
The belief that a person is just not complete without a spouse got its most memorable expression in the movie Jerry Maguire when Jerry tells Dorothy, ‘You complete me.’ Whether that strikes you as romantic or ripe for mocking, it is a quote that has made its mark. It shows up on lists of most famous movie love quotes.
Even more interesting, researchers have tried to assess the degree to which people buy into that way of thinking. They also looked at whether a ‘you-complete me’ mentality matters to people’s relationships or their feelings about their relationships.
In a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Pearl Dykstra and Tineke Fokkema examined feelings of loneliness among more than 2,200 Dutch adults between the ages of 30 and 76 who were either married, divorced, or remarried.
The ‘you complete me’ mentality, social and emotional loneliness
To probe the ‘you complete me’ mentality (which the authors called partner-centeredness), participants indicated the degree to which they agreed with three statements:
- “Without a partner, one is incomplete as a person.”
- “Life is empty without a partner.”
- “With a partner, life becomes meaningful.”
If you are married and believe in the ‘you complete me’ thing, that should protect you against loneliness, right? You are very partner-centred and have a partner. Divorcees who don’t have a spouse and who believe they are incomplete without a partner are especially likely to feel lonely.
To find out, the authors looked at two kinds of loneliness: social and emotional.
Whether you are socially lonely depends on whether you have a social network of people who give you a sense of belonging. The items used to measure it include, among others:
- “There are plenty of people I can lean on when I have problems.”
- “There are enough people to whom I feel very close.”
People who agree with those two sample items would score less socially lonely.
Emotional loneliness is a deeper form of loneliness. Examples of items used to measure it are:
- “I feel emptiness around me.”
- “I often feel people let me down.”
Divorcees and emotional loneliness
For divorcees, the “you complete me” mentality was risky. The more they believed that life is empty and devoid of meaning without a romantic partner, the more emotionally lonely they felt. Believing those things had no implications for social loneliness.
Marriage and emotional loneliness
Married people were even more likely than divorcees to have a ‘you complete me’ mentality. They were more likely to agree with statements such as “without a partner, one is incomplete as a person.”
Were married people who most strongly endorsed the ‘you complete me’ mentality especially unlikely to feel lonely? They have that partner they expect to complete them. Interestingly, when it came to emotional loneliness, the opposite was true. Just as the authors found for divorcees, married people with a ‘you complete me’ mentality were more likely to feel emotionally lonely than married people who were not as partner-centred.
When I learned about that finding, I first thought married people who were more likely to feel emotionally lonely are possibly so preoccupied with their partner that they ignore everyone else. A risky strategy, leaving them feeling empty and let down.
Admittedly, the findings for social loneliness were not consistent with that explanation. Married people who are more partnered-centred are a little less likely to feel socially lonely.
In the study, married people generally (whether partner-centred or not) had smaller social support networks than divorcees did, especially if they were in their first marriage. This is consistent with lots of other research suggesting that married people are particularly likely to be insular.
Network size was determined by participants’ answers to two questions: Other than your spouse, “with whom did you discuss your personal problems this past year?” and “Who helped you solve practical problems this past year?” Married men named the smallest number of different people in response to those questions (an average of 1.8), and divorced women named the largest (an average of 3.1).
Married people, then, have smaller social support networks than divorced people do. However, married people who are partner-centred are not more socially lonely than married people who are not very partner-centred. Instead, they stand out for their high levels of emotional loneliness.
The authors could only guess why the partner-centred married people were so emotionally lonely. Their two suggestions were that married people with a ‘you complete me’ mentality have expectations of their partners that are just too high or depend on them too much, making them vulnerable.
Regardless of the explanation, one thing is clear: Being married does not automatically solve the problem of emotional loneliness. While it was true that in this study, divorcees, on average, experienced more emotional loneliness than those who were married – the married people surveyed, who seemed most invested in being married (thinking that life is empty without a partner) were, ironically, the married people most likely to suffer from emotional loneliness. They were the ones especially likely to say, “I feel emptiness around me.”
Men and Women
Stereotypically, women are supposed to be the ones most preoccupied with marriage and romantic relationships. Coupling is believed to matter more to them. Popular culture frets more about single women than single men.
In their disproportionate attention to single women, scholars also seem to regard singlehood as more of a problem for single women than single men. But in this study, the men, more so than the women, endorsed the “you complete me” mentality. That’s consistent with other gender differences, showing, for example, that women like being single more than men do.