“You complete me.”

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

“I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” 

While these rom-com quotes are iconic in film, their messages and subsequent toxic themes often deprioritize individuality, healthy relationships, and a broader experience of love and acceptance. 

Whether it is a direct quote or an indirect message within the plot, it can be tricky to recognize toxic relationship behaviors disguised as romance on the big screen. While movies often serve as escapism, they can also perpetuate harmful myths about love and relationships. Let’s explore some common toxic relationship cliches in popular films and how they can impact our understanding of healthy connections.

Toxic movie message #1: The fixer-upper

One prevalent theme in many romantic movies is love can “fix” someone’s flaws or heal their wounds. Consider the classic scenario where a troubled character finds redemption through their partner’s love. Take the movie “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper and Lady GaGa. Their partnership was ultimately destructive, and nothing Ally could do would save Jackson from addiction. 

A therapist’s take on the fixer-upper

While it’s natural to want to support our loved ones, this narrative can promote the harmful belief that it’s our responsibility to rescue or change someone else. It can be equally dangerous to fall in love with someone’s potential rather than who they are today.

Toxic movie message #2: The persistent pursuit

Another problematic message often portrayed in movies is glorifying someone’s persistent pursuit, even in the face of clear rejection or discomfort. We see characters relentlessly pursuing their love interest, disregarding boundaries and personal agency. 

In the movie, “Twilight,” Edward is considered romantic when he saves Bella from a dangerous situation with reckless men. Throughout the film, Edward stalks Bella by showing up unannounced at her home, while she is shopping with friends, and is even found watching her sleep, all in the name of love. 

A therapist’s take on the persistent pursuit

This can romanticize behaviors that, in reality, may be considered a toxic relationship sign of stalking or harassment. There are healthier approaches to relationships that prioritize mutual respect and communication. It is important to respect boundaries and accept rejection gracefully because healthy relationships are built on mutual consent and respect, not unwanted pursuit proclaimed as an act of care or protection. 

Toxic movie message #3: Love at first sight

Sometimes rom-com classics depict love at first sight as the ultimate goal, reinforcing the notion that intense, immediate attraction is a sign of true love. Think of the movie “Sleepless in Seattle.” It begins with Annie falling in love with Sam from simply hearing him on the radio. Annie ends up leaving her fiance, using company money to fly across the country and remain even more convinced he is her soulmate after seeing him across the street.

A therapist’s take on love at first sight 

Undoubtedly, this narrative can feel whimsical and sensational. Yet, it can be potentially dangerous because it can lead to unrealistic expectations and impulsive decision-making in relationships. It also overlooks the importance of building a relationship on a strong foundation of trust, compatibility, and mutual respect. Healthy relationships often require patience, communication, and shared experiences to flourish.

Toxic movie message #4: Sacrifice over self-care

Movies frequently portray grand gestures of sacrifice as proof of love, with characters willing to give up everything for their partner. An example of this can be found in “Lord of the Rings.” Aragorn, a human, falls in love with Aerwen, an immortal Elf-maiden. The two decide to marry, and by doing so, Aerwen gives up her Elvish immortality. Aragorn ends up dying after the war, and Aerwen dies shortly after from a broken heart instead of traveling to the Undying lands with her people. While this is an extreme example, it makes the point.

A therapist’s take on sacrifice over self-care

While compromise is essential in any relationship, sacrificing your own well-being or values for the sake of love can lead to resentment and imbalance. Healthy relationships prioritize mutual support and respect for each other’s needs and boundaries.

Toxic movie message #5: The jealousy conundrum

Jealousy is a common theme in romantic movies, often portrayed as a sign of deep passion or devotion. In the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian is so jealous and possessive of Anastasia that he becomes obsessed with knowing her whereabouts and keeping tabs on her by buying the company she works at. Christian tells Anastasia, “You’re mine. All mine. Understand?”

A therapist’s take on sacrifice over jealousy conundrum

Unchecked jealousy can quickly escalate into possessiveness, control, and emotional manipulation. It’s crucial to recognize that jealousy is not synonymous with love — it can erode trust and intimacy in a relationship.

The end is not always “better together.”

Sometimes, thoughtfully ending the relationship is the happy ending. Other times, taking stock of each other’s needs can ensure a healthy relationship.

As viewers, it’s essential to approach romantic movies with a critical eye and recognize the difference between fantasy and reality. While these films can provide entertainment and inspiration, they should not be blueprints for healthy relationships. 

Challenging toxic relationship messages in popular media can help you cultivate a more realistic and empowering understanding of love and partnership. As therapists, we aim to help individuals navigate these complex dynamics and build fulfilling, respectful relationships based on mutual trust, communication, and self-love.

Our practice offers in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.