No, You Don't Complete Me

Donald Miller on what 'Jerry Maguire' got wrong about what it means to love.

When I was a kid I remember seeing the movie Jerry Maguire. There is a famous scene in the movie in which Jerry Maguire tells Dorothy Boyd that she completes him. That scene was all the rage back then and couples everywhere were saying it to each other in coffee shops and bars. Even I thought it was a beautiful sentiment. But now that I’m older and smarter, I have a new name for it: codependency.

I didn’t know anything about codependency before going a therapy group called Onsite. And even after I heard it defined, I didn’t realize I struggled with it myself, but I did. And it cost me relationship after relationship.

Codependency happens when too much of your sense of validation or security comes from somebody else. Now that I know what it is, I can spot it pretty easily. If somebody obsesses over whether another person likes them or returns an e-mail or whatever, it’s a symptom of codependency, though a mild one. Stalking would be a scarier version of the same tendency.

Three Pillows

I’ve a close friend who is a love addict. He goes from girl to girl ruining relationships by smothering them. What he doesn’t realize is that no amount of love any of those girls returns is going to heal the hole in his heart.

At Onsite, our group therapist created a terrific visual example of what a healthy relationship looks like. She put three pillows on the floor and asked a couple of us to stand on the pillows. She told us to leave the middle pillow open. She pointed at my pillow and said, “Don, that’s your pillow, that’s your life. The only person who gets to step on that pillow is you. Nobody else. That’s your territory, your soul.” Then she pointed at my friend’s pillow and told her that was her pillow, that she owned it and it was her soul. Then, the therapist said, the middle pillow symbolized the relationship.

Codependency happens when too much of your sense of validation or security comes from somebody else.

She said that both of us could step into the middle pillow any time we wanted because we’d agreed to be in a relationship. However, she said, at no point is it appro- priate to step on the other person’s pillow. What goes on in the other person’s soul is none of your business. All you’re responsible for is your soul, nobody else’s. Regarding the middle pillow, the question to ask is, “What do I want in a relationship?” If the pillow you two step on together works, that’s great. If not, move on or simply explain what you’d like life to feel like in the middle pillow and see if the other person wants that kind of relationship too. But never, she said, ever try to change each other. Know who you are and know what you want in a relationship, and give people the freedom to be themselves.

I wish I’d have heard that in my twenties. I can’t tell you how many girls’ pillows I’ve stomped on trying to get them to change. And the sleepless nights I’ve spent wondering what they were thinking or how much they liked me or whether I was a good enough man for them. A complete waste of time.

At one point, while working with our group therapist, I mentioned that if I did such and such a thing the girl I was seeing might think, blah blah blah. She stopped the session and asked me why I spent so much time wondering what other people were thinking.

“That’s going to drive you crazy, Don,” she said. “Just ask yourself if you’re happy and what you want in a relationship and that’s it. What’s going on in other people’s minds is none of your business.”

Suddenly I felt like a Peeping Tom of the soul, going through the neighborhood looking in the windows of people’s souls wondering what they were doing in there. And just like that, a habit I’d developed decades before felt creepy.

Holding Loosely

In a way, that's the difference between my relationship with Betsy and my relationships with all the other girls. Because I know which pillow is mine and which pillow is hers, I hold Betsy loosely. If she wants to leave she can go. I’m responsible for my own health and happiness, and I’m responsible to ask what I want in a relationship and to try to make the middle pillow comfortable and safe for her, but that’s it. Of course we will stand and make promises to each other at our wedding but even then, even with a spouse, I’ve come to believe a person’s love for you can’t grow unless you hold that person loosely.

I’ve come to believe a person’s love for you can’t grow unless you hold that person loosely.

And that feels good. Unlike every other girl I’ve dated, I’ve never wondered where Betsy was or who she was with. I’ve never looked at her phone, and I’ve never looked at her Facebook page. Her life is her life and mine is mine and what we have together is a relationship. And it’s great.

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I don’t want you to misunderstand me: I love Betsy more than any woman I’ve ever met and I believe I always will. But this is a healthy love, not the needy love I’ve experienced in the past. Before, I’d try to control whoever I loved so she couldn’t get away. Much of it was passive control, but it was there all the same. I used fear and guilt and shame to close my fingers around my girlfriend’s heart, and without exception I killed whatever love could have grown.

I now know there were two dominant influences that caused me to clench my fist. The first was the fact I was trying to use women to heal old wounds, and the second was the false assumption I could be made complete by any of these women in the first place.

From Scary Close by Donald Miller. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.

Top Comments

Christy Scott


Christy Scott replied to David Jeffrey's comment

I think the sense of one person completing another is not because we are incomplete without another person. We are complete through God alone, but we are like puzzle pieces. We are a whole piece, but our piece will fit with another, we go together. This can be any relationship, not jut a romantic one. That is the beauty of how we are made, another person should never complete us. We need to bring the best of our whole selves into a relationship or we risk losing who we are.



John commented…

Psychology calls it a fantasy bond - but keep in mind your partner might try and reach out to you, then try yet harder because you push love away. You make bids for your partners attention and hopefully they react positively. Sometimes you try and reach out to your partner in any possible way and the only way they react to love is by rejecting it and demanding it when it is absent. The hot/cold cycle kills a relationship. Independence is very important though, but so is intimacy, which can be shared activities, intellectual, spiritual, physical (affection) or sexual. So strike the balance right, too much of either kills a relationship.




Brett commented…

Some great and helpful points, Don. I love it when people are championing relationships as they do need so much help. Which is why i have been gathering some helpful resources on my blog which i love to share with people. i ran a series last year where people from different years of marriage gave one point of advice and so all in all it's like 45 years of marriage advice at your fingertips:

Hope some people here find it helpful
love brett fish



Lisa commented…

This is great except that in a courtship we all know the "right" answers to give about how the pillow in the middle should feel. Unfortunately, we all have hidden templates about marriage that will not surface until after the wedding. I have had 2 husbands, one from a different culture and another from a different class, that were educated like me, even shared friends, knew each other's families, even dated for 5+ years in one case. You would think they knew me, but once the marriage happened, one was dismayed that I did not operate like the perfect wife and mother from his culture, the other that I wanted more of a life and relationship than June Cleaver. I have NO IDEA where these guys got the idea that a spunky Italian American young woman with an engineering degree would suddenly shift and meet their unconscious expectations of "wife" when their ideas were not even mainstream. Neither one of them gave any indication that they would become so undermining and controlling later. I truly thought that I was going to be supported for who I am--I was even told as much. (I am a great mother of 3 by the way, stayed home by choice for 12 years--so this is not an argument that I wanted to be a feminist or nontraditional). How to cook and entertain, what communication and a sexual relationship should look like, what I should wear to a family gathering, whether I should have opinions about politics (which I did before marriage)--things like this became reasons to punish for me when I didn't suddenly adopt their unconscious template (without being asked to)--I had no idea WTH was going on. Somebody had to change--and it was the controlling one. The first marriage did not work out. The second one did once he began relating to me as myself and not June Cleaver. What these men were expecting was completely unreasonable for a third-generation, educated, middle class American woman--and I never pretended to be anything but that. Even their own sisters were not being expected these things in their own marriages. After the marriage, sometimes the "other pillow" needs to change if the marriage is going to stay together.

Mar Komus


Mar Komus commented…

God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." That helper wasn't his mommy or daddy. That helper wasn't his fishing buddy Steve. That helper wasn't his dog or his cat or his horse or mule. That helper wasn't even God himself--though Adam surely existed in perfect harmony with his Maker! That helper suitable was Eve. Yes, a woman does complete a man! And a man a woman. The codependent brand, of course, is off center. Eve should not take the place of God, but neither should God take the place of Eve.

Put another way, there is a woman-shaped hole in the heart of many men (and vice versa, though some are gifted single). We can try to fill that hole with drugs, porn, alcohol, a job, religion--or even God! But none of those things will do. God provided a means to fill that void.

Janey The Small


Janey The Small commented…

I'm happy to be single. I was divorced many years ago, and I find that there are many middle pillows (many relationship opportunities) and many people capable of emotional intimacy (friends). When people start adding a lot of rules to the relationship (other than faithfulness in marriage), you realize that marriage puts a damper on every other relationship in life.

When I was young, naive, and believed the Christian purity formula, I bought into the belief there would be mind-blowing sex and incredible closeness as long as we didn't have premarital sex and as long as my boyfriend asked for my dad's permission to date and marry.

I'm happy to be out of a miserable marriage. Happy to be single. I do more ministry, have more intimate friends, and give more to God's work. I have a far better spiritual life than I did as a married. I will probably choose to be single the rest of my life. Nothing is more lonely than a bad marriage.

lynda t


lynda t commented…

I'm kind of surprised at this article. I did get on the web and look at this Onsite. I'm sure in many respects it's very helpful, however it is not a Christian or Bible-based help. For Christians, we always need to be sure we keep the Bible the center. That middle pillow is not the 'step on when you feel like it' but is the Lord Jesus. And both my husband and I step on it. There is no pillow that is totally separate from each other. there is a difference between dating and marriage, and that difference is that there needs to be a complete separation. Because you should not be having the relationship that the Bible refers to as the two becoming one. So if I take this to the point of dating, from a Christian perspective, dating should be leading to the point of marriage. Not just a relationship, getting to know somebody, companionship, someone to watch a movie. But it is the foundation for finding out about the other person to seek a lifelong, full-time, 100% committed relationship to the other person. Marriage was not something God created to step in and out of. Marriage is a complete joining of the two. Our society has reached the point where divorce is no longer considered a sadness. But just another chapter in a persons life. Hey if you're dating somebody and it doesn't work, just walk away, if you marry somebody doesn't work, just walk away. Marriage is a commitment, not just legally binding, but spiritually and morally bonding. You need to know everything about this other person. Yes, get on their Facebook page, check her cell phone, if you are a Christian who is in a relationship with another Christian, and the two of you are considering taking the relationship towards marriage (your not just friends) then when you marry, there is no 'me'. Don't give me wrong, you have your own identity, but the scripture that says the two become one, it is very accurate. Everything you do impacts your spouse. Everything your spouse does impact you. What they post on Facebook, the websites they visit, the comments they make and the way they act when not around you. If this is a relationship that you were considering taking towards marriage, then there should be no secrets. Smothering is not allowing the other person to do what they want, or discouraging their own individuality.
Sorry, but I found this article (and it was an excerpt, so I willingly admit there may be more that gives a deeper or different insight) to be inaccurate from a Christian perspective. It seemed to push towards individuality; in other words, it's all about me, and I can't bring anyone else into it but me. I can't help but see this attitude as a starting point to being able to end a relationship without any fault or guilt or responsibility.

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