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 to me as a social scientist, researchers have tried to assess the degree to which people buy into that way of thinking. Then they’ve looked at whether a “you-complete-me” mentality matters to people’s relationships or their feelings about their relationships.

For example, in a 2007 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. (Too bad they did not include lifelong single people.)

To get at the “you-complete-me” mentality (which they called “partner-centeredness”), they assessed the degree to which participants 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 you believe in the whole “you-complete-me” thing, that should protect you against loneliness, right? You are very partner-centered and you have a partner.

To find out, the authors looked at two different kinds of loneliness, social loneliness and emotional loneliness.

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 as less socially lonely.)

Emotional loneliness is a deeper form of loneliness. When the authors first introduced the term, they associated it with not having a romantic partner. Examples of items used to measure emotional loneliness are:

  • “I feel emptiness around me.”
  • “I often feel people let me down.”

Looking at the married people, were the ones who thought they would be incomplete without a partner especially unlikely to feel lonely? For emotional loneliness, the opposite was true: Married people with a “you-complete-me” mentality were more likely to feel emotionally lonely than married people who were not as partner-centered.

My first thought when I learned about that finding was that these are probably married people who are so preoccupied with their partner that they ignore everyone else. That strategy is risky, and leaves them feeling empty and let down. But the findings for social loneliness were not consistent with that explanation. Married people who are more partnered-centered are a little less likely to feel socially lonely.

In the study, married people in general (averaging across those who are and are not partner-centered) had smaller social support networks than divorced people did, especially if they were in their first marriage. 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, but married people who are partner-centered are not more socially lonely than married people who are not very partner-centered. They instead stand out for their high levels of emotional loneliness.

The authors could only guess as to why the partner-centered 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 they depend on their partners too much, and that makes 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, the divorced people, on the average, experienced more emotional loneliness than the married people, the married people 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.”

Less surprising was one other way in which some marriages leave couples vulnerable to loneliness.  Lots of relationship conflict, such as disagreements on small things (what to do for fun) and bigger things (money issues, whether to have children), is linked to loneliness. The more conflict there is in a marriage, the more likely the married people are to feel both emotionally lonely and socially lonely.

Photo by Jasper Hauser