Best movie couples: which films portray healthy, romantic relationships? A therapist reveals all

Posted by for Film

There are a lot of films about love, but do any of Hollywood’s most famous movie couples actually show us what a healthy relationship really looks like? 

Jack and Rose, Allie and Noah, Johnny and Baby, Sandy and Danny – these are just some of the most iconic movie couples that spring to mind when we think of L-O-V-E.

For us romantics, it’s a brief snapshot of a couple’s unwavering passion for each other that we can escape in for an hour or two (whether that’s proving their love by building a house, ensuring nobody puts their beloved in the corner, or letting the other hog the door so they could survive a treacherous icy ocean).

But here’s the thing; there’s more to relationships than the “honeymoon period.” And none of our favourite romantic films ever seem to show those uneventful days that come later. You know, like the ones we’ve endured ourselves in lockdown purgatory, as we constantly ask our partner how their day was, despite fully knowing that it was, quite literally, the same as yesterday. 

But no matter how unrealistic we know it is, we can’t help but fall back on those same tried-and-tested romcoms.

“They play to our longings and desires for connection,” says psychologist, author and founder of The Village, Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari.

“They are also something we can all relate to – so many people are in love with the idea of a romantic relationship. When we are touched by a scenario in a film, we are actually in touch with a part in ourselves. It could be our dreams and longing or fears and losses, which might be in our awareness or unconsciously.”

The movie "Titanic", written and directed by James Cameron. Seen here from left, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack and Kate Winslet as Rose after the Titanic has sunk.
Are Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) a healthy representation of love at the movies?

Hoping for a ‘happily ever after’ certainly isn’t a bad thing, but I know my own favourite on-screen couples have skewed my own expectations of love… and not exactly in a healthy way.

I’m not alone in this, either; as Dr Ben-Ari says: “Even though a film can generate feelings of positivity, some might experience an ‘after-effect’ depending on what’s going on in their own life. 

“For example, a couple at the start of a relationship might be left feeling incredibly positive, whereas couples in an uncertain stage of their relationship might feel a sense of longing and sadness for the disparity between the film’s story and their reality.”

Working closely with Dr Ben-Ari, then, I decided to take a look back at some of those iconic Hollywood couples who many perceive to be epic examples of love.

Some definitely stand the test of time. Others, on closer inspection, have some issues.

The film couples who fall at the first hurdle:

Jack and Rose, Titanic 

Those of us who have seen Titanic enough times will argue there was space for Jack on that floating door. Which means he sacrificed himself unnecessarily for a holiday romance that had lasted just two days

That’s right; from the very moment that Jack saved Rose from jumping off the Titanic to the moment he freezes in the Atlantic Ocean, only a little over 48 hours has passed. Anyone else think it was already over for Rose?

Longevity rating: 1/5

Johnny and Baby, Dirty Dancing

Patrick Swayze (1952 - 2009) and Jennifer Grey star in the film 'Dirty Dancing', 1987
Nobody puts Baby in the corner (and nobody can convince me Dirty Dancing is a healthy representation of love, either!).

Johnny and Baby are from different walks of life who find themselves in the same place at the right time in Dirty Dancing. But, with a considerable age gap between them (and not much in common other than their dancing skills), it’s likely this love was never built to last outside of Kellerman’s.

Longevity rating: 2/5

Sandy and Danny, Grease 

She’s the ultimate good girl, and he’s the bad boy who just wants to get friendly down in the sand. Essentially, Sandy and Danny are complete polar opposites who spend the entire film trying to awkwardly impress each other and their peers. 

“These typical narratives often carry a deeper meaning to what we see on the surface,” says Dr Ben-Ari. 

“There are unconscious processes or agendas that cause opposites to attract for example, and those who are being pursued might not show any interest as a form of defence mechanism from past pain.”

Longevity rating: 2/5

Annette and Sebastian, Cruel Intentions

Yes, it’s another good girl/bad boy trope. 

In Cruel Intentions, Sebastian makes a bet with his scheming stepsister Katherine and winds up falling truly in love with his pure-as-a-dove prey, Annette. When his toxic masculinity finally gives way to vulnerability, though, it’s too late – and we wind up speeding towards the film’s tragic conclusion.

Longevity rating: 2/5

Josh and Cher, Clueless

Clueless is a full-on Monet: it all looks great from far away but up close-up it’s a mess. Personally, I swoon over any film with the ageless Paul Rudd, but when Cher’s true love ends up being his character – her eye-rolling, nit-picking stepbrother, Josh – it really is a case of “as if!”

Longevity rating: 2/5

Allie and Noah, The Notebook

Communication is a big deal in a relationship; if you don’t tell the other what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling, then how on earth are they supposed to know? 

Noah and Allie’s short-lived summer romance (which begins, as you’ll no doubt remember, with him blackmailing her into dating him) is heartbreakingly dragged out through the course of their entire lives, and all because neither of them could be bothered to sit down and have a proper conversation.

Longevity rating: 3/5

The film couples who are in it for the long haul

Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Lara Jean and Peter in To All The Boys I've Loved Before
To All The Boys I've Loved Before has completely redefined the romcom genre.

She’s the sweet outsider, he’s the cute popular jock: it’s a familiar story. Unlike Grease and The Notebook, though, these two don’t just take the time to get to know one another; they make sure they share the same core moral values, too. 

Better still? Even in these modern social media times, it’s an adorable love letter from Lara Jean to Peter Kavinsky that brings them together. Perfection.

Longevity rating: 4/5

Rosemary and Dill, Easy A 

Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play parents Rosemary and Dill in the classic 2010 film Easy A. They are, quite literally, the backbone of this delightful tale, and they show that mature love can be fun, caring and passionate – even while dealing with their daughter Olive’s slut-shaming drama. 

Longevity rating: 5/5

Monica and Quincy, Love And Basketball

Omar Epps and actress Sanaa Lathan on set of the New Line Cinema movie " Love & Basketball "
Monica and Quincy, of Love And Basketball fame, are a brilliant example of a healthy relationship.

Love And Basketball is a cult classic, with childhood sweethearts Monica and Quincy sharing an everlasting bond over the sport. A friendship turns into real love. And, yes, they make some mistakes along the way before finding the right time to be together. 

But, as director Gina Prince-Bythewood explains to Shadow And Act about the film’s iconic sex scene, the whole thing is hinged on the coupld’s respect for one another.

“When we did it, I was very specific about what I wanted it to be,” she said. “It’s a girl’s first time, Monica’s first time, I wanted it to be the fantasy…I kind of wanted to give a blueprint for boys and girls of what to expect. I wanted the reality of it. Sanaa [Lathan] and Omar [Epps] were so dope in that scene, so protective of each other. They just gave the realness, especially just the looks that they were giving each other that said so much, which added organic humor to it which I loved.”

Let’s just ignore that he was two weeks away from the wedding when Monica finally made her move, yeah?

Longevity rating: 4/5

Jim and Michelle, American Pie

Jim loses his virginity to Michelle after prom. She isn’t the porn star of his dreams, but she’s quirky, and human, and believable. And, while they may seem mismatched, they’re destined to make it down the altar. Band geek and goofball for the win!

Longevity rating: 5/5

Sarah and Derek, Save The Last Dance

When white ballet dancer Sarah ends up at a majority-Black high school, she meets Derek. The interracial couple go against the grain, much to the distaste of his friends and family, but – cringeworthy hip hop dancing scenes aside (“Let’s put that S-E-X in those H-I-P-S”) – they support each other’s dreams 100% and find love together. 

Longevity rating: 4/5

Erin and Garrett, Going The Distance

This film made me believe that, if you really love someone, you will spend hours talking on the phone to keep that long distance relationship going. I’m here, fresh from heartbreak, to tell you that isn’t the case. Going The Distance deals with the idea that you can’t physically touch someone else for months on end. And, while Erin and Garrett nearly don’t make it, after a time jump, a sensible cooling-off period, and a decision to relocate, true love wins. 

Longevity rating: 4.5/5

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