What exactly is a relationship?

(This post contains spoilers for the movie Her. I recommend that you watch the movie first.)

If you can overlook the fact that Joaquin Phoenix has been styled to bear remarkable resemblance to an Indian man (for reasons unknown), the movie Her is terribly haunting – not the striking Indian man resemblance, but its exploration of the complex essence of a relationship.

What is a relationship?

The plot summary of the movie sounds quite ludicrous – how can someone fall in love with an operating system? But, you know, it often takes the most absurd to draw out the most unsettling but much needed realisation from us, the fragile fickle humans that we are, and to force us to question what we thought we knew.

It took being in a relationship with an operating system for Theodore (the main character of this poignant tale) to realise what went wrong in his relationship with his wife (who is all parts human).

One of the most haunting parts of the movie is that it is not set in a dystopian/utopian world where humans are so reliant on everything high tech that they are all dating computers. It is not all that unbelievable if you consider how most people nowadays have gotten so comfortable with staring at screens and communicating through the virtual realm and gotten so uncomfortable with dealing with blinking human eyes in real time. It is really not that preposterous to think about people falling in love with artificial intelligence anymore. These computers, put together by humans, and their minds, programmed by humans – I mean, is it really an impossibility for people to create something that people will fall in love with?

Something capable of making human-like responses that they will come to love so much that they would want to be in a relationship with it?

Something without the dramatic mess of human emotions that always seems to complicate all human-human relationships?

Theodore: Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?

Amy: Is it not a real relationship?

Theodore: I don’t know… What do you think?

Amy: I don’t know. I’m not in it.

What is a relationship?

Does it have to be human-human?

Can it be between one mind and another?

Why does it matter that if there is no body?

What good would it be for a body to have no mind? Would you have a relationship with a body that has no mind? No? So then why not just have the mind if that’s what essentially matters the most?

What is a relationship essentially?

Why do we constantly feel the need to have to justify our love?

Amy: I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.

Theodore falls out with Samantha, his operating system girlfriend, after he learns that she is not exclusively his. Possession and love. Companionship and love. Is love about owning your companionship?

Samantha: And I thought, why do I love you? …And then I felt everything in me just let go of everything I was holding onto so tightly and then it hit me that I don’t have an intellectual reason, I don’t need one. I trust myself, I trust my feelings. I’m not gonna try to be anything other than who I am anymore. And I hope you can accept that.

Should relationships be about the love or about the people?

Why do people continue being in relationships that make them feel like crap all the time?

Why do we continue to love people who repeatedly hurt us and treat us like crap?

Why does it seem so difficult to get people who are in mutually destructive relationships to get real! and get themselves out of harm’s way?

Theodore: You feel real to me, Samantha.

Is that enough? Is this in essence what falling in and out of love is merely about? That in those moments of being in whatever you are in, you are real and you feel real and that is all that matters. That is, until the high tapers off gradually and eventually and you spend days, months and years trying to chase back that feeling of how powerfully real it had once felt.

I think one of the most important reasons why Theodore was having all those problems with his relationships with other people was because of his deficient relationship with himself.

What do you want from me? Why are you doing this to me? Why are we making each other feel like shit all the time? The questions that people yell in agony at their partners when things begin to fall apart.

And then they have to break up and ask themselves, What do I want? Why am I doing this? Why am I feeling like shit?

What is in a relationship? Your body or your mind?

Can you dance without a body?

Will the piece of music always be enough?

Will you only accept a photograph?


2 thoughts on “What exactly is a relationship?

  1. It’s really about the individual like you rightly point out; a lot of people don’t have healthy relationships with themselves. I think for many, the reason why they get together with another person is because they want to feel validated. They like the idea of being around someone who wants them, who needs them. They crave the attention.

    I think the same applies to friendships, albeit to a lesser degree. I have a friend who constantly finds the need to share about himself, his experiences, and his thoughts. On the one hand, I appreciate the gesture because it means that I mean a lot to this friend of mine. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel he is simply trying too hard to prove himself, to validate himself, to make a point, to get my approval. As much as I like this friend, I really dislike how he talks about himself all the time, as if the world revolved around him. But of course, who am I to judge since I fall foul to the very thing I can’t stand.

    1. I think you’re right about the self-involved part… Sometimes I think one of the greatest faults of our generation with the comfortable lives we lead and the rights to pursue our aspirations, is that we have the inclination to become self-involved without first being self-possessed. In exchange for the heady pursuit of tangible achievements that provide reasons for others to validate us, the emphasis on proper character development is neglected.

      I can’t stand being around people like that too often too because I’m constantly trying to avoid everything too steeped in drama. But what does that say about us?

      I feel this slight sense of anxiety that echoes Theodore’s doubts – does an acutely avoidant nature imply that I’m not strong enough for a real relationship? Are we “defective” because we are overly defensive?

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