Meet the Parents is a film that explores the weekend experiences and failings of protagonist Greg Focker, played by the actor Ben Stiller, as he attempts to win the affection of his girlfriend’s family. The film shows numerous relationships surrounding the family that serve, for the purposes of this paper, as a medium that highlights several theories central to interpersonal communication. The primary relationships of Meet the Parents are between Greg and his girlfriend Pam Byrnes (played by Teri Polo), Greg and Pam’s father Jack Byrnes (played by Robert De Niro), Pam and Jack, and then Jack and his wife Dina Byrnes (played by Blythe Danner). There are several other auxiliary relationships that will be mentioned below, but the film provides the most detail and information from which to draw interpersonal communication theories in the relationships mentioned above.
A little bit after the beginning of Meet the Parents, Greg travels with Pam from Chicago to meet Pam’s parents at Jack and Dina’s home in New York. Pam’s sister Deborah Byrnes is getting married at her childhood home that weekend, so the film provides the audience a great opportunity to see a strong mix of relationships. In that mix, and especially because Greg in the new guy in town, the audience gets to see different theories of relationship development. The different theories of relationship development offer individuals ideas and explanations for why certain individuals connect with others and why or how those individuals develop relationships. One of those theories in called the social penetration theory. The social penetration theory says that communication, especially self-disclosure, is the best way to develop strong relationships (Altman, 1973). That is to say that as people gradually increase the amount of information about themselves that they disclose to the other person in the relationship.
Typically, when self-disclosure is given to one person, that person then discloses information about himself or herself in return. A simpler way to describe that definition is through an example of a conversation on a first date. First dates, especially between strangers, provide the supreme platform for individuals to begin the social penetration theory arc. First dates provide the perfect environment for two individuals who want to know more information about the other to self-disclose information: “Where did you grow up?” or “What is your major?” or “What is your favorite food?” Social penetration theory puts forth the idea that as relationships develop, individuals in those relationship begin asking more penetrating (and more interesting) questions and conversations become deeper, which in turn leads to a stronger connection in the relationship.
Further, social penetration theory states that the breadth, depth, and frequency of these self-disclosures will increase as the relationship progresses. Meet the Parents provides many examples of social penetration theory. One of the first examples presented in the film is when Jack and Greg travel to the corner store together to “pick up” some “Tom Collins mix.” While in the car on the drive over, Jack asks Greg if he smokes marijuana. Greg is noticeably uncomfortable; he is in a position where he wants to impress his girlfriend’s father and is in fact hoping to ask him for Pam’s hand in marriage. Greg’s discomfort represents the taboo nature of the marijuana question at that stage in his relationship with Jack. The question requires too much self-disclosure.
The very same scenario also represents another relationship development theory: the uncertainty reduction theory. The uncertainty reduction theory argues that individuals in the relationship, especially early on, dedicate much of their effort to reducing the amount of uncertainty in the relationship (Alberts, 2015). If there is too much uncertainty perceived by the individual, then they will be less likely to want to continue interacting with the other person. In some cases, they will want to discontinue all future interaction. The uncertainty reduction theory best represents Jack’s character. Jack, a former CIA psychological interpreter, spends the majority of the film analyzing Greg and determining how much uncertainty Greg represents as a possible son-in-law.
Meet the Parents also gives the audience an excellent platform to examine the models of relationship development. These models provide a more in-depth look into how relationships develop. One model that aptly fits Meet the Parents is the turning point model. The turning point model theorizes that relationships are not linear. Sometimes individuals move towards each other and are on the same page and other times these individuals move away from their commitment to each other due to influential turning points. The best example of this from Meet the Parents is the relationship between Pam and Greg. At the beginning of the film, Greg and Pam are moving toward commitment together, specifically towards the possible commitment of marriage. However, by the end of the film, due to a number of comical and unfortunate “turning points” that center on Greg’s character, Pam and Greg begin questioning their relationship and Greg even in forced to surrender the weekend and leave Pam and her family in the middle of the night because of these “turning points” effects.
Pam and Greg’s relationship is also a great example of how individuals work to maintain a relationship despite obvious turning points. Over the course of the weekend, Greg broke Jack’s mother’s urn, lost Jack’s beloved cat, gave the Deborah a black eye on the day before her wedding, and burned the whittled wood alter to a crisp (among other things). As Pam fought her family’s disapproval of Greg, the relationship slowly fell apart. However, during the fallout, there were numerous scenes that showed Greg and Pam talking things through. Despite so many unfortunate events, the two were attempting to maintain their 10-month relationship. Eventually, the relationship was saved and Greg confronted Jack and professed that his love for Pam was the reason he tried so hard throughout the film.
Meet the Parents is a great look into the various aspects of relationship development and interpersonal communication. The film provides depth to its relationship and its characters, which makes analyzing it very easy. That is simply the product of good Hollywood writing. Meet the Parents also shows that it is very important in budding relationships to be honest, open, and to consider the knowledge gained from learning about relationship theories in mind when interacting with others.