In the movie Avatar, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) takes a spaceship to the planet Pandora where he joins an exploration program that is part scientific experiment and part military reconnaissance. He takes on the form of a native Na’vi creature, infiltrates a Na’vi society, and relays information back to a military commander. The story gets complicated, however, when he falls in love with a Na’vi woman, Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana), and he gradually comes to appreciate the value of Na’vi culture. Eventually, Jake and Neytiri join together as partners. Their happiness is cut short, though, when Neytiri learns about Jake’s secret military connections. Neytiri feels betrayed and becomes furious. Thus, Jake and Neytiri find themselves embroiled in a severe relationship conflict.
By analyzing how a couple handles conflict, we can make a prediction about whether their relationship is likely to survive. To analyze the conflict between Jake and Neytiri, the first step is to identify Neytiri’s underlying concern. What is the real reason that she felt upset? What is the true reason for this conflict? In this case, Neytiri’s underlying concern would most likely be a “perceived neglect.” A perceived neglect is a basic underlying concern that occurs when a person believes that his or her partner has failed to show a desired level of commitment in the relationship, which can include anything from dishonesty to forgetting to take out the trash. In the movie, Jake kept secrets about his military connections. Neytiri interpreted this as indicating a lack of commitment and sincerity on his part. Lashing out in anger, Neytiri rejects Jake, and leaves him to die.
In many ways, Neytiri’s hostility, here, is mismatched with her true underlying concern. Although, on the outside, she is hostile and adversarial, it is likely that, deep down, she feels sad and hurt. If she is feeling sad and hurt, she probably has a yearning for comfort and wishes she could trust Jake. What she really desires, then, is a type of closeness and safety that can be found only in an honest relationship. But, Neytiri could not see past her anger to recognize what she truly felt and wanted. She was hostile instead of sad. This is a common type of protective response people use to maintain a sense of being strong and self-sufficient. If Neytiri had expressed her feelings of sadness, she would have risked appearing weak and needy, and this was a risk that she was apparently not willing or not able to take. So, although Neytiri’s expression of anger did not match her underlying concern, her anger makes psychological sense.
As can happen only in the movies, Jake’s response to Neytiri was somewhat unrealistic. Specifically, it was surprising that he did not become angry himself. In real life, it would have been normal for Jake to feel threatened by Neytiri’s hostility, and for Jake to launch a defensive counter attack. In a typical conflict, a person in Jake’s situation would have accused Neytiri of overreacting and blamed her for having a judgmental attitude that only contributed to problem. This would then make the conflict escalate, with each partner trading threats and accusations. Regardless of whether Neytiri’s anger was reasonable or justified, a normal person in Jake’s position would find it extremely difficult to see her viewpoint after receiving her hostile attack. If Jake were a real person, the most likely response would be for him to fight back.
But, perhaps because Jake was desperately seeking to save the Na’vi people from destruction, he did not become angry, and instead sought to fix the situation. He undertook an extremely dangerous mission in order to demonstrate his loyalty to Neytiri, to prove his worthiness as a partner, and to show his commitment to the Na’vi people. While this made for a compelling movie plot, in real life, it probably would have failed to resolve the conflict between Jake and Neytiri.
The problem, here, is that Jake’s decision to pursue a dangerous mission was entirely one-sided. Without any dialogue with Neytiri, Jake came to his own conclusion about what he thought Neytiri was feeling, and by himself, he made his own judgment about what would make her happy. But, without dialogue, true understanding cannot occur. Jake never learned from Neytiri about her sad and hurt feelings, or what it was that she most wanted from him. Likewise, Neytiri never learned from Jake why he kept secrets from her, or how he felt about it afterwards. Without this type of dialogue, Neytiri would be left with questions about why Jake undertook his dangerous mission. Was he sincere? Did he have ulterior motives? Would he ever keep secrets again? Did he really understand why she felt hurt? In real life, partners usually make conflicts worse when they make assumptions about what they think each other is feeling and wanting. To resolve conflicts, dialogue is necessary. Although this type of dialogue might not be good in an action movie, it is certainly important in real life relationships.
So, did Jake and Neytiri live happily ever after? If they were real people, it would probably depend on whether they made some changes in their relationship. Neytiri would need to express vulnerable emotions, and Jake would need to engage in two-way dialogue. Of course, because anything can happen in a movie, they probably lived happily ever after regardless.