How the Olive Theory Defined Love and Balance for a New Generation

How the olive theory defines relationships

“Do you want my olives?”

I looked at my fiancé with new and loving eyes and exclaimed, “It’s the Olive Theory! We can get married now!”

Andrew, who has only just started the cult classic TV show, How I Met Your Mother, looked at me with an expression that clearly said, ‘My fiancée is insane, but whatever, she’s taking my olives, so I’ll live with your crazy theories.”

While it might sound a little crazy and even be frowned upon to put the chances of your relationship’s success on the theory that one of you likes olives and the other hates them, it is a wonderful metaphor for a relationship in which the two of you balance each other out and shine where the other might take a step back. But again, we might be putting too much hope and reading too far into these small, black vegetables.

Either way, the Olive Theory and the episode where it’s introduced is an excellent representation of the hopes, meanings, and values we can often assign to somewhat asinine aspects of our lives when we’re in a relationship.

All this to say, I love the Olive Theory, and I live loosely by it. But I’m also very realistic and understand that the theory isn’t gospel; it’s just a little vegetable and what really matters is its representation.

What Is the Olive Theory?

Whether or not you’ve watched How I Met Your Mother and know of the Olive Theory saga, the base of the theory has some truth to it.

In the show, Lily and Marshall (the show’s most powerful and stable couple throughout the nine seasons) have seemingly pinned their hopes for their strong relationship on the fact that she likes olives and Marshall doesn’t.

Their opposing likes and dislikes of the vegetable are great, if not simplified, representations of the balance they provide to each other within their relationship.

However, as the pilot episode continues (yes, the writers told you Lily and Marshall were a little off their rockers first thing), the audience finds out that Marshall does, in fact, like olives The night he asked Lily to take his olives was a night that he didn’t necessarily want them. Still, he’s okay with them and will even ask for them off of other people’s plates when Lily’s not around.

Does this mean that the seemingly most stable relationship in the show (which isn’t saying much, but it’s still) is based on a lie? Should Lily and Marshall not get married? Is the Olive Theory all a shamble? Is love dead?

I don’t think so. I would rather interpret this Olive Theory shamble as something that also happens in a relationship and is just as important.

How I Met Your Mother never backs down from an opportunity to teach a lesson or allude to something greater than what it looks like on the surface. The Olive Theory is the perfect first representation of that.

Here’s the breakdown of the Olive Theory and its importance.

The Olive Theory was extremely important to Lily. She needed something tangible to point to and say, ‘Look, we’re meant to be together! We’re a great match.’ All of the characters in How I Met Your Mother represent very human traits. Lily’s feature that comes up repeatedly is that she’s insecure and lacks confidence in herself and her decisions.

Marshall doesn’t share that trait with her. He’s secure in their relationship and knows that creating a little white lie won’t make his faith in the relationship plummet. So he lies and agrees with Lily that they are a perfect match because of the Olive Theory when really, he knows they’re a perfect match without the help of the Olive Theory.

The two juxtaposing sides in this scene and episode prove that the Olive Theory is correct, but it was never about olives.

How the Olive Theory Applies to Relationships

No matter what, there will always be a level of completion people want to feel when they meet their person. While you are your own person apart from your partner, and you will never be completed by someone else, you do want a bit of balance that can only come when your partner is a little different than you and fills in some gaps that you have.

Whether that opposition is found in your partner eating the food you don’t like off of your plate or you being the listener while your partner is the doer, it’s imperative to a healthy relationship to have some ways in which the two of you differ.

Whatever you feel needs the most balance in your life, when you meet someone who seems to balance you out, there’s a sense of magic and completion for the two of you.

While it might sound a bit bonkers, 58% of readers surveyed about the theory said that the Olive Theory holds some merit, even if it’s not necessarily all about an olive.

One reader said,

“I think a couple makes up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Like I am anxious [about] traveling but my husband is calm and collected. I love salty, he loves sweets. He loves olives, but I don’t!”

Another said,

“I believe you find a partner that compliments you in all aspects. So you don’t always have to be opposite, but you never wanna always be identical.”

These people are the die-hard believers in the Olive Theory and all that a small bit of difference can make in your relationship. Yes, even people who aren’t fans of How I Met Your Mother can sometimes unconsciously drift into finding signs that their relationship is stable and healthy, even if they’re not as fact-based as you might hope they are.

When you’re looking for your future partner, one who will last, you want to find a balance between someone who is like you and compliments you in the ways that matter. You also want to avoid dating your carbon copy and finding someone like you in every way.

Enter the Olive Theory. Marshall and Lily agreed on the big things in life without being the same person. But they were seemingly the opposite when it came to small things that made life easier, like liking olives.

The Olive Theory doesn’t say or suggest that you find someone who is nothing like you in every way in hopes that you’ll eventually balance each other out; we do suggest you find someone who balances out your little things in life so that together, you can become a well-rounded and fully balanced couple.

In the end, if you wanted to date your twin or someone who agreed with you on everything you ever said, you would hate your life. Sometimes I look at my fiancé and say something like, ‘If your brain worked like mine, this would be so much easier.’ But on the other hand, he’ll often look at me and counter that by saying, ‘If my brain worked like yours, the world would be on fire and we would be in the corner shaking from anxiety.’

Too true.

I genuinely believe that my partner and I balance each other out almost perfectly on the big things and the little things. While it doesn’t always make it easy for me to accept that he wants to take things slow and enjoy life, he provides a different perspective and constantly teaches me. I do the same for him when I give him a metaphorical kick in the pants to get up and get working.

The Olive Theory manifests itself in different ways and versions in your relationship. You might shower in the morning and your partner might shower at night — the perfect balance! You might be the clean one in the relationship and your partner might be the cook — that makes chores easy!

If you want to get deeper about it, my fiancé and I just had a long conversation because I’m the logical one in the relationship, and he’s the romantic one.

While the bigger and less trivial the oppositions get, the more likely it is that the two of you might have to have open and honest conversations about what works and doesn’t work, it also gives you a chance to know them better and love them on a deeper and more personal level when you try to see the world through their side.

Reframing the Olive Theory

If you’ve based your relationship on the fact that one of you likes olives while the other hates them, consider skipping this section. Don’t worry; we’re not going to say anything bad about the theory (remember, I am also an Olive Theory lover). Still, I also want to say that it doesn’t matter in a way.

Do you love your partner? Do you get along with them? Do you feel balanced by them? Do they make you feel safe? These are the more essential questions to ask before you dive off the deep end about olives.

While we love the representation that the Olive Theory provides us, it’s not imperative that one of you has to like everything the other person dislikes for your relationship to thrive.

I have an ex who referred to me as his puzzle piece. We were the opposite in every single way and disagreed on almost anything. Where I was soft, he was hard. Where I was anxious, he was decisive. Where I was a normal human being, he was an insane monster. But that’s not the story of this article.

I later reflected on the puzzle piece theory and statement and thought through how it made me feel when he called me that. When you look at a puzzle piece, most of them have a hole. That’s where the other piece connects to them and that’s usually how you can categorize them. Out of the loss, need, and emptiness, something comes in and connects to you and ‘completes’ you. But I’ve also done a fair few puzzles in my life. And I have jammed a number of pieces into holes that were not made for them. This just got graphic; it’s not about that.

The point is, while he might have thought that I completed him and I was his polar opposite, we approached that relationship from feelings of incompletion and need. We needed each other to fill our empty selves. We didn’t feel as though the two of us as separate, strong, and independent entities would be enough, but together, we felt whole. But something people don’t tell you is that two broken halves don’t make a whole. Two pieces of a puzzle only provide part of the picture. You still have to fill out the rest of the puzzle.

Now, on the theme of olives, when you look at those vegetables, they also have a hole in them. The only difference is that that hole is already filled. You can have two olives, but their being together doesn’t accentuate their brokenness or rely on it whatsoever.

Stay with me here.

When you look at someone through the lens of how they can complete you and how their oppositions will fill a hole in your life, you’re approaching your love life and your search for a partner from a place of lack and a place of need. And that’s not where or how you want to begin your relationship. You don’t want to need your person; you want to want your person. The need will run out, but the want won’t.

When you begin a relationship, you want to be a whole human without the person. Otherwise, you can breed feelings of need, codependency, and inadequacy.

And thus, the Olive Theory presents a healthy and balanced way to approach someone different from you, but not someone who necessarily completes you. You don’t need a person to complete you. You want a person who compliments you.

What the Olive Theory Really Means

Shockingly, this article isn’t about olives at all; it’s about compromise.

While Marshall lying about not liking olives might have been the catalyst to a fight that would never have happened if he had been honest in the first place, we need to give credit to Marshall. He said it best; while he does love olives, he tells his friend that he could hate them so that Lily could have more.

While this isn’t the kismet or organic opposites attract relationship we might have all thought they had, Marshall knew that he needed to take a step back and allow Lily to have her olives and her Olive Theory. This in and of itself provided the balance and the love that could have only come from two different people who were entirely whole on their own, coming together to create a balanced and loving relationship. And by not being like Lily and not needing that validation, he proved that they balanced each other out just fine on their own.

While it is good to have a substantial amount of balance in your likes and dislikes in a relationship, the heart of the matter of the Olive Theory is all about what you’re willing to compromise on within your relationships. Is it worth it to like your olives a little less than your partner does in order to let them enjoy olives? We think it is.

Abigail Langton
Abigail Langton

Abigail Langton spends her time deep diving into the facts readers want to know about current dating apps online. You'll find her breaking down the latest price points and how to stay secure dating online.