As any Westallen fan – and Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, and Todd Helbing themselves – will tell you, the relationship between Barry Allen and Iris West(-Allen) of The Flash is unique. In a medium that often values drama over strength, love triangles over mutual love and support, they stand apart. They are, indeed, a love story anyone would be lucky to have.
Theirs is also a multi-faceted type of love that has only deepened over the course of the show. In psychology, it is suggested there are seven types of love: philautia (self-love), philia (friendship), ludus (uncommitted love), agape (unselfish concern for the welfare of others), eros (passionate love), storge (parent/child love), and pragma (practical love). Those who love Westallen know well that they have embodied all seven.
Please be aware that, while Iris West may have a background in psychology, I do not. This is armchair analysis at best…but isn’t that what fandom is for?
Philautia – Self-Love
As the saying goes, you cannot love another until you learn to love yourself. For the most part, both Barry and Iris have (or have found) self-confidence. More often than not, they are aware of their capabilities and have faith in themselves to do what needs to be done.
But even the greatest of us have moments of self-doubt. This is where the seeds of the relationship that would truly become the “gold standard” were first planted. When either of them fall, the other is there to help pick them back up again. They have faith in each other when it is hard to find it for themselves.
This faith was established from the very start. Even before she was aware of his romantic feelings for her – or hers for him. Even before Barry became a leather-clad hero. Iris believed in Barry. She believed in his story when others dismissed it as the outlandish imagination of a grieving little boy. Without question, she believed in the impossible. And when Barry faltered, she strove to help him continue to believe in it, too.
It wasn’t just his story that she believed in. She believed in him. Unaware of his love for her, she encouraged him to find someone who would make him happy. Someone who would see him as she saw him – as the most amazing man in the world.
Of course, this faith isn’t one-sided. When Iris falters, Barry is there to remind her not to doubt herself. This was never more apparent in the Run Iris Run episode of season four. This episode finally addressed Iris’s feelings about her supposedly fated death in season three. She admitted that the previous year had shaken her self-confidence. But Barry never doubted her, and he stood by her. In the end, the experience renewed her self-confidence and reminded her of her purpose. While she enjoyed having Barry’s powers, she didn’t hesitate to give them back.
It is his destiny to save the world through superheroics, after all.
She has her own path.
Philia – Friendship and Shared Goodwill
When I was a young girl, I came across a box of letters that my great-grandparents had exchanged during their lives. Each letter was addressed the same: “To My Dearest Friend.” I have long felt that the truest love is based in the deepest friendship, and that is perfectly exemplified in Westallen’s relationship.
From the very first season, Barry and Iris have been each other’s “Dearest Friend.” Iris believed in Barry the man well before he became Flash the superhero. Her love for Barry gave her faith in the superhero, and she fought to bring that faith to the city. It is philia that made her determined to track Flash down. It was her friendship with him that compelled her to ask Flash to help Barry keep faith in the impossible.
Their romantic relationship is so strong, in fact, because it is rooted so fundamentally in friendship. Their love for each other was remarkable even before it became romantic. When Barry was contemplating creating Flashpoint at the end of season one, Iris encouraged him to do whatever it took to be happy. She knew that his actions would erase the world and life she knew. In a deleted scene, she mourned the relationship with him that she would no longer have. But her love for him, born of friendship, was more important. She was willing to lose the life she knew for him to finally find happiness.
Of course, Barry knew his love for Iris was romantic long before she would come to realize the same. However, his love for her was still based first and foremost in friendship. There is perhaps no better example of this than when he traveled back in time in season two’s Flash Back episode. While in the past, he recorded a message from Eddie, which he later gave to Iris to help give her closure.
She’d been grieving over Eddie’s death, unable and afraid to move on. With closure, she would be able to move on, but Barry knew that there was no guarantee she would move on with him. Indeed, at that point, he had no reason to believe she would choose to be with him, particularly since she had just told him that she’d been asked out on a date by another man. However, even knowing that Iris might choose to find her happiness with Scott – or with anyone else – Barry didn’t hesitate to get her the closure she needed. As Iris had chosen the year before, he chose her happiness over potentially his own. And, like with Iris, he did so out of true friendship. Not romantic love.
Ludus – Uncommitted Love
Barry and Iris have been committed to each other – first in friendship and then as romantic partners – since they first met. However, the love Barry and Iris share is notably much different than the love they have demonstrated in other romantic relationships.
Outside of her relationship with Barry, the most serious relationship Iris has had in the series was with Eddie Thawne in the first season. However, the fact that Eddie was more committed than she was in this relationship was a source of conflict from the beginning. Although she agreed to move in with him, her reaction upon seeing what looked like a box for an engagement ring was telling. And as Eddie himself later commented, there were always three people in the relationship – Eddie, Iris, and Barry. Iris had agreed to date Eddie when Barry was in a coma, and Barry remained a presence in the relationship from that point on.
Furthermore, while the show refers to Eddie as Iris’s fiancé, this is a bit of revisionist history. She never agreed to marry him, and, in fact, there was some doubt that she would. Certainly the newspaper from the future made it clear she wouldn’t. Eobard even tortured Eddie with the knowledge that he wouldn’t “get the girl.” In the end, Iris would choose Barry over him.
For Barry, the most serious relationship he had with anyone outside of Iris had to be with Patty. Patty was introduced in the second season as a time filler before the show moved forward with Westallen. While it didn’t last long, the relationship was described as a diversion for Barry. As someone outside of his life as the Flash, he could lose himself in his relationship with her for a while and forget about the losses and heartache that he’d suffered as a superhero to date.
I don’t know that what we saw on-screen mirrored this intent. However, there is no denying that Patty was more committed to Barry than he was to her. While she made it clear she was ready to go all in with him (she was, in fact, apparently willing to give up her dream if only he would ask her to stay), he was never willing to do the same. While he did care for Patty, in his own words, “She’s not Iris.”
He chose to continue lying to her, even though he’d learned the pitfalls of doing so the year before. He continued to lie, knowing that this could lead to losing her. And in the end, when Patty made it clear that she would stay for him if only he would choose her over the lies, he let her go. In fact, even once she knew the truth, he still let her go. He cared about her, but not enough to fully commit to her.
Iris and Barry may have loved other people, but their complete commitment to each other stands in stark contrast to their ludus – or uncommitted love in those relationships. Their other loves have been pale imitations of the love they have for each other. And it is their deep and abiding love and commitment to each other that sets this love apart and makes it something truly remarkable.
Agape – Selfless Love of Others
Barry and Iris are both heroes in their own right. It’s one of the reasons they are so good together. They are imperfect heroes, certainly, but both have good hearts and a tremendous capacity for good.
That they are both heroes who often put others before themselves is something we have seen play out time and again over the course of the show. As the Flash, Barry risks his life on behalf of the city on a regular basis. Similarly, Iris puts her life on the line in pursuit of the truth, in order to continue to bring hope to the city. She also displayed more concern for Caitlin’s predicament with Killer Frost than she did over Savitar’s threat on her own life in season three. Furthermore, when she gained Barry’s powers for an episode in season four, she didn’t hesitate to want to put those powers to good use. As Barry did week after week, she put her life on the line to unselfishly help others.
This is far from the only explanation of their selfless love for others. In season four’s Enter Flashtime, Barry believed that the situation was hopeless and there was nothing he would be able to do to stop a bomb from destroying the city. However, the thought of grabbing Iris (and the rest of his friends and loved ones) and leaving the city to its fate seemingly never crossed his mind. When he finally went to Iris and told her the situation, it didn’t seem to enter hers, either. They could have put their love for each other above their love for the rest of the people in the city. However, they did not do so. Instead of focusing on saving themselves, they both focused on how to save everyone. Because of that, they succeeded in doing so.
This is the hallmark of agape – the unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Of course, Barry and Iris are human, and as humans they are flawed. Their love is not always selfless. Barry has occasionally been selfish in his grief over his parents’ deaths. However, he also risks his life (and occasionally his freedom) week after week to try to do the right thing. In fact, he continues to fight although he has seen the newspaper from the future and knows well enough his life as a hero will one day lead to him making the ultimate sacrifice.
Iris, too, has seen the future headline and know where it seems their story will end. Yet she continues to stand by his side and fight alongside him. She knows the importance of what he does, and that he chooses to do it only makes her love him more. Granted, that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier for her to lose him as she has, time and time again. Her unselfish concern for others is occasionally outweighed by her selfish love for Barry – as his love for her sometimes outweighs his role as a hero.
Eros – Sexual or Passionate Love
Do Barry and Iris have eros – passionate, sexual love – for each other?
Yes. Yes they do.
Storge – Parent/Child Love
There’s not a great deal that we know about this next season of The Flash. But what little we do know suggests that we will get to see the Westallen explore storge, or familial love between parents and children this year. With the introduction of Nora West-Allen, the father/daughter dynamic will undoubtedly be explored. And while there is word that Nora’s relationship with Iris will be strained in the present, there is little doubt that we will see them come together as mother and child before season end. There is absolutely no doubt that, in the meantime, Iris and Barry will do absolutely anything it takes to help Nora and keep her safe.
And even though a relationship may be strained doesn’t mean there isn’t love there. I look forward to seeing that love between Barry, Iris, and Nora as they get to know each other and grow closer over the course of the season. I can only hope that, what we’ve heard from spoilers notwithstanding, that tension isn’t dragged out too long – and that Iris gets to be an equal part of this story, too.
Pragma – Practical Love
So what about the final kind of love: pragma? On the surface, a relationship in which sexual attraction takes a back seat to shared goals doesn’t sound that sexy or romantic. Or even necessarily that beautiful. However, in some ways, I think that this might be the most beautiful form of love.
As anyone who has spent a lifetime with another person will probably tell you, every day of a relationship isn’t roses and poetry. It isn’t always passion and romance. It isn’t even always seeing each other eye to eye. However, I think the various kinds of love described above lead to the enduring love of pragma.
Like eighty-year-olds who have been through a lot in their relationship and choose each other time and time again, pragma is the love that sustains a relationship for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, until death do we part. Pragma is the love that faces the absolute worst, the biggest trials and tribulations, and makes the choice to continue loving.
Barry and Iris have faced their share of troubles. Hell, they couldn’t even get through their own wedding without having to deal with Nazis from another world. And, as the unequivocal heart and soul of the show, there is no doubt that they will continue to face their share of troubles until the series’ end. But there is also no doubt that they will continue to choose each other. As they have time and time again in every world and every time.
Barry and Iris will always choose each other, no matter what. And that, really, is why their relationship is so unique. Beautiful. The kind of love anyone would be lucky to have.
The gold standard.
The Flash returns Tuesday, October 9, 2018 at 8/7c on The CW.