How our expectations about marriage can ruin our happiness
Like many people reading this article, I grew up watching a variety of family-friendly entertainment. Just about everyone under the age of 80 has grown up having seen at least some of the classic Disney movies. Whether it was Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or another, they all had romance as a major theme in the story. Of course, Disney did not hold a monopoly on romantic stories. Take The Princess Bride, Shrek, or even The Matrix as more recent examples. And that says nothing of the ubiquitous romantic comedies that take our minds off our worries for two hours and give us a nice excuse to eat some popcorn. There is something so seductive about a nice romantic plot line to tug our hearts along.
What I’d like to point out is the way these types of stories shape our conceptions of what romance, and ultimately what marriages should be like. What I won’t focus on here is prescribed gender roles (see my earlier post on gender role strain for an interesting discussion around that), but something else. These stories give us the idea that there is a perfect someone out there, that if we just find them, the relationship will fall into place, and we can live our lives happily ever after.
This situation creates all sorts of problems for real people in real life. What we have is stories trying to entertain us or make us feel good instead of informing us about what life really has in store and how to navigate it. The stories typically end when the couple falls in love, or at the initial romantic period, or at the marriage ceremony. So there is this big void for what happens after. The truth is, there is no good cultural template of what a healthy marriage or relationship is supposed to look like.
In addition, when we encounter rough moments in our marriage, it changes how we respond to them. If we think that true love is a relationship where arguments don’t happen, we are going to be worried when we do disagree that we’re with the wrong person. Further, we are going to be disappointed in our partner because we think there should be some magical way for them to get along with us, and evaluate them more negatively for it. In short, the cultural template given to us repeatedly in movies and other stories sets up impossible standards.
The truth is, we are all hard to live with in some way. Disagreements are as inevitable as leaves falling off the trees every autumn. See, we grew up learning a way to think about things and a way to do things, and we weren’t required to agree with anyone else or go along with them in a relationship of co-equal autonomous adults. In some of these cases, it’s because we lived by ourselves and figured out what worked for us alone. In other cases, there are tasks we encounter, such as raising children, that we haven’t had to grapple with before and we don’t exactly know what the complete plan looks like in advance. The chances of finding someone with whom you agree on every significant thing in your life are statistically zero.
So how do we face the reality of relationships instead of the fiction literally sold to us at the box office? First, we should realize that going through life together is not easy. Disagreements aren’t necessarily caused by one person, but by the fact that you are trying to satisfy two people at the same time. Couples need to face the disagreement together as if they are one one team, and the disagreement is on the other team. Second, we should accept that there is no one right relationship for us, and that most of the time working towards making it better is the path to happiness. (That doesn’t mean that you should just settle for anyone though- it is certainly possible to be in a relationship that is truly unworkable, but that discussion is for another time.) And this is an ongoing project. It doesn’t end after a month, or a year.
One important thing that separates happy couples from unhappy ones is their ability to work through the inevitable disagreements, even ones where there is no solution where both people get all of what they want. These disagreements can range from what time you turn off the lights and go to bed, or what the preferred strategy for raising children to become decent human beings is, or it can be how do you manage each individual’s hopes and dreams for the future that don’t quite match up. This involves skills that can take a lot of practice, and certainly coaching from a couples therapist can help. I like to think of it sort of like soccer or basketball. There isn’t one simple trick to scoring. There are many skills that must be practiced and melded together, and sometimes people come into it while naturally good at some things but needing help with others.
We never got to see the Beast and Belle, or Wesley and Princess Buttercup after they started their lives together. One thing is for sure. They weren’t going to agree on everything. And they were going to argue about it. The real happily ever after depends on whether we can see that disagreeing with our life partner is going to happen, many times. And the question is, how do we navigate that while respecting them, respecting ourselves, and reaffirming the commitment to them. We only get one chance to go through life, and to a large extent we have to figure out how to do it as we go. Movies don’t give us the knowledge or tools to know how to keep a relationship together. But instead of sacrificing our relationship at the altar of the imaginary romantic ideal, if we go into it with much more realistic expectations, we have a much better shot at happiness.
For an engaging take on this issue, I heartily recommend the short novel The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, available wherever you get your books.