The Myth of Happily Ever After
Probe's Sue Bohlin writes that happy marriages ARE possible, but only when couples overcome these four common myths so many believe about marriage.
Happily Ever After
The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana was one of the most-watched romantic real-life events of the twentieth century. Between the legitimate longings of our hearts, and the way the Disney empire has fed our romantic fantasies for fairy tales, we are captivated by storybook romance.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who presided at the royal wedding, gave a marvelous sermon that day. In it he said, "Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made, the prince and princess on their wedding day. But fairy tales usually end at this point with the simple phrase, 'They lived happily ever after.' This may be because fairy tales regard marriage as an anticlimax after the romance of courtship. This is not the Christian view. Our faith sees the wedding day not as a place of arrival but the place where the adventure begins."1
The divorce rate in our culture is at an all-time high. Whatever happened to "happily ever after"? Why is it so hard to maintain the hopes and dreams that surround a beautiful wedding with all its promises of love and fidelity, sacrifice and service?
Marriage counselors Les and Leslie Parrott have an idea.
In their excellent book Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, they suggest four myths that have torpedoed many marriages because of unrealistic expectations and misconceptions about what marriage should be. In what follows, we’ll look at four marriage myths that are the most harmful and most common:
• We expect exactly the same things from marriage.
• Everything good in our marriage will get better.
• Everything bad in my life will disappear.
• My spouse will make me whole.
"For too long," the Parrotts write, "marriage has been saddled with unrealistic expectation and misguided assumptions. Liberated from these four myths, couples can settle into the real world of marriage—with all its joys and sorrows, passion and pain."2
Many people know that something is wrong but they don’t know what; and you can’t fix or change something if you don’t know what’s wrong in the first place. Many of our marriage problems are due to harmful expectations and beliefs that fly in the face of "real reality." One divorce lawyer told the Parrotts that the number-one reason people split up is that they "refuse to accept the fact that they are married to a human being."3 In this article we bust the myth of "happily ever after."
Myth #1: "We Expect Exactly the Same Things From Marriage"
When people are in love, it’s easy to assume that the other person has the same values and expectations as we do. But every family has its own culture, so to speak, and we tend to expect life will continue the same way once we’re adults as it was while we were growing up. One way these differing expectations play out is in the unspoken rules of each family.
We are usually not aware of our unspoken rules and expectations until the other person violates them. I recently heard a great word of wisdom: "Expectations are the mother of resentments." How true is that?! When our spouse doesn’t live up to our unspoken expectations, we can feel frustrated and irritated, and often we don’t even know why we’re upset because we don’t know what’s wrong. It’s helpful to think through "the rules" of one’s family so that unspoken rules and expectations are brought out into the light of examination. Here are some rules from various families:
• Don’t ask for help unless you’re desperate.
• Downplay your successes.
• Be invisible.
• Get someone else to do the hard or dirty work.
• Don’t get sick.
• Never get angry.
• Don’t talk about your body.
• Don’t go to bed without cleaning the kitchen.
• Don’t talk about your feelings.
• Never order dessert at a restaurant.
• Don’t ever upset Daddy.
Can you see how these unspoken rules can cause havoc if a spouse doesn’t know about them?
Another source of mismatched expectations is the unconscious roles that spouses fall into, the way an actor follows a script. We inherit expectations about how wives and husbands act by watching our parents and other adults, and we often play out those roles the same way unless we choose to change it. For example, one new husband surprised his wife at dinner by picking up his empty iced tea glass and tinkling the ice cubes. His father had always signaled this way to his mother that he was ready for more tea. The bride was not pleased to learn that her husband expected to play the role of pampered king whose every whim was gladly granted!
The myth that "we expect exactly the same things from marriage" is busted by identifying and talking about unspoken expectations and unconscious roles. The more openly couples discuss their differing expectations, the more likely they are to create a vision of marriage that they can agree on.
Myth #2: "Everything Good in Our Relationship Will Get Better"
Most people, when they fall in love, really believe their love will last forever because it’s so intense and intoxicating. It’s hard not to believe that everything good about the relationship will just continue to get better and better as time goes on. But reality "is that not everything gets better. Many things improve in relationships, but some things become more difficult. Every successful marriage requires necessary losses, and in choosing to marry, you inevitably go through a mourning process."4
For some, marriage means giving up childhood. It means giving up the safety and security of being your parents’ child, and becoming a full-fledged adult. God makes this statement in Genesis 2:24 when He says, " For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Marriage means the end of childhood, and that can feel like a loss to be mourned.
Marriage also "means giving up a carefree lifestyle and coming to terms with new limits. It means unexpected inconveniences."5 Marriage means always passing one’s plans and choices through the filter of "us." Since "the two become one," many of our even mundane life choices impact someone else. That can feel like a loss to be faced, as well.
The Parrotts write, "By far the most dramatic loss experienced in a new marriage is the idealized image you have of your partner. This was the toughest myth we encountered in our marriage. Each of us had an airbrushed mental picture of who the other was. But eventually, married life asked us to look reality square in the face and reckon with the fact that we did not marry the person we thought we did."6
It is an illusion that the intense romantic thrill of the beginning of a relationship will last forever. "Debunking the myth of eternal romance will do more than just about anything to help . . . build a lifelong happy marriage."7 When we get past the myth of continual bliss with a perfect partner, we can embrace the reality that we married another flawed and fallen human being. This is good news, because God only gives grace for reality, nor for illusion or temporary enchantment. And this is good news because intimacy is only available with a real person, not with an idealized image.
Myth #3: "Everything Bad in My Life Will Disappear"
Remember the story of Cinderella? A poor, mistreated stepchild who is forced to serve her wicked stepfamily is magically turned into a beautiful princess. She is rescued by her Prince Charming and they live . . . all together now . . . "happily ever after." And don’t we all long for a Prince Charming or a beautiful princess to make us happy and wipe away every tear from our eyes?
The myth of a "happily ever after" life is a legitimate longing of our hearts. We ache to return to Eden where everything bad in our lives will disappear. God promises that He will eventually make all things right again, but it doesn’t happen in marriage between two fallen human beings living in a fallen world.
Marriage is a glorious institution invented by God, but it "does not erase personal pain or eliminate loneliness. Why? Because people get married primarily to further their own well-being, not to take care of their partners’ needs. The bad traits and feelings you carried around before you were married remain with you as you leave the wedding chapel. A marriage certificate is not a magical glass slipper."8
The Parrotts write, "Getting married cannot instantly cure all our ills, but marriage can become a powerful healing agent over time. If you are patient, marriage can help you overcome even some of the toughest of tribulations."9 Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the amazing power of love. I believe God’s love is the strongest healing agent in the universe. In marriage, He can love us through our spouses; He can be "Jesus with skin on" to each of us.
A healthy marriage can become a place to wrap up unfinished business from childhood and deal with unresolved hurts. God showed me this truth personally. I had experienced a great deal of rejection in relationships before I met my husband. He told me that we were married ten years before he could say the words, "I need to talk to you about something" and I wouldn’t automatically wince and pull back in fear. Over time, Ray’s faithful love and acceptance of me healed the rejection wounds.
It’s a myth that everything bad in our lives will disappear when we say "I do," but God’s grace is bigger than the myth. We still live in a fallen world with a fallen spouse, but God can bring much grace through mutual love.
Myth #4: "My Spouse Will Make Me Whole"
One of the greatest lines in all of movie history belongs to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire where he tells his wife, "You complete me." It is romantic and feels emotionally satisfying—but in reality, it’s just not true.
Couples who swallow the myth that their spouse will make them whole are in danger of going to one of two extremes. One is an unhealthy dependence on the other that the Parrotts term an enmeshed relationship. They unconsciously make their partner completely responsible for their well-being. They are like ticks that constantly attempt to suck life and love and meaning from their spouse. It is a form of idolatry, because they are looking to their partner to provide emotional "living water" that only God can give.
The other extreme is a disengaged relationship of what the Parrotts call "rugged self-reliance." These spouses are so isolated and independent from each other that they function more like neighbors or business associates than a God-created union of two souls. The first kind of couple is looking for wholeness from their partner; the second kind of couple is looking for wholeness from within. It is also a form of idolatry, because they are looking to themselves instead of God to provide meaning for life.
Neither enmeshed nor disengaged relationships are healthy, and neither will allow the people in them to experience wholeness. A sense of wholeness is found in an interdependent relationship where two people with self-respect and dignity make a commitment to nurture their own spiritual and emotional growth as well as their partner’s.
Enmeshed relationships are like the capital letter A. They lean on each other so much that if one moves, the whole structure falls down. Their security is in another person instead of in God. Disengaged relationships are like the letter H. Partners stand virtually alone. If one lets go, the other hardly feels a thing. Interdependent relationships are like the letter M. They could stand on their own, but they choose to stay connected to the other out of their fullness, not out of their emptiness. If one lets go, the other feels a loss but can recover.
Every marriage is between two broken and fallen people who cannot make each other whole. We are called to love and respect each other, serve and celebrate each other—but only God can make us whole.
"Happily ever after" may be for fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a happy, rich, fulfilling marriage. But it’s only possible for those who live in reality, not in the fantasy of make-believe myths. May God give us grace to trust Him to walk in truth and not illusion.
© 2006 Probe Ministries
The original version of this article is found at www.probe.org/the-myth-of-happily-ever-after. Articles and answers on lots of topics at Probe.org.