Marie and Eric had once been what Marie considered to be a fairy-tale love story. It was romantic, it was exciting, and most of all, it was the kind of relationship she was confident would endure forever. They went out to romantic dinners, they went dancing, Eric surprised her with presents. They made passionate love.
That was then. Marie and Eric got married, moved in together, took jobs. In just two years, the exciting fairy tale had become, for Marie, an excruciating bore. They did nothing except work, eat, and sleep, and, when they could find time, pretend to make love. No romantic dinners, no dancing, and the presents weren't worth remembering. How could their fairy tale have become so mind-numbingly dull?
Is there anyone, really, who did not grow up listening to, and possibly reading fairy tales—at least, at one time or another? We all did.
Some of the fairy tales, such as Cinderella, have happy-ever-after endings. Others do not.
The original version of Snow White, for example, had a rather gruesome ending. The evil queen was made to dance in a pair of red-hot dancing shoes until she fell over dead! I’m glad that is not the version I read to our children!
The happy ending in fairy tales (and in real life!) is likely a short-term ending
But how happy are happy endings, really? Anne Beall wrote a great book, Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After, in which she argued that the Cinderella tale was extremely unlikely to end up happily if Cinderella found herself, essentially, a trophy wife in a palace living without any greater purpose to her existence. (Disclosure: Anne Beall was my doctoral student at Yale many years ago, and has since been a huge success as a author and businesswoman.)
Of course, we do not know what happened to Cinderella in the long run, and probably won’t, since she never really existed. But we all know how, in our lives, seeming fairy tales can take a turn for the worse and become something much less than everlastingly joyous.
Those of us who are old enough remember what happened to Princess Diana. Her fairy-tale existence totally crumbled. More recently, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry’s wife, likely also found the royal life a lot less joyful than she had bargained for. We have seen in real life how fairy tales sometimes go bad!
There CAN be a happy ending for you!
Can princes and princesses, or anyone else like you, actually live “happily ever after”? I believe we can.
But for that to happen, we have to face one inescapable fact.
What makes a happy ending possible?
1. Understand that the components of love are dynamic
Love is always dynamic, and its course is not entirely predictable because its components—intimacy, passion, and commitment—are constantly in flux and in not entirely predictable ways.
A fairy tale only can survive “happily ever after” if the couple recognize the dynamism of love and adjust their expectations accordingly: The fairy tale they live is almost certainly not the fairy tale they imagined.
It may sound like “adjusting expectations” is always adjusting down, but that is not the case.
For example, the kind of passion one or both members of a couple experience early in their relationship is not likely to continue—it depends on levels of novelty, unpredictability, and intermittent reinforcement (sometimes being rewarded, sometimes not) that are unlikely to be sustainable.
But passion can take different forms at different times. For example, many parents love their children passionately, and that passion sustains itself over time.
The passion is not sexual, but it nevertheless may be physiologically arousing, just not in a sexual way. The same can occur with an intimate partner.
One can continue to love one’s partner in a passionate way, if not necessarily with the same kind of sexual intensity that existed in the earlier days of the relationship.
You can continue to find the prospect of life without your partner unimaginable, even if you do not think of your partner in quite the same way as you did the day you got married.
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2. Create a love story for yourself that's flexible
Another factor that influences your happiness in your relationship is the love stories that both you and your partner have.
Throughout our life, we create stories that make sense, for us, of the love we experience. Love stories always have a beginning, a middle, and often, an ending.
Good and successful stories are flexible. They adjust to the times. Take the travel story, for example. Two people are traveling together on a relationship journey.
The journey potentially throws all kinds of obstacles in their way, and their respective paths may diverge. Will they get back together on the same path? This is a durable story—it can last a lifetime.
Now consider, instead, the art story. One partner is intensely attracted to the sheer physical beauty of the other partner. Can the story last?
Sure, if one the partner who is the artwork fails to age (not likely!), is extremely good at applying makeup, or if the admiring partner goes blind.
On average, though, art stories are not sustainable. They usually need to be replaced, or at least redefined, for example, as seeing the partner as a work of art inside rather than merely outside.
Similarly, horror/abuse stories are hard to sustain, even if both people have the story, because in order to keep up the excitement of the story, the level of abuse usually keeps rising, until it becomes unsustainable, no matter what either partner originally wanted.
Likewise, pornography stories are hard to sustain: There is not much pornography prominently featuring seniors (although I imagine there must be some—there seems to be something for everyone!).
Is a fairy tale story sustainable? I believe it is, and I believe Cinderella could have lived with her prince, happily ever after. But they would have had to change their story to reflect the changes in the circumstances of their lives.
So, the question always is not just what story or stories you have, but how flexible you can be in re-creating them to fit the circumstances.
And people who are flexible just are more likely to be happy over the long term, because they realize that love is not stuck in time and space: Part of its excitement and its joy is that it is always changing and waiting for us to rise up to its challenges.
What does this mean for you?
It means: Be flexible! Whatever you once expected for your love may well not be what you get.
What you get will almost certainly be different. If it's bad, well, then a course correction in your life may be in order.
But "different" is not necessarily bad.
If your love is not quite what you expected, can you find enough positive things in it not only for it to be satisfactory, but for it to be positive and ultimately rewarding?
Can you list the things that really have worked whether or not they are what you expected ?
Give it a try, and you may find that "different" can be just as good as or better than what you expected.