7 Myths of Happily Ever After...
“We’re newlyweds. We’ve only been married 38 years.” People laugh when we introduce ourselves that way and reply wistfully, “You’re lucky.”
Are we lucky? Or, have we just hung onto the matrimonial bond long enough to debunk the myths? Or, have we outrun the various inevitable storm surges that can erode away any solid foundation for building a lifetime of marital happiness?
To celebrate this Valentine’s Day, we offer you an assortment of myths to sample. Each of them, while perhaps tempting, is guaranteed to sour, if not poison, a marriage or long-term relationship. The selections were culled from friends and professionals, some of whom are both, and from our own experiences, both professionally and matrimonially.
And they lived happily ever after.
Our friend Robyn has been married to Rick for 24 years. They have the same number of Masters degrees as children (three of each). Robyn volunteered that her first marital myth was that she believed that when you said “I do,” you really would be happy from then on. “I really believed that,” she said with a still astonished look on her face. So do a lot of people. Couples therapist and author John W. Jacobs, MD, in his book All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage, would probably call Robyn’s belief “Lie No.1” about marriage: all you need is love. “The reality is that marital bliss is a myth. Unconditional love, necessary for babies and small children, doesn’t—and shouldn’t exist—between partners,” Jacobs declares emphatically.
If he really loved me, he’d know what I want. (Or, if I have to ask, it doesn’t count.)
Sorry, ladies, but this one seems to be more gender specific. Perhaps mind reading, our proof of true love, has its origins in Cinderella tales, where she just knows the Prince will come for her, glass slipper in hand. We were raised on these tales, how can we not be subliminally affected?
Regardless of the source, many women believe that if their men really love them, they will know how to please them without having to put it on a billboard—or leave shards of an impractical shoe behind.
But, would we hold anyone else to this standard? We wouldn’t walk into a restaurant, close the menu, confident that a really good waiter would know what we want. If we’re willing to yell to a complete stranger that we want an extremely specific “double-decaf-grande-low-fat-mocha-latte-shot-of-vanilla,” why are we hesitant to tell our beloveds how to please us?
Of course, love’s more complicated than coffee; we’ll live through a Starbucks disappointment. Emotionally intimate relationships aren’t commercial transactions. We may fear disappointment because it may pose as rejection or neglect. Sometimes the one we ask doesn’t listen or won’t give us what we want. But the myth is still a myth. Asking your beloved what he or she wants is a love letter in and of itself. It still counts, big time.
One imperfect person plus another makes a perfect relationship. (Also known as the law of alchemy,
turning base metal into gold.)
It’s sort of like, I’m Not OK. You’re Not OK. But together... We’re OK. It’s the “Both our mothers were crazy so we understand each other” myth.
This myth is a favorite of our friend, psychologist Susanna McMahon, author of The Portable Therapist. In her years of counseling, McMahon found that people who had similarly troubled backgrounds believed their shared sufferings could somehow help them both transcend their problems. Anything is possible, of course, but what almost always happens is that the relationship stays as dysfunctional as the individuals who are in it.
Being conscious of how we became the person we are and having empathy for others who have similarly suffered are both excellent states of maturity. But matching sets of dysfunctional families do not magically transform the relationship into a healthy one. There’s still work to be done, individually and as a couple.
Don’t go to bed angry.
This is a favorite of psychologist Dale Atkins, PhD, author of Sanity Savers. When you find yourself fuming as you’re lying in bed (or on the sofa), with your mind still battling out the argument that fell deathly silent four hours earlier, her advice is to let it go—just for the time being. Take it a step further by even trying to remember the positives about this impossible-childish-person-whom-you-happen-to-be-married-to-who’s-driving-you-nuts-right-now. “If you are that angry with somebody, you might not hear what they are saying anyway. It becomes unproductive (to keep trying to resolve it). Is there a problem if one of you sleeps on the couch? Well, it might be a problem if one of you doesn’t!
"A woman marries a man hoping he'll change. A man marries a woman, hoping she won't. Both will be disappointed if this is their expectation."
“As long as you are not running away, then you are all right. But if you need time to think, that’s one thing. If it becomes weeks at a time, it’s a problem.”
What Atkins is describing are patterns of handling anger. Some couples are woefully unskilled at arguing and, therefore, resolving conflicts. For them, the myth probably applies but is irrelevant. They aren’t figuring out how not to be angry with each other (or with life), and they have to go to bed sometime, making it inevitable, sadly, that their anger goes to bed, and wakes up, with them. But for those couples who have learned to handle conflict successfully, choosing to “sleep on it” is not always bad.
We don’t talk.
One friend of ours admitted, reluctantly, that her husband does talk to her but only about three things: “How much sex we’re having (or not), his work, and how to get the kids to listen to me.” Dr. Jacobs covers this myth in his “Lie #2: I talk all the time; my spouse just doesn’t listen.” Says Jacobs, “The reality is that most of us talk ourselves to death, but we actually communicate very poorly... Very few of us know how to speak or listen effectively.”
He goes on, “Even when spouses learn how to ‘communicate’ with each other effectively, they are often surprised to find that they have major differences that are difficult to resolve. So, improving communication alone is not the solution to most marital problems. It’s only the first step.”
We can learn much about the art of listening by watching any political debate. The candidates alternate between careful listening to what the others say and trampling over their opponents’ words to get their own points across. Good communication requires:
- not just faux-listening, but truly hearing what the other is saying,
- repeating it back for validation or confirmation,
- and then giving your own point, only after the other feels heard.
Sounds easy. It’s not. Give it a try and you’ll see why there’s a Myth No. 5.
He / she will change and people don’t really change.
This may look like a contradiction in terms, but both mythologies lead people down marital blind alleys. Basically, people are who they are all through their lives. Impulsive children tend to be impulsive grown-ups. Tender-hearted kindergarteners are usually involved in tender-hearted activities as adults. A geek stays a geek. Fastidious Felix and slovenly Oscar were the same Odd Couple on the Little League field. So, if you have any illusions of turning a man who likes to hang raccoon tails on his ranch porch into a man who likes to hang his Armani coat in a teak coat rack, forget it.
Having said that, life does shape us, and indeed changes us. Happy people can become severely depressed. Anyone can become disabled from war, illness, accident, or some other twist of fate. Genetic factors, known or unknown, can kick in to sabotage an individual’s mental health or relationship. Life... happens. Children bring stress as well as reward to a marriage, with all that their lives entail. Most of all, if we are fortunate enough to spend decades in the same relationship, we ourselves, will change and the relationship will change with it. Within each long marriage, there are actually many different marriages, each of which involves the same two people, who also are now different. A contradiction in terms, after all.
Once we’re together for life, the earth will move, fireworks will explode and we’ll make love every single night!
Do people really believe this one? (If they did, every comedian from the Borscht Belt to Comedy Central would be out of work.) But, in theory, sex should be less of a problem if you have someone you love and trust right there in the bed with you every night.
People have sex for a lot of different reasons and don’t have sex for even more. Interest in sex changes with health, with lifestyle (birth of the twins can be quite a distraction), the relationship (“I’m not giving you what you want until you really listen to me.”—see Myth No. 5), and just plain fatigue.
Take heart, though: If sex was ever good in the marriage, it’s likely to get that way again. If not, it’s a skill that can be learned, with practice and tender instruction (see Myth No.2), which won’t be so bad, will it?