The Dream of Happily Ever After

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

“Yes, for me the biggest dream is the fairytale. I will never give up on that dream,’ Jennifer Lopez said when asked if she would ever marry again.

With three divorces in her wake, I wonder how she defines “happily ever after.” And as a role-model for young girls and adolescents everywhere, I shudder to know she’s perpetuating the rampant cultural myth that, if you just meet the right guy, happily ever after is an achievable goal. How many more marriages will she end before she realizes that the common denominator in the failure is… her? How long will it take before she understands that a stable, loving relationship is happily ever after, and that those qualities only occur when both partners commit to enduring the inevitable highs and lows of a longterm love?

Nearly everyone in this culture has been brainwashed to believe the myth that if you meet The One – the guy or girl that meets your physical ideal, gives you that feeling of butterflies and fireworks and is loving to boot – you’ll live happily ever after. Sure, the rational part of you knows that this is, at least in part, a fantasy. You know that relationships go through difficult times and must endure challenges. But the emotional part of you, the part that’s been inundated with myth of The One from every available media source from the time you were old enough to ingest external information, buys into the myth hook, line, and sinker.

This is how Rebecca (not her real name) described it in today’s session:

“This is the grand disappointment of my twenties: that there is no happily ever after and that there is no guy that can fulfill that dream. Everyone I know buys into the fairy tale, yet everyone I know is bringing home regular, nice guys. Maybe there is no Darcy [from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice]. Maybe those lines that guys say in movies are just that: lines in movies. But it’s so disappointing!”

Rebecca, like every other person who finds their way to my work, is now realizing that she’s been sold a bill of goods. She recognizes that she’s fallen prey to the grand set-up of our culture, and that if her relationship with her fiancé is going to work, she has to grieve the loss of the fantasy. Rebecca had dated plenty of men to know that when she met Mark, she had met a good egg. But he wasn’t perfect and he didn’t give her butterflies and fireworks. The reality of their relationship didn’t fit the fantasy in her head. She’s working diligently at shattering the fantasy, but it’s not easy. “It’s like going through rehab,” I said to her today. “You’re breaking an addiction, except in this case the addiction is to the myth of the romantic fantasy.”

“That’s exactly what it’s like. Every day I have to remind myself that the idea of happily ever after is a myth. If I see a cute guy, my first thought is, ‘Oh, that guy’s cute – maybe he’s The One,’ but then I bring myself back to reality and follow that with, ‘Yes, and you know nothing about him. He could be a total jerk or completely boring, like most of the guys you dated before Mark.’ I keep reminding myself that it’s okay to feel disappointed that the fairy tale is an illusion.

“And then I ask myself, ‘What is my definition of real love, romance, and marriage?’ Maybe it’s about deciding to choose this person every day, whether they annoy me or not. Maybe this is the dream: being with a kind, loving, trustworthy man who completely gets me and loves me unconditionally, someone who’s my best friend and partner in every way. When I grieve the fantasy and allow myself to feel the disappointment, I see Mark for who he really is and I feel so lucky. It’s only when I’m comparing him to an impossible ideal and allow myself to listen to the culturally-fabricated voice in my mind that says I can do better or I’m settling that I feel anxious. When I listen to the truth, I feel happy and content.”

Rebecca is doing the difficult inner work that J.Lo may never do, and it’s what is allowing her to live the realistic dream of a lifelong, happy marriage. How many times do we have to watch celebrities live out the fantasy of the fairy tale only to be divorced one or five years later before we change the dysfunctional messages that we’re disseminating to young and impressionable minds about love, romance, and marriage? Women and men on the threshold of marriage shouldn’t have to work as hard as Rebecca is working to say yes to their loving, well-matched partners. They shouldn’t have to fight against a cultural download that tells them that “they can have it all” and that they should wait for Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Like the images of physical perfection, there’s a deep-seated sickness in the mainstream messages about what real love is about and, until it changes from the inside out, we will continue to see a high divorce rate and lonely people who walked away from lovely relationships because they were chasing the fairytale dream of “happily ever after.”

12 comments to The Dream of Happily Ever After

  • Defining the quality of a relationships by a “happily ever after” metric is a mistake far too many make.

    Adults still believe in Santa Claus, but in life and relationships they’re much more likely to encounter Scrooge than a jolly, Jenny Craig Escapee in a red suit. We expect a white picket fence and a lifetime of doing the happy dance in a field of billowing yellow lilies. When that desired scenario fails to materialize we feel the pang of disappointment much more intensely.

    So when we finally meet “the one” and that person isn’t proposing marriage as fast as our timetable demands, we feel resentment, we feel that we’ve basically been wasting precious time.

    After all, “happily ever after” beckons—right over that next embankment.

    But if you have genuine affection for the person you’re with now and you’re both actually enjoying yourselves, then what the hell do you have to obsess about? Why dilly dally around in some misguided attempt to fix something that’s not broken? That state of bliss you experience when you’re together is what most folks strive for—many of whom are unhappily married.

    Finding a way to snatch distress and disappointment from the jaws of jubilation and contentment is a bizarre human characteristic that never fails to befuddle me.

    Maybe what you have now is as good as it gets. I’m just saying. And maybe if this is indeed as good as it gets—then that’s not exactly a bad thing.

    If at the conclusion of your relationship—and more than likely there will be a conclusion—the important question to ask is not why you failed to achieve “happily ever after”–but whether you indeed enjoyed the journey.

  • Evan

    “It’s only when I’m comparing him to an impossible ideal and allow myself to listen to the culturally-fabricated voice in my mind that says I can do better or I’m settling that I feel anxious. When I listen to the truth, I feel happy and content.”

    Its as if this article were written precisely for the exact anxious thoughts that I was just having. My fiance is not the outgoing Dr. Darcy (Mr. Darcy who is also a doctor and has a commanding presence) that I always thought I would marry and as our wedding draws closer I have only focused on the qualities that he lacks rather than the other amazing qualities that he possesses. In doing so, I have neglected to appreciate how incredible he is and how lucky I am to have found a best friend to spend the rest of my life with. Yet, this fantasy Mr. Right keeps invading my consciousness like an unwanted spam email. I wish I could find a way to get over this fairy tale obsession and start appreciating reality. I would be interested to know how Rebecca moved on. Thank you!

  • AprilBride

    Hello, as ‘Rebecca’, I’m happy to share my experience with the fantasy. I still have to remind myself over and over again that the fantasy isn’t real. But it does sink in and get easier each time. It’s practise and a change of intention that goes on in my head. When I feel myself going into my head and getting wrapped up in the fantasy, I try to counter it with the truth. I watch Sheryl’s videos again or read her blog, or comments on the forum. I read certain helpful books. I also just think about reality. The reality is that I’m 29 years old and have been waiting for Mr. Fantasy to appear…and (big surprise), he hasn’t! He hasn’t because he doesn’t exist, he’s a fantasy. I wouldn’t consider any of my friends’ husbands/bfs to be Mr. Fantasy either. The ones who started out being ‘madly in love’ (whatever that means) all either ended up breaking up or settling into a stable, normal relationship with the ups and downs we all face but that took them time to adjust (while thinking of breaking up until they could deal with the fact they don’t feel on Cloud 9 everyday). I think redefining what love means to me also helped to counteract the fantasy. Is love a be-all, end-all feeling? an addiction of needing your next high? is it ‘I can’t live without him?’ or is it caring efforts, tender moments, supporting each other, laughing together, finding him adorable?
    Anxiety can actually alter how we see our fiances and our relationships. But we can decide to approach it differently and change our perspective. Hence, when the fantasy comes up, I try to ask myself, ‘what is this about? what’s really going on here?” It’s about scratching under the surface and figuring out where this need and longing for the fantasy is coming from. The fantasy is a projection-we project our fantasies onto others. Is it coming from a lack of connection? a longing to be more spiritual? Am I stopping myself from grieving? Am I lonely? Am I tired? sick? sluggish? That all affects the anxiety level and it’s so much easier to go into fantasy land than to actually face the real issues.
    I know I still have more work to do, and it wasn’t easy to face the truth. There was a lot of grieving that needed to be done, and still needs to be done. It is so disappointing to realize my life wasn’t a TV movie or that Mr. Darcy was just a character in a novel. Allowing myself to grieve that, and know that it’s ok and normal, helped a lot. I still grieve it, and I try to do that without judgement. Without judging this grief as meaning “there’s something wrong with my relationship”.
    I hope this helps and write me anytime if you have questions.

    • Sh

      Hi Aprilbride,
      I too, am still trying to let go of the idea that these fantasies are not real. There is no such thing as being madly in love. It is something that grows over time. However I sometimes get anxiety that maybe I am not attracted to him because he does not give me butterflies. There are no fireworks when we kiss. Have you had this issue? How can I overcome it?

      • Rina

        Hi Sh,
        Most of us here are working on developing realistic views/ feelings of how being in love should feel like. The butterflies, the fireworks are feelings that Hollywood created that’s become a set norm of how one should feel when we find a good match however these are unrealistic standards because theres plenty of couples that are happy together whom did not experience these feelings. I’ve learned that there’s no right/ wrong way to feel. It depends on what you want/ need out of a relationship. I know plenty of women that are in happy, healthy relationships now that weren’t attracted to their boyfriends at all in the beginning. Though it was accidental, these women got to know the guys better and fell in love with their personality. However, you can make a conscious decision to get to know your guy better. Is there any harm in that?

  • DevonBridetobe

    This post is great but something that really troubles me (and I mean gets my heart pounding, leaves me short of breath and properly feaking out) is this horrible sense that I’ll have to battle this forever, it scares me to death. It also worries me that these feelings I’ve encountered mean I have less of a sucessful chance at making my marriage work, i.e if it’s hard now will it get harder in future? Will the added pressures of the long term make it worse, like the early days of parenthood? I know I can’t know any of this and neither does anyone getting married, I just wish I could feel that sense of calm wash over me that I’ve had about my relationship in the past. It seems like these days I’m constantly surrounded by the failed marriages of others on TV, in the newspapers in my daily life. It all feels so hopeless, I’m so glad I found this blog x

  • Emily Meade

    I am Rebecca. I am feeling everything she’s feeling. Can you tell me if the disappointment ever ends?

    • Yes, the disappointment ends if you grieve the loss of the fantasy. It’s not easy work but entirely possible when you realize how important it is to let go of the media-induced images and expectations of what love is “supposed to” look like. Active grieving is the key: writing letters and burning them, crying, dancing, talking (with safe people who get it), writing.

  • DevonBridetobe

    Thank you Sheryl. I have been reading your work ever since (incuding your first book) and I must say I am feeling much better. I feel as though I am making progress just by letting go of control. I can’t know what forever holds but I know what I don’t want and in knowing this I can educate myself on how to avoid it (‘it’ being a failed relationship). I have just purchased ‘the road less travelled’ and I’m looking forward to reading it and I will be purchasing your e-course in the New Year so I can continue to progress. Emily – I wish you the best of luck, after months of anxiety and heartbreak I am finally starting to see that I actually have everything I want in my partner- trust, friendship and love and although he may not be what I pictured (I thought I’d be with the funny, charming type) he’s a great companion (and jokes get old anyway :o)) Much love and Merry Christmas xxx

  • Emily

    Wonderful post Sheryl! This reminds me of how sex columnist Dan Savage talks about “The One” myth. He states that you won’t ever find The One – but you’ll probably find the .53 or .67 or, if you’re lucky, the .78. Then you round up. It’s a nice, demonstrative way of dispelling this myth as you do here, and which tends to spike my anxiety (I know I’m not alone there).

    Your posts always help me when the anxiety spikes (as it does so randomly). I am signing up for the e-course next week after vacation! Therapy alone isn’t quite cutting it, so I’m hoping that combining the two will set me on the right path. Thanks again!

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