My wife and I have a pillow on our couch with the words “And They Lived Happily Ever After” embroidered on it. While looking at this pillow makes me happy because I enjoy being married to Stephanie and look forward to our future together, these words may also be part of the most dangerous narratives for relationships out there. I will refer to it here as the “fairy tale narrative of love.” While there are many variations of this narrative across stories in books, movies, and songs the plot usually includes falling in love with the person who is just right for us, having some struggle, resolving that struggle, marrying them, and riding off into the sunset. As the audience we are left feeling optimistic and hopeful that our couple will live happily ever after. But what evidence is there that this will actually occur?
In the US approximately half of marriages end in divorce. I was curious if the US has the highest divorce rate. It turns out there are a number of countries that share similar divorce rates to the US or even have a higher divorce rate. In Belgium as many as 71% of couples that marry get divorced. There are also many countries that have much lower divorce rates – as low as 3% in some case. However, when you do a little more research it seems that many of these countries make it socially, legally, and financially very difficult for couples to get divorced. It is not the only factor, but it seems that a lot of the differences in divorce rates between countries seem to be correlated with the degree of difficulty with getting a divorce. This begs the question what proportion of couples are unhappily married in these countries? Which gets to perhaps a more difficult statistic to obtain which is what percentage of couples actually do live happily ever after? Certainly less than half in the US with our current divorce rate. However, most of us would agree that there is probably a significant proportion of couples that remain unhappily married or have a lot of ambivalence about their marriage. It is safe to say that the minority of couples that marry end up living happily ever after.
While passion, chemistry, and being in love is wonderful and a gift to be cherished when it happens, it is also insufficient to save us from ourselves and each other. Fairy tales often have villains that our heroes struggle against during the story. The general impression we have is that our heroes are good and the villains are bad. In many of these fairy tales it is at the point of the story when the villain is vanquished that our hero couple is able to live happily ever after. The deeper truth is that we are both the hero and the villain of our story. We marry the love of our life and then take them for granted. We love our spouse, but show them disrespect. We allow problems that can be solved with effort and compromise to linger and fester into negative feelings towards each other. We vow to live our lives together, but we are not proactive or intentional about the life we end up creating. In other words, as with so many aspects of our lives there is a disconnect between the fairy tale we have in our minds and reality. This disconnect can create havoc in our marriage, especially if we lack insight into it.
Many of us feel disempowered in our life and marriage. We so often feel victimized. To be fair, one of the challenges in creating a happy marriage is that it takes two people working together and we only ultimately can take responsibility for our own actions. So there is a certain vulnerability and dependency we have on the other person, because for things to really work out well, we both have to be doing the right things. However, for so many of us we do not even know what the right thing we should be doing is within our marriage. When I started doing research into why marriages fail and succeed something which stood out for me is that the things that really matter the most in marriage can often be invisible to most of us. This can often be the case because what matters the most usually has to do with how we interact with each other vs. what we are interacting about. So we get fixated on the “what” while we are oblivious to the “how.” So for me it may feel like the problem is that my spouse keeps nagging about something that I think is silly – I throw my clothing on the chair near the bed. For her it may feel like the problem is that I do not care about how our home looks and I am inconsiderate to her. We get gridlocked on these surface issues and the game of who is right and who is wrong, who will win and who will lose takes center stage. When the real underlying problem is that we do not know how to approach each other in a gentler manner. Instead of turning toward each other with supportive words and actions to find solutions we are getting stuck in using criticisms and defensiveness as communication strategies. Eventually this criticism and defensiveness may morph into contempt and stonewalling and then our fairy tale turns into a horror story!
To me one of the main problems with the fairy tale narrative of love is that it makes us passive actors in our story. We think that the key to having a happy marriage is finding somebody who we fall head over heels in love with. Or we think if we are married to the right person things will just fall into place and be great for us. If after a while our marriage is not great, we think that must mean that our spouse was not right for us after all. No wonder the majority of marriages end in divorce with such a passive approach. Dr. John Gottman can predict with 90% accuracy if a couple will get divorced by watching them talk about something they disagree about for 15 minutes. It does not really matter what they are arguing about. He is watching for how they are interacting and if certain tell-tale signs that predict divorce are present.
Want to see two examples of these tell-tale signs?
The good news is that his research is also showing that couples can learn to transform these tell-tale signs that predict divorce to alternative strategies that deepen friendship, promote positive sentiment towards each other, and improve marital satisfaction. In other words, it is possible for couples to empower themselves and create the conditions that will allow them to live happily ever after.
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