Re-Writing the Narrative of Happily Ever After

Our culture—filled with online dating and notions of love at first sight—is extremely excited by, even possibly obsessed, by the idea of love. However, these stories of love tend to disproportionately highlight the beginning of love, when it’s exciting and seems that nothing could go wrong and the rest is easeful history.

From my early days of watching Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, I am all too familiar with the narrative of living happily ever after. In fact, I used to believe it was my given right as the princess and protagonist of my own fairytale, that I meet a charming prince or princess and effortlessly live happily ever after. Sadly, I have seen this happily-ever-after-myth—the standard that I find many of us (perhaps even unconsciously) hold our relationships to—gets in the way of doing the work for the rewarding payoff of long-term love. The idea that true love should be effortless has, in my opinion, led to many premature unions and premature separations.

This widely preached and broadly held notion of love, combined with the seemingly endless supply of potential partners found at the swipe of a finger make for many a relationship casualty.

Interestingly, love has only recently become the sole and paramount reason for unions in the Western world. In fact, if we look back at history (or at other cultures), marriage and lifelong partnership were not determined around love and emotion, but rather around reasons such as land, joining families, politics. I am not purporting that these reasons were any more reasonable than our norm today, but simply hope to point out that love has recently made it to the top in our society, without us truly understanding what that means.

What is a prince(ss) to do?

First, I think it is our duty to re-write the narrative of love and not let our love stories end at the beginning, but daringly continue in the uncharted waters of long-term partnership. This is not to say that long-term love itself is a myth, but rather, it may look different than what we have been taught to think.

Secondly, doing away with the hope for perfection is paramount. With two (or more) people coming together—bringing their disparate hopes, fears and attachment styles to a relationship—there are bound to be disagreements, hurt feelings, and a great need to seek to understand our partners and likewise feel that we are understood. I find that many relationships are filled with projection around what we think, hope and expect the other to be. Those projections result in true selves going unseen.

After the honeymoon phase and after the rose-colored glasses (of projection) come off that we are faced with a real person, full of flaws and insecurities—sometimes much like our own. If a longer-term relationship is what we are after (and it often is) this is our chance to work a little harder to mold our relationship into what we want, rather than chasing a fantasy. How might we do this?

Bringing awareness to the ways we have incorporated the myth of happily-ever-after into our lives is an important step in unveiling the subtle ways we promote it in our beliefs systems and behaviors. In this vein, checking our assumptions of what we think love is and what we want it to look like for each of us in crucial. Furthermore, discussing these hopes and needs with our partners will likely avoid confusion and unmet expectations down the road. Lastly giving ourselves and our partners permission to be messy in relationship alleviates so much pressure and allows us to bring more of ourselves to the relationship, rather than just the parts of ourselves that are “acceptable,” neat and perfect.

While this may sound like more work, introspection and communication than Sleeping Beauty might have put in, the reward is a true connection with another in all of their vulnerabilities and authenticity and likewise to feel seen for all that we are in our full and true selves. In this way, I find that working on love, and continually putting effort into a relationship can be ever-more rewarding than aiming for perfect love.

In re-writing the narrative of love we can be liberated from the myth of happily-ever-after and therefore do not have to despair when things get rocky in our relationships. Instead, we can see these moments for what they are: part of what is means to love another rather than the devastation of a perfect fairytale. With this line of thinking, we can use these moments of challenge as opportunities for learning, connection, and growth.

Ava Henderson is a therapist at the San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Ava provides sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

Ava Henderson is a therapist at the San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Ava provides sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples.