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Ryan Hoffman


After Happily Ever After

We have all encountered the myth of “happily ever after”.  These sweet words soothe our attachment-wounded souls into believing that once we find our soul mate, our life will be all sunshine and lollipops.  This romanticizing of romance only serves to create false expectations of what to expect in partnership.  Let’s view some examples from the Disney collection of animated movies, since exposure to these films at an impressionable young age is a rite of passage that few children in the United States escape.

Disney movies of course have varying plot points and an impressive array of archetypal journeys, but often the big happy ending of the movie looks strikingly similar.  What do these movies have to teach us about finding resolution and happiness?  There will be trials and tribulations while you are apart, but once you and your partner are reunited in heterosexual monogamous love, everyone will rejoice and you both will live happily ever after.

 There are of course the most glaringly obvious examples form Disney’s earlier years, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid.  Cinderella is rescued from a life of servitude by Prince Charming, who is considerate enough to make her dreams come true. Snow White is rescued from her poison apple induced coma by you guessed it, a prince.  Sleeping Beauty is, wait for it, rescued by a prince after her agency has been denied to her by both her parents and Maleficent.  In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is rescued from a life trapped under the sea by her love for Prince Eric, they then get married and sail off under a sparkling rainbow.  I am certainly simplifying the plot lines, but the message being sent about how to find happily ever after is clear.  

Times have changed somewhat and so have Disney’s portrayals of happily ever after.  Princes and princesses are being pseudo-subversive by rejecting traditional societal norms and following their bliss to find an unlikely life partner.  Despite the slight shift in storylines, the hetero monogamous happily ever after loop continues to run as the subtext.  Jasmine’s rebellion in Aladdin promptly leads to her falling in love with a “street rat” who promises her that, “I can open your eyes,” to “a whole new world,” filled with, “unbelievable sights, indescribable feeling,” where they will be, “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling through an endless diamond sky.”  At the end of the movie they soar off together on a magic carpet ride through the night sky.

In Tangled, Rapunzel shirks tradition by falling in love with a thief, but he confirms in song that finding your partner is the meaning of life: 

All those days chasing down a daydream
All those years living in a blur
All that time never truly seeing
Things, the way they were
Now she’s here shining in the starlight
Now she’s here suddenly I know
If she’s here it’s crystal clear
I’m where I’m meant to go.

To summarize, our daydreams are of no substance, life is a meaningless blur until we meet our soul mate and that only when we find that one person will our life purpose will be achieved.  In the end to make it overtly clear Rapunzel and Eugene explicitly state that they finally got married and Rapunzel promises, “We’re living happily ever after.”  Eugene confirms, “Yes we are.”

I could go on and on with examples, I haven’t even touched non-Disney territory, which is also rife with this meme, but I am sure you get the point by now.  We are subjected to a mythical version of romantic relationship.  We are exposed to it so early and often that it begins to cloud our expectations of romantic relationship.  We expect to find a soul mate who will make everything better and with whom we will always be 100% compatible and live happily ever after without needing anything or anyone else.  However, human beings and the environments we live in are way too complex for things to be that simple.  The adult part of us has often transcended this myth and that part already knows that relationships are complex.  In another, often younger and more vulnerable part of us our subtle expectations can lurk in the shadows waiting to strike doubt, fear, confusion and jealousy into an otherwise healthy relationship.

These feelings of doubt, fear, confusion and jealousy often show up when we are triggered in some way.  When our needs go unmet or someone breaks our trust, the attachment bond and the illusion of happily ever after are threatened.  We defend against this in multiple maladaptive ways.  We may hide conflict to preserve the facade of happily ever after.  We may go through relationships rapid fire because none of them measure up to our standards of perfection.  We may think that the first signs of discord in our relationship are a warning that we were never right for each other in the first place.  We may stay with a partner who is unhealthy for us out of a warped sense of duty to being together ever after.  We may limit our growth to avoid growing apart.  We may believe that monogamy is the only answer and that polyamory is a misguided threat to happily ever after.   We might chastise ourselves or be punished by our partner for feeling attracted to others.  We may put pressure on ourselves and our partners to cut off parts of our personalities to fit a picture perfect puzzle.  This puts a lot of pressure on us to both find the perfect partner and to be the perfect partner.  I have to fulfill all of your needs and you have to fulfill all of my fantasies or else we are just pretending to love each other.  This leaves less room to explore the more challenging feelings that often bubble just below the surface, less room to grow as individuals and less room to be fully human.

So, how can we transcend our early childhood fantasies about what ideal relationships are supposed to look like and embrace a more realistic approach to partnership?  The first step is bringing awareness to our subtle expectations of achieving happily ever after and the affects this has on our experience and behavior.  If any of the scenarios in the previous paragraph resonated with you, consider exploring the dynamic with your partner or therapist to bring it more fully to light and find ways to shift it.

Another useful step is to give up on being perfect and embrace growth and change.  This can be scary.  It means allowing space for the relationship to evolve as well as the space for individuals to pursue their own interests.  It means allowing yourself and your partner to grow even if that leads to growing apart.

A third strategy for deconstructing the myth of happily ever after is to embrace other relationships.  This could be taken to mean opening the relationship, but I am speaking to something more subtle. Too often outside friends are seen as threats and developing too much affection toward a friend is considered to be selfish and unacceptable.  I am not proposing the lowering all boundaries and bringing back the free love movement.  I am advocating for actively developing compersion for your partner and facing jealousy head on, while staying in constant communication.  

A fourth step that can help minimize a lot of the damage done by this myth, is radical and open honesty, both within the self and within the relationship.  Honesty within the self is important because it helps us be clear on what is happening for us and where our reactions are coming from.  Only after we get honest with ourselves are we capable of being honest with our partners.  We have to sort through and name the tough stuff in order to avoid falling into recurring patterns of conflict avoidance where dissatisfaction simmers beneath the facade happiness.

Fortunately, the partners that are able to embrace their humanity and lower their expectations for perfection are not likely to live happily ever after.  After all, who would want to experience only one emotion for eternity?  Those who are able to embrace a more realistic version of romance will however live together for some amount of time experiencing a gloriously wide spectrum of the human emotional spectrum. They will grow and learn, debate and compromise, make human errors and help each other through trying times, they will be both loyal to each other and feel compersion when they kindle new relationships.  They will choose the relationship path that uniquely suits them and that allows maximal growth potential for both individuals.

Ryan Hoffman  , MFT intern offers sliding scale LGBTQ couples therapy at The SF Marriage and Couples Center in The SF Financial District.

Ryan Hoffman, MFT intern offers sliding scale LGBTQ couples therapy at The SF Marriage and Couples Center in The SF Financial District.