Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The myth of "happily ever-after"

It's later in the evening and the kids are down. Settling into the night, hoping for just a few minutes of relaxation, I say something that triggers a fight. After several minutes of back-and-forth, I end up leaving the room to cool down and reflect. More minutes will pass before I emerge to apologize, trying to repair the hurt built upon more hurt and figure out a road forward.

Maddy has become interested in fairy tales, picking out stories that involve some sort of adventure that wraps up with a happy ending. Watching her recount these tales, I'm reminded of how for the first 30 years of my life I too believed in happy endings: that right triumphed, there was always a reason for the bad and this idea that if you worked hard enough one could overcome anything. Happiness was a destination and despite many failings I held fast to this idea that once I reached it I would be complete.

So it was a bit of a one-eighty that my 30s have been spent tearing apart this myth about happiness in a spectacular fashion, with infertility being the final straw resulting in the collapse of the "happily ever-after" myth and the reality that life is actually insanely unfair journey.

Despite this realization, I still struggle when Grey and I fight. I hate it to my very core, even though I know that the arguing we do isn't a sign that our relationship in trouble (I worry about couples who claim to never fight). Still, my whole being hurts when we're in the thick of disagreement. Even though I know I should know better, it can often be hard to see a path forward.

I’ve been reflecting on this today, picking apart why my world feels like it’s falling apart when Grey and I are fighting. Part of it still comes from the power of the myth of “happily ever-after” and the idyllic pictures of seemingly conflict-free couples. One of the most damaging aspects about the ever-after myth is the unspoken assumption you’re either on the road or you aren’t. A former friend once informed me I was doomed to a life of unhappiness, a threat meant to pull on this fear of a melancholy destiny. Looking at our society, where instant gratification is a multi-billion dollar industry with people throwing almost all caution to the wind in the hopes of experiencing happiness, it's not surprising that this fear exists, highlighting why it can feel so damning if you aren't feeling happy when everyone around you seems to be

One reason that infertility was so painful was this assumption that I was somehow undeserving for parenthood because I wasn't the image of happiness and in the thick of that darkness that was fertility treatments and miscarriages a lie I told myself was that having a baby would resolve all our pain and worry. Never mind that this is the furthest from reality, the idea that I was undeserving stemmed for a belief that it was because I wasn't happy

Another realization is that there's still this myth that happy couples are conflict-free couples. The truth that fighting fair and conflict resolution aren’t skills most people have, with me being one of many that didn’t learn to fight well. With my mother, apologizing for anything meant taking full responsibility for any hurt, leading to an end where one person “lost” and the goal of each argument to “win” no matter the damage caused in the process. Not surprisingly, it was rare to come out of any disagreement happy with the outcome, leading to a lot of negative self-imaginary along the way.

With Grey, and later with the help of David, I have been learning how to fight in a more problem solving mind-set, which has been one of the few gifts from infertility, as the foundation we built while facing the traumas caused by infertility gave us both an invaluable toolkit we still use to this day. The other end has been actively reminding myself that though fighting hurts, with less than happy feelings being experienced in the moment, the goal needs to be towards building together in order to foster that happiness

All that said, I suck at all of this and given my nature it’s hard for emotions not to run high and often to feel overwhelmed. Whereas some revel in conflict and heated engagement, I find myself wanting to disengage and hide. Because though "happily ever-after" is a myth, it's a very appealing one compared the the reality of the work that is waiting.


  1. I think that happily ever after sounds a little boring, but yes, peaceful. Disagreements are inevitable in a relationship, as you know. But I think the alternative might be worse. Agreement all the time would drive me crazy, because there's be no variety in our opinions. And believe me, I hate conflict. Our family was never very good at it either. Arguments yes, but big issue conflicts - I'll run and hide too.

    I admire the way you're thinking it all through. That, in itself, is part of the roadmap to happiness.

  2. Conflict with someone you love hurts because it makes you see the less-pretty parts of yourself (perhaps your mother never got that memo).

    I'm with you, as my nature is also to want to disengage and hide. But I'm with Mali. The I wonder if the fact that you're being so intentional about this means, instead, that you area actually very good at managing it.

  3. All very good points. I think related to the happily-ever-after myth is the idea of a path that you're on and hitting things at the right time - graduating, getting married, having a child.

    As for arguments in relationships -- I wonder if we should be taught more conflict resolution in school. As you said, very few people learn how to effectively do so.

  4. Ah, the "happily ever after" lie... It's so hard that so many stories and fairy tales we're fed in childhood paint life as this "first you struggle and then you have your happily ever after and it's all great, and if it's not, well then that's trouble." It makes for unreasonable expectations. I hate when we fight, too, because I worry that it's just one more thing that could go wrong. But, fighting is a healthy part of a relationship (as long as you do it respectfully). It's unreasonable to think that a relationship will be totally strife-free, but that's the message that's out there. Unless you watch all those reality tv shows which seem to thrive on constant conflict. I hope you were able to come back after reflecting and cooling down and resolve the conflict. I love how reflective you are, even in writing this post and unpacking your feelings about happy endings and conflict and "deserving." I want to hug the you that thought you were undeserving of parenthood, but I know that feeling, too. It's a crappy feeling. Thinking of you!

  5. Perhaps it's not so much that "happily ever after" is a lie, but that the fairy tales focus too much on the ending and too little on the hard work the heroine has to do to get there. Most fairy tales involve some amount of struggle, and effort - but when we talk about 'living a fairy tale', we rarely mean that part! You're just living the reality of the fairy tale, the hard part where the princess goes questing and has to overcome obstacles. I wish I could make it easier and less hurtful for you, but it really sounds like you're doing an amazing job of progressing on your "quest!"


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