The Unhelpfulness of “Happily Ever After”

The fairy tales end with two people falling in love and walking off to begin their new lives together.  

This narrative arc is repeated in modern-day rom-coms and most other literature for public consumption.  Despite the obstacles, adventures, tragic events or humourous mix-ups we’ve followed along their path to that first kiss, the curtain seems to drop just afterward, leaving us to assume all went well until they died many years later.  This is extremely unhelpful.

There are millions of different “how we met” stories, but so very few “how we stayed in love all our lives” stories.  Falling in love is easy, but staying in love is harder- that’s why it’s so helpful to have examples, and somewhat surprising that more of them don’t exist.

I get it.  It’s much more fun to hear about star-crossed lovers defying convention to be together than to learn about ways they got through fundamental differences about how to load a dishwasher.  How to be together over time as everything changes around you and within you and still keep that spark of love alive is some of the most important work we will need to do in life. It would be a whole lot easier if more stories featured practical examples of how this might look.


How, then, do we shape the narrative of our own love life?


One strategy is to find a mentor.

Perhaps your grandparents still get a sparkle in their eye for each other, or your neighbors are a couple that seems to enjoy each other’s company immensely.  Even someone you are seated next to engaged in their own lively conversation can be a source of information.  Few people will be offended if you say something like, “Hey, you two seem to be really happy together.  What’s your secret.”  You’re going to get some great answers, some of which might help shape your own strategy as a lifelong couple.


Another approach is to read the data.

Happiness research (yes, that’s a thing) has been flourishing in the 21st century, as more people seek out this sense of intrinsic wellbeing.  Longitudinal studies show that the quality of one’s marriage affects the overall quality of one’s life, which is no surprise to anyone who has been in a bad relationship.  The great part is that research is also starting to look at what factors, over time, can contribute to a quality relationship. Science writer Jonah Lehrer, in his newest release, A Book About Love, looks across long term studies of partnerships and identifies factors that contribute to long term love in a relationship, such as grit and meta-emotions. Meta-emotions, he describes, are how you feel about feelings.

“Do you believe you should express anger? Or do you believe in holding it in and waiting for it to fizzle out? Do you think happiness should be shared but anger should be suppressed? Sharing your meta-emotional style gives you a common emotional template, a common language.”

Lehrer also explores surprising things that do not necessarily guarantee satisfying partnerships, such as shared interests. Investigating data from happy couples over time can help us filter where to focus our own energy.


What none of this can tell you, of course, is how your own fabulous variables will factor into relationship success.  We bring our own personal narratives into this romance and have our individual ideas of how the story should play out.  For this reason, regular communication and mutual exploration of factors that matter in our lives are the tools that will continue to tune the song we sing about our own partnership and allow us to write the “happily ever after” of our lives together.