‘And they lived happily ever after…’ This is the ending line in most children’s fairy tales. Young girls are taught to expect that they will grow up, find their ‘prince’ and live with this one person for the rest of their lives. Yet, is the expectation that we will live with one person our entire lives a harmful social ideal?
As we grow older, we start to question whether this ‘happily ever after’ ideal is realistic. Such questions are perhaps triggered by the divorce of our own parents or our friend’s parents. Of course, divorce is not uncommon. According to the Office for National Statistics (2018) around 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. Even if people stay married, this does not necessarily mean that they have a happy marriage. Sometimes people stay in negative, or even abusive relationships, because they fear social stigmatization or because divorce is not a financially viable option. Others stay in relationships more out of habit than love. In any case, not all relationships are ‘happily ever after’. Perhaps we should stop placing so much weight on the idea that relationships should last forever and instead focus on what a particular relationship has added to our lives.
Relationships can give us a sense of closeness that we do not have with anyone else. Couples often have positive memories of shared experiences and trips. One might compare a couple to two boats floating in an ocean. They accompany one another on, at least, part of the voyage of life. Sometimes experiencing life together can be more exciting and having another person can help to keep us ‘afloat’. However, sometimes couples can end up pulling one another down, rather than holding each other ‘up’. When such couples are faced with ‘big waves’ (difficult situations), they end up going under, rather than riding over the wave together. This can, for example, occur when couples take one another for granted or when they fall into negative behaviour patterns. Negative behaviour patterns can emerge, because over time couples often develop particular ‘roles’ – one person is often dominant and the other more passive. Eventually such imbalances can trigger resentment and tension. In such cases, it may be more helpful for people to ‘go their separate ways’. This can allow them to ‘find themselves’ again and figure out individually what they want from their lives.
At times, there are more serious problems, such as when one partner emotionally or even physically abuses the other. Such abuse can have a hugely negative impact on a person’s self-esteem and well-being, and it is important to be able to escape such relationships. At other times, the issue is less serious. Sometimes we just ‘drift apart’ from other people. It is not a question of there being anything wrong as such, it is just that we change and develop over time.
The focus of this article is on ‘romantic relationships’, but we can draw parallels to friendships. Perhaps we should actually start to view long-term ‘romantic relationships’ more like friendships. Indeed, this may help us to appreciate each other more, because we stop viewing the other person as somehow ‘belonging’ to us. As a couple it is important to be able to give your partner space and not take ‘possession’ over them. Sometimes couples expect that the other person will validate everything they do. In this sense, ‘romantic relationships’ can be egoistic – because a person seeks validation through their partner. Attaining the ‘love’ of another person is sometimes seen as a form of ‘achievement’ and as the ‘highest’ form of self-validation. Yet, relationships generally are more rewarding and happier, if each person has already learnt to appreciate themselves. In such cases, a relationship becomes an addition to an individual’s life rather than a necessity.
It is partly this sense of self-validation that a relationship gives us, that can make it difficult to speak about divorce or separation from a partner. We feel that if we are in a relationship, we are clearly ‘worthy’ of someone else’s love. Even if we know, in our rational minds, that we not less ‘worthy’ if we are divorced or single, it can be difficult to overcome feelings of ‘inferiority’ or having ‘failed’ – our lives have not met up to the impossible expectations that we have developed from childhood fantasies. It is interesting to note that friends often ‘drift apart’ over the years, but there is not a social stigma attached to such separation. There is no expectation that people remain friends forever. And we often celebrate when people are able to escape ‘unhealthy friendships’. Yet, with divorce there remains a sense of social taboo. This can make it difficult for people to open up about divorce and get much-needed support through such a difficult phase of transition.
So to conclude, relationships can be a joyful partnership between two people or they can be emotionally draining. In terms of ‘romantic relationships’, it is ultimately about establishing a relationship that is mutually rewarding; it is not about staying with one person no matter what. Of course, this does not mean that people should not, at least, try to ‘save’ a relationship. Often parents will try to stay together to ensure a ‘stable’ family life for their children. Yet, as children we also need to remember that our parents are individuals with their own ambitions and hopes. We should want what is best for them, even if this conflicts some idealistic vision that we have of our parents living together ‘happily ever after’. If communication and understanding has broken down between a couple; If they are wearing one another away, more than contributing to each other’s lives, then perhaps they are better off apart. As the song by James Bay suggests, sometimes we just need to ‘let it go’ and move on.
Separation does not always mean that two people hate one another. Indeed, in spite of challenges, most couples do have some fond memories together. And perhaps we should focus more on the positive experiences we have shared with a person, rather than lamenting the fact that it wasn’t forever. We shouldn’t be afraid to become close to another person, just because it might not ‘work out’ in the end. Indeed, we can still appreciate that that person has accompanied us for, at least, a section of our life journey. We can still hope that they experience ‘tolerably calm seas and good winds’, even if their boat is no longer floating directly beside us.