Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast. These fairy tales all end with relationships described with joyful finality: “and they all lived happily ever after.” As children, we might have imagined ourselves as part of our own fairy tale, simply awaiting our One True Love. When they found us, life would become magical, easy, full of songs and dancing birds. Once we got through the hard stuff and found love, things would be forever lovely. Right?
Many of us wonder about the secret to a fabulous pairing—from the Happily Ever Afters depicted in the pages of fairy tales to the idealized romances on the silver screen. Looking for a dramatic, stunning, fairytale-esque relationship, we think, “If only I had more money, a child, a different job. If only I looked different or lived in a nicer neighborhood. Then maybe I, too, could live “happily ever after.”
For better or worse, people are constantly searching for the one thing that will make life with a partner better. But healthy, strong relationships aren’t built on careers, social status, appearance, or wealth. Successful, satisfying long-term relationships take serious work. For them to succeed, partners must learn how to communicate effectively, be able to dedicate time and space for each other, and be able to turn off phones and devices and learn to love being with one another.
The idea we will reach a time or period in life where our relationship is always, effortlessly happy is an ever-present theme, not only in movies and books but also in Hollywood. We look at pictures of celebrities strolling down the street with their children and eat up the gossip of their lives, speculating on their love and private lives. We even join their names: Brangelina. Kimye. Bennifer. TomKat. Zanessa. Billary.
Hollywood tends to glamorize the idea of Happily Ever After. Couples whose relationships appear romanticized and beautiful and perfect in the light of celebrity magazines might appear to be immune to the rigors and stressors of daily life. But they’re not. Just like those of us who do not grace the cover of the National Enquirer, they struggle. Their relationships may be affected by intimate partner violence, infidelities, conflict, and communication issues.
Many of the marriages in Hollywood are characterized by their apparently fragility. According to the tabloids, couples are married one minute, then divorced, then married again. We admire and respect these celebrities, idealizing and longing for their seemingly perfect lives, but when they break up, we realize their relationships are challenged by the same types of issues as our own, less glamorous relationships. So what do we do?
Finding Our Own ‘Happily Ever After’
There are countless books, seminars, and yes, even apps about improving romantic life with your partner, improving family life, surviving an affair, and regaining intimacy. In fact, I was once interviewed on a morning TV show as part of a segment called “Can an App Save Your Marriage?” I’ll save you the 2.28 minutes and tell you it cannot.
What can save your relationship (and maybe even keep it from needing saving in the first place) is work. Hard work, and a lot of it.
Disney doesn’t show the dirty socks on the floor or the pee on the toilet seat. They don’t play the soundtracks of slammed doors or harsh words. And of course, you can’t smell the burnt toast or a dirty litter box.
Any partnership comes with its own struggles and difficulties. Even those couples you know who seem like they have it all together? They may not, at least not all of the time. People hide their struggles, their dirty laundry. They hide the fighting and the affairs, the loneliness and the conflict. Disney doesn’t show the dirty socks on the floor or the pee on the toilet seat. They don’t play the soundtracks of slammed doors or harsh words. And of course, you can’t smell the burnt toast or a dirty litter box.
But relationships can improve and grow. Partners can heal disconnects and rekindle love. There are three important steps in this process:
- Realize you are not alone in your relationship challenges. It’s often easy to look at others and think, “They have it so easy,” or “What a perfect relationship they have.” But those assumptions are often simply untrue. Everyone has difficulties of some kind or other, and all relationships require work to succeed. Be honest with your close friends and family members about your relationship and any challenges you feel comfortable sharing. Listen to them share about themselves. You’ll realize others have similar problems, and you will likely feel less isolated. You are also more likely to find incredible support when you allow yourself to be open and vulnerable. There’s what I call a “you, too?” factor that goes something like this. “My husband stayed out so late last night. I texted and texted, but he never replied. I’m so frustrated!” “You, too? The other day, Dan ….” Sharing, a human way to connect and find common experiences, leads to mutual support. You will see you really aren’t alone.
- Create a relationship inventory. Consider both what is currently going well in your relationship and what you want to improve on. Do you feel distant from your partner? Perhaps you are great friends still, but your love life is lacking. How is communication? Do you want to fight less? Fight fair? What is fantastic about your relationship? What do you want to keep and treasure, and what needs some tweaking?
- Make a plan of action. Take the specific things you want to improve upon and write them down. Find one that seems doable and not too overwhelming, and brainstorm with your partner about what the two of you can do together to solve this one problem. For example, couples who feel as if they’re growing distant often choose to plan a date night each week. But go further than just deciding to do this. If you have children, find a babysitter you trust. Then find a backup babysitter in case the first one isn’t available. Write down ideas of what to do or go for dates. Look at your calendars and find out what conflicts there are, such as travel, school sports, or meetings, and write down a different time for that week. Make it a priority. Write it on your calendars. Set up text reminders. Then a month from the starting point, have a check in and evaluate. Don’t let last-minute circumstances put a hold on your time together.
Implementing these steps can pave the way, little by little, to a stronger relationship. There may not be a “Happily Ever After,” but I would argue the reality is so much better. Your story doesn’t end with pretty music or a page in a book. Your story is about growth and healing, being and becoming. And with this, there doesn’t have to be a final end, because we’re all works in progress. Life will change, stressors and joys will change, partners may even change. Allow yourself to change alongside them, and enjoy the ride.
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