Saturday, June 2, 2007

Happily Ever After: myth or reality

"So how long did it take to feel married?"

"Oh, about 30 years."

This exchange between me and a recently married professor took place three years ago just before my husband and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. In the setting of pre-class banter he tried to make it sound like he was joking around but I believe on another level he really wanted to know the answer to the question. Really though, it is one of a whole family of questions about that mysterious "... and they lived happily ever after" of fairytale lore that is standard fare in the typical Cinderella-type story. We want to know how long it takes to feel married and get to the "happily ever after" because, let's be honest, most of us have as a goal, or dream, of marriage to live happily ever after. But the fairytale road map to marital bliss that has outlined the entire courtship ritual, comes to an abrupt dead end right after the "I do;" and it doesn't tell us about the details that define "happily ever after."

So what does it mean to live happily ever after? On the surface we see the bliss, the apparent lack of bumps in the road, and we're told that they "lived happily ever after (to) the end" [inflection mine]; but could the mythical Prince Charming and Cinderella have ever felt married, and how long would it have taken them? How would they have sorted out the chores like shopping, cleaning, cooking and those middle-of-the-night feedings? How would they have worked it out since the hero and heroine barely knew each other and the story never mentions premarital counseling? We're never told their answers; so, left to our own devices, we sleuth among our married acquaintances to infiltrate the secret formula for "happily ever after."

Of course, we don't say it that way; in fact we often don't even admit that we're doing reconnaissance. In essence, like the professor, we're collecting actions and ideologies that seem to bring about the desired outcome of a successful marriage so we can duplicate it. Of itself, emulating a marriage that seems to be in the happily ever after camp is not necessarily wrong. However the influence of our western cultural obsession with comparison, competition, and fear of the unknown, or at least fear of things that can't be definitively quantified for risk, can tempt us to define successful marriage in unrealistic ways. Living happily ever after, like finding love, is an inside matter of the heart that we have trouble measuring; so we try to substitute measuring those things we can see which are external and frequently superficial.

Going back to the discussion with the professor, while my answer seems smug and smart-alecky it also conveys a larger truth: feeling married means different things at different stages. The associated nuances that together create the sense I have of feeling 33 years married took 33 years to develop and are different from those when I was fewer years married. I was rather a latecomer to the happily ever after quest. The first memory I have of whether I felt married or not was at about year 10 or 12; and while it was a fleeting speculation I remember deciding that yes, I did. More recently the topic surfaces more along the line of why I feel married rather that "do I" or "don't I". So from that standpoint, let me offer some reflections from my experience just be aware that your results may vary.

What does being married 33 years feel like?

- It has not been unshattered harmony: the two of us see things very differently from one another; but our differing points of view have often brought us at last to a better decision-making outcome than if we had seen eye-to-eye in the first place.

- It has not meant spending every waking moment together doing exactly the same things: our jobs and work are different and we have some differing interests; but when we are in a room we can sense the other when they are absent and know what they would be doing if they were present. Also, our different interests bring a larger world view to each other that without would be akin to spiritual poverty.

- It has not meant seeing the end from the beginning: actually we couldn't really see past the wedding preparations; and once settled in our off-campus apartment we wondered what do we do now? But as time has passed, and the initial panic wore off, we have bit by bit set out some ideas for what our life might look and feel like in the days to come.

So I think that's basically what feeling married amounts to, whatever your anniversary benchmark. It's taking what you have to work with and making something more out of it. The what you have to work with and how you work with it and what you make out of it will vary from person to person and couple to couple. However, regardless of how many years it has been, if you conclude that you are accomplishing this then I believe you have earned the titles of "feeling married" and "living happily ever after," and are entitled to all the rights and privileges thereunto assigned.

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