"Yes, for me the biggest dream is the fairytale. I will never give up on that dream," Jennifer Lopez said when asked if she would ever marry again.
With three divorces in her wake, I wonder how she defines "happily ever after." And as a role-model for young girls and adolescents everywhere, I shudder to know she's perpetuating the rampant cultural myth that, if you just meet the right partner, happily ever after is an achievable goal. How many more marriages will she end before she realizes that the common denominator in the failure is... her? How long will it take before she understands that a stable, loving relationship is happily ever after, and that those qualities only occur when both partners commit to enduring the inevitable highs and lows of a longterm love?
Nearly everyone in this culture has been brainwashed to believe the myth that if you meet The One -- the guy or girl that meets your physical ideal, gives you that feeling of butterflies and fireworks and is loving to boot -- you'll live happily ever after. Sure, the rational part of you knows that this is, at least in part, a fantasy. You know that relationships go through difficult times and that the initial high eventually fades. But the emotional part of you, the part that's been inundated with myth of The One from every available media source from the time you were old enough to ingest external information, buys into the myth hook, line, and sinker.
This is how Rebecca (not her real name) described it in a recent session with me:
"This is the grand disappointment of my twenties: that there is no happily ever after and that there is no guy that can fulfill that dream. Everyone I know buys into the fairy tale, yet everyone I know is bringing home regular, nice guys. Maybe there is no Darcy [from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"]. Maybe those lines that guys say in movies are just that: lines in movies. But it's so disappointing!"
Rebecca, like every other person who finds their way to my work, is now realizing that she's been sold a bill of goods. She recognizes that she's fallen prey to the grand set-up of our culture, and that if her relationship with her fiancé is going to work, she has to grieve the loss of the fantasy. Rebecca had dated plenty of men to know that when she met Mark, she had met a good egg. But he wasn't perfect and he didn't give her butterflies and fireworks. The reality of their relationship didn't fit the fantasy in her head and she soon succumbed to the culturally sanctioned "grass is always greener syndrome". She's working diligently at shattering the fantasy, but it's not easy. "It's like going through rehab," I said to her. "You're breaking an addiction, except in this case the addiction is to the myth of the romantic fantasy."
"That's exactly what it's like. Every day I have to remind myself that the idea of happily ever after is a myth. If I see a cute guy, my first thought is, 'Oh, that guy's cute - maybe he's The One,' but then I bring myself back to reality and follow that with, 'Yes, and you know nothing about him. He could be a total jerk or completely boring, like most of the guys you dated before Mark.' I keep reminding myself that it's okay to feel disappointed that the fairy tale is an illusion.
"And then I ask myself, 'What is my definition of real love, romance, and marriage?' Maybe it's about deciding to choose this person every day, whether they annoy me or not. Maybe this is the dream: being with a kind, loving, trustworthy man who completely gets me and loves me unconditionally, someone who's my best friend and partner in every way. When I grieve the fantasy and allow myself to feel the disappointment, I see Mark for who he really is and I feel so lucky. It's only when I'm comparing him to an impossible ideal and allow myself to listen to the culturally-fabricated voice in my mind that says I can do better or I'm settling that I feel anxious. When I listen to the truth, I feel happy and content."
Rebecca is doing the difficult inner work that J. Lo may never do, and it's what is allowing her to live the realistic dream of a lifelong, happy marriage. How many times do we have to watch celebrities live out the fantasy of the fairy tale only to be divorced one or five years later before we change the dysfunctional messages that we're disseminating to young and impressionable minds about love, romance, and marriage? Women and men on the threshold of marriage shouldn't have to work as hard as Rebecca is working to say yes to their loving, well-matched partners. They shouldn't have to fight against a cultural download that tells them that "they can have it all" and that they should wait for Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Like the images of physical perfection, there's a deep-seated sickness in the mainstream messages about what real love is about and, until it changes from the inside out, we will continue to see a high divorce rate and lonely people who walked away from lovely relationships because they were chasing the fairytale dream of "happily ever after."
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com. And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of the Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity.