Now there’s a subject you could fill volumes with. And many have. I’ve certainly written my share of ‘happily ever afters’ in my books. And over the course of history, literary and otherwise, is the expected happy ending: the handsome prince marries the princess, and they live happily ever after. Sadly, that seems to happen mostly in fairy tales and fiction, and less and less often in real life, which really is a sad turn of events. Gorgeous Grace Kelly marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco in a staggeringly beautiful wedding. But who knows if they were happy. And life filled with disappointment and tragedy thereafter. So even princes and princesses are not immune to real life.
And there are all the real people we all know, some of them badly married, and some who seem to be genuinely happy. I don’t think any of us know what the recipe for that is: wise choices at the beginning, an enormous amount of patience, flexibility and forgiveness, luck perhaps, it’s hard to tell which marriages and which couple will ‘make it’.
I have always liked what marriage represented, and the philosophy behind it. I believe in standing up in front of one’s community and saying ‘I love and believe in this man, I have faith in him. I cast my lot with him, and I stand beside him proudly.’ It’s a big statement and an act of courage and always has been. And if you speak to couples who have been married for a long, long time, many will tell you that they had a rocky patch for several years, stuck it out, and things got better—sometimes even better than before—but today, few people stick it out through the hard patch. They throw in the towel, quit and walk away, which always seems so bad to me. I’ve had my own failures too, and will always regret them. I wish I had gotten married once, and been able to stick with it. That’s not so easily done in today’s world. Outside circumstances sometimes intervene (in my case, fame/celebrity/and success are a complicating factor), or events happen that make it impossible to continue (the discovery of an affair or some form of betrayal). In my case, at least I’m grateful that I had long marriages, respect, affection, and admiration for each other. But it is always sad when a marriage ends, whatever the reason. It is an enormous loss.
Historically, we have lived through different periods and eras about marriage. When I was a child, particularly in Europe, people didn’t get divorced, except in rare, rare cases. Even if the marriage didn’t work, the couple stayed together, often hating each other, making snide remarks, and making it clear to everyone that they dislike each other. That didn’t look like much fun to my generation. So when my generation got old enough to marry, and started hitting bumps in their marriages, they remembered those unattractive couples in their childhoods (often their own parents), and thought, we’re not going there, stuck with someone we hate for 50 years of misery, so my generation got divorced—-often much too easily. And it created a whole generation of divorced parents for our children. And if they remarried and it got rocky again, they got divorced again.
Different cultures handled it differently. In America, people tended to get divorced more often. In Europe, particularly Catholic countries (like Spain, Italy and France), where divorce was legally impossible for many, many years, and much less common, couples that didn’t get along stayed together and had affairs. It remains something of a bad habit in some of those countries. Most Europeans still divorce less frequently (which is a good thing), but too often simply because they don’t want to spend what a divorce would cost them, so they stay together but each one goes their own way, and often take lovers, which still seems like an unfortunate solution to me, and isn’t my vision of marriage.
I am also dismayed even now by couples I know who proudly say how long they have been married, but clearly don’t like each other, and cheat on each other regularly. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t get to brag about how long you’ve been married if it takes a tag-team to do it. I met a man several years ago who admitted to me that he had begun cheating on his wife right after their honeymoon, and had continued to do so. They had been married for 49 years by then, and he was extremely proud of it, even though he admitted that he had cheated on his wife for all 49 years of their marriage. What’s the point of that?
So our children have grown up with these strange trends in marriage, grand-parents (or even parents) who stayed married and shouldn’t have, with a poisonous atmosphere in the home. And parents of my generation who got divorced once or several times, looking for Prince Charming or Nirvana, and were always disappointed.
Our children have seen us pay alimony and complain about it, battle our ex spouses in heated divorces. They’ve seen us disappointed and divorced—-again. Like a contact sport with too many injuries, it’s awfully hard to convince them that it is worth signing up for the team. Why would they? And there are too many disappointed, bitter women out there who speak badly of men to their children, and an equal number of angry men who appear to hate women and are vocal about it. What a hideous legacy for our children. And happy couples appear to be in the minority these days, although we all know, admire, and even envy them. But they seem to be few and far between, and are the exception not the rule.
So what have we taught our children? That marriage almost never works out? That it’s a fantasy? That it is fraught with dangers, and far too costly, emotionally and financially? Even if we don’t say it openly, the subliminal messages are strong. And what do we ourselves believe now about marriage? I am no longer sure. And watching our mistakes and failures, why would our children want to marry and emulate us?
I want to believe in marriage. I believe in the institution. I believe in two people who love each other making vows to each other and sticking by them, even in tough times. I believe in tradition and solid foundations. But most young people no longer seem to believe that. We may say one thing to them, and have lived another, with our own failures in plain sight.
When I speak to my children and their friends, in their early 20’s about it, they are leery, skeptical, even cynical. They no longer believe in the institutions we did. Many would rather have children without the burdens of marriage. They saw us burned too often, bailing out, and on the run, and in some cases failing again. And now they don’t trust us as the spokesmen of marriage, and I can’t blame them.
As much as I believe profoundly in the institution of marriage, and always have, suddenly in good conscience, I can’t sell it to them. My divorces were not bitter or ugly, they were civilized but heart breaking. My kids saw me cry too often. And do I want that for them? Do I want to see my children disappointed, give up power to someone who may abuse them, or be unkind to them, there is always that risk. I don’t want them hurt, and they don’t want to be hurt, as we were. And suddenly, I realize that I no longer know what I believe. I no longer have the conviction to say to them that I am certain marriage is the right thing. Is it? How do we know? How do any of us know that this person in the right one? It’s a complicated world today. And we have taught our children to be independent thinkers, even if that means they don’t follow the same paths we did.
In speaking to my younger children and their friends the other day, I realized that I no longer have all the answers, or even think I do. Instead of convincing them that the old ways are the right ones, I found myself wondering if they have the right idea for their generation. It truly got me thinking. Until recently, I always believed that I would be willing to marry again if I met the right person. But would I? Would I take that trip again, and risk all that agony and heartbreak? I am no longer so sure. There is no greater leap of faith and trust than marriage. I’m no longer sure I could do that again. But I’ve had my chance. And the new generation deserves theirs too, even if it is fraught with risk. They might get lucky at the roulette wheel of life.
I have always preferred the idea of being married to have children. But even that idea has been rejected by responsible, respectable young people in many countries and cultures. What they say to us now constantly is ‘Why?’ and as I leap in with the old answers, I lose my voice and sit thinking. Yes, why? Am I so sure that our answers were the right ones? What if they weren’t? What right do I have to impose or even share my philosophies, when they clearly did not work for an entire generation? And sadly, I am no longer sure what does work. I don’t think anyone is sure about it. The world has changed, mores have changed, and we can no longer sell ideas and rules that didn’t work for us either.
I never thought I would come to have an open mind on these subjects, to be less sure than I once was. I had such iron clad convictions. But as I listen to these young people, I want to protect them for the mistakes we made, from the hurts and disappointments. And perhaps they have found a way to protect themselves better than we did, by not following in our footsteps.
Perhaps growing up is no longer being certain that you have all the right answers, and being open to new ideas. The older I get, the less certain I am of all the things I used to believe in. I am willing to believe that others may have better answers, for them at least. And perhaps it is a form of freedom that none of us are bound by the old theories and ideas. Each of us is free to choose now whatever works best for us. There are and will be as many right solutions as there are people on the planet.
So when I think of ‘happily ever after’ now, I am not sure what or of whom I am thinking, or how that vision looks. Hopefully two people who love and respect each other, and after that it’s up to them. And whatever form of Happily Ever After they choose, they have my earnest hope and wish that it works for them.
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Marriage is a series of compromises.
When one person gets selfish for whatever reason, the relationship gets off kilter.One of the two have to bring it back in line. We all get on each others nerves at one time or another, even get on our own nerves!
Abuse is unforgiveable but other grievances can be overcome. I’ve been married for over 30 years, most of it quite happily, but I work on not being a “witch” and inform my spouse when he’s being a “warlock”. Sometimes it becomes a contest on who can be the nicest, and those acts seem to last the test of time. We’re of different religions, but deep faith has always guided us through the rough spots.
I was profoundly touched by this essay, it is beautifully written and echoes many thoughts that I myself have had. Thanks for putting it together so graciously.
A thought provoking post, Danielle. I don’t have the answers either. Nothing is certain, but you certainly won’t know that if you don’t have those leaps of faith.
[…] include one more for this week’s group. Danielle Steel wrote a beautiful essay called “marriage.” In it she describes her thoughts on the institution, what some of the cultural and […]
I enjoyed this article very, very much, as I agree with most of it. I too, would not even consider marriage anymore in my late 50s, but every combination of people, younger generation or older generation, is different. I know many people in our age group who have been together, married, many years. I don’t think that our generation is totally to blame for the institution of marriage going by the wayside. I think alot of it has to do with today’s disposable society with just about everything. If it doesn’t work change it, or get rid of it.
Modern technology is terrific but the downside is there is just too much of everything, too much input about things we don’t really need to hear about, too many choices…………..
The important thing is that everyone does what is right for them, young or old. Thanks for all your articles. Love, Lorraine
I am one of the ‘fortunates’ in the game of marriage today. My husband is a quietly strong minded and good man with a sense of self confidence sufficient to allow and encourage others to be whatever they want to be. His father died from diabetes when my husband was 5 and his mother passed away on the first night of her first ever holiday when he was 16 – he HAD to be independent, there was no choice. From such a rocky start to adulthood, he has persevered, explored options, struggled and fought to become the man he is today. He is not a saint (who amongst us is?) – he drinks too much on occasions, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and whatever you do, don’t start him discussing politics !! I came to the marriage with huge self confidence issues – both my parents were ‘only children’ and had no idea about relating to their own (they had 5 and my mother bluntly told me that I was “her first mistake” – she only wanted 2 and I was her third), her temper and outbursts were famous and terrifying, we were ruled from morning to night with an iron hand and will which covered everything from behaviours to dressing to foods allowed – which left me believing that I could make no decisions for myself and that my worth in the world was negligible. Our marriage at first was all chiefs, no indians – we BOTH wanted to be in charge but slowly, through all the bickering, pushing and challenging, we started to realise how alike we really were. We wanted the same things out of life, had similar ideals on child raising (even though he had a real fight on his hands to make me see that being a mother didn’t mean that I would beat, mentally torment and damage my children) and weren’t afraid to work hard to both meet and beat the challenges that life threw at us. AAfter several jobs, I started collecting precious gems and he pushed me again – “You CAN start a business selling these” and now I distribute to jewellers and collectors around the world. When that was in place and doing well, he pushed again “You have a talent in designing” – and now I specialise in private commissions for jewellery. He owns and operates an engineering company, holds patents and consults for clients in design and prototypes for new groundbreaking products – he is smart, kind, caring, funny and loving. Yes, I am lucky but also yes, we have worked at it. My recipe for a successful and happy marriage – find a person with similar values and, if possible, background, share SOME but not all interests, respect and genuinely CARE for each other and, above all, have FUN together. We also live by a rule which my father gave me on the morning of our wedding – “If it is going to be important in 20 years, fight for it. If it is not, LET IT GO”. So, overall, my vote is “Yes” for marriage – it’s hard work sometimes but oh so worth it.
Hmmm….don’t know if I agree with all of this but interesting nontheless.
What I do agree with are…”wise choices in the beginning” and working hard during the storms.
I think marriage SHOULD work, because God created us to be fruitful and multiply, and ideally that would be within the safe confines of marriage. What I don’t think works in marriage is pretense….when we put on our very best faces for the children, but can’t back it up with geniune love and respect for our mate.
I think marriage gets boring for a lot of men and maybe less so for women, and it’s up to someone to spice things up. I think women want a lot of control over everything..esp once children factor in, and sometimes that’s unbalanced. But I agree that sometimes when a poisonous environment is there, there needs to be steps taken to avoid that type of environment and maybe one should step back and gain perspective and make hard choices.
I noticed with my mom’s generation that there was a lot of emphasis on women in community with each other….coffee dates, church socials, and a lot of sharing of information and comraderie. That is sorely missing today with “instant” friends and “instant” everything. Nowadays everything is too easy, if it’s hard, then go to the next thing. And yes, children need a loving mom and dad to balance them out.
Oh I could go on and on..I’ll stop now.
Somehow you have put my thoughts down where they finally make sense. I too have trouble guiding my children when I can’t entirely convince them of what I once thought was right always turned so horribly wrong.
I believe more in marriage now, after a bitter and painful divorce, than I did when I was married. I got married at 18, had my first child at 19 and had no clue what unconditional love was. I had no idea that lasting love has little to do with romance and much to do with choice. I longed for an enchanted love but didn’t know how to create one. Through the ups and downs of a messy divorce, after nearly losing everything I held dear in my life, and after having my beliefs rocked to the core, I’m now about to get married for the second time + what I’m learning is this: love is a brave, courageous choice, marriage is a daring, transformative adventure + saying yes to both is a gift that can’t be had any other way. Why get married? It’s the only opportunity one gets to truly, fully and for a lifetime choose another. Why not get married? Love is worth the risk.
I think one needs to think carefully why one is getting married. Go beyond – “I’m in love.” Look deeper. Am I getting married for:
– Financial Security
– I don’t want to live at home anymore
– I’m lonely
– I like to talk with this person
– Sex is great
– I’m pregnant
Then think about what would happen if any of those reasons went away. For example:
– I don’t need anyone to financially support myself
– I can live on my own
– I don’t need to actually live with someone to have sex with them
– In the future, my spouse is going to work really long hours or spend most of his free time away from me
Would you still want to be married to this person?
I think it’s really important to learn how to be happy by oneself first. To learn how to love oneself without depending on another person to love you. So when you do meet someone, you’re not desperate for companionship. You can then assess if this person will be good for your spiritual health or take you for granted or even berate you. You don’t necessarily have to live with someone to be good friends with them and share a physical connection.
But once you can stand on your own, each person can bring so much more to a relationship than their own needs. They can really start giving to each other because each person can be happy by themselves, they’re not looking for the other person to fulfill some desperate hidden need. If the spouse is there, fine, both of you can have fun. If the the spouse has to be away, fine, you can be happy on your own, and not cling to them. If the spouse loses their job, that’s fine also, you don’t need their money.
So why get married if you don’t ‘need’ them? Because you can and want to make the other person happy. And this is important, you can make the person happy, by being yourself, without sacrificing your own sense of self, piece of mind. They don’t demand that you demean yourself or cause yourself grief or withstand painful situations just to ‘show’ you love them. That’s not love. That’s someone else’s desperate neediness.
[…] with Andi I found my way to Danielle Steel’s website and blog to read her article on Marriage. The article is long but well worth the read. She explores her own path of beliefs around the […]
[…] include one more for this week’s group. Danielle Steel wrote a beautiful essay called “marriage.” In it she describes her thoughts on the institution, what some of the cultural and […]