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.