I saw The Five Year Engagement this weekend with some friends. Quick review: the first half was awesome. Then it all fell apart badly.
Anyway, one of the concepts in the movie is that this couple is sort of waiting to iron out all of their problems before they get married. And that started me thinking about how afraid people are of divorce (me included) and the unrealistic expectations we tend to have about relationships and marriage. Let’s unpack this further.
I know for me, and in talking to my friends as we grew up, it felt really important to choose the right person to marry, to be absolutely sure. It’s a lot of pressure, to be honest. I think divorce is much more of a reality for us then for our parents, even those of us who grew up around happy marriages. There’s this almost magical thinking inherent in this concept. Choosing the right person is the best way to ward off divorce. But is it, really? I believe that way of thinking misses so much. I mean, we all grow and change throughout our lives. The person I am now, although maybe the same deep down, is still pretty different than when I was 20. Who knows what I will be like, what I’ll want and need, when I’m 50? I certainly can’t say. And that’s nothing to say of external factors that can easily make a relationship harder, if not ruin it completely.
But that truth is hard to face. It’s really scary to feel that no matter how secure you are in your relationship, things could always change down the road. So I think it’s easier to just believe that if you pick the right person, you’ll be ok. It’s a pretty effective way to ward off the fear.
Ok, let’s set aside this issue of finding The One Right Person (which, for the record, I don’t believe in anyway) for the moment. The other thing that stuck out to me during the movie was the trap of unrealistic expectations that the couple fell into and that I think most of us fall for at one point or another.
The stories we grow up with teach us about Great Romance. They teach us that your soul mate is out there, and when you find them, you will have a beautiful and easy relationship with no bumps in the road, no problems, no moments of not being able to stand the other person. Then we grow up a little bit and graduate to romantic comedies. Sure, there is some conflict, some reason for the couple to have difficulties. But that all ends when they make the decision to be together and get married. Then, it’s happily ever after.
Except it’s not. Except relationships are messy and inconsistent. Except that even when you love someone, sometimes you just don’t see eye-to-eye. This warped view of relationships leads us to search for something that doesn’t actually exist. No two people can get along perfectly all of the time. No two people can just be together all of the time without needing some space. No two people can be in love without having any conflict. People aren’t perfect, and neither are the relationships they get themselves into.
The problems really start when you combine that pressure of having the exact right person for you with the unrealistic expectations of what a good relationship will look like. Then, the moment that things get difficult, the obvious conclusion is that it’s not the right person. So, you break up. Or, you keep dating, putting off marriage until you figure everything out. But then, how can you ever get married?
I think we need to start talking about the hard stuff. We need to be honest with ourselves and with the people we know about our relationships. Now, I’m not suggesting that we share private details with everyone we know. I’m suggesting that we stop pretending that everything is perfect. We stop trying to present a front and make people think we have the perfect relationship. If we can be honest with each other, we can find the support and advice that gets us through the hard times instead of going it alone. And that can only make our relationships better.