Ask MR: Does “Happily Ever After” Really Exist?

Love Forever

Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing [email protected] with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.

“There are these mythical couples (especially on TV) who found the ‘love of their life’ and know that they want to be holding hands until they die, but I feel that’s not the case for the majority? Or is it just me? Is it okay to not be sure something/someone is for forever? Does ‘happily ever after’ really exist?”

Good question(s). I’m equal parts romantic and cynical about this notion of one relationship lasting you forever, a lifetime. Here’s one unsatisfying answer: I’m not sure that we can ever be sure about anything (cue the expression, “sure as sure can be.”) I do feel certain, however, that I experienced a strange stroke of kismet last weekend.

There’s something about the last car on a Brooklyn-bound 5 train on a soggy Friday night that makes people want to talk to each other like it’s 1997. That’s what I gathered a week ago, anyway, when my friend Maxson and I slipped through the nearest doors on the platform, embarking on interborough travel en route to a friend’s party. With six subway stops to our destination and no available seats, Maxson and I staked out a subway pole and stood facing each other. With five stops to go, Maxson got tired and proceeded to crouch, maintaining his balance with one hand on the pole. It was at this point that, much to our befuddlement, everyone around us began to stare—and then we realized they all thought he was proposing to me. We started to giggle, processing the look of shock on everyone’s faces, stunned at the power one sweeping gesture can have in a public place.

An amused, middle-aged Spanish man standing near us asked if Maxson and I were an item, and I clarified that, no, we’re just friends, we’ve known each other our whole lives.

“You never know,” the man said. “My cousin used to date this girl in high school, and he said he couldn’t stand to look at her ever again. Then they got married when they were 28, and now they’ve been together since, happily ever after.”

“Happily ever after? Are you sure?” I asked him. “How long have they been together?”

“They’re 63 now. Happily ever after,” he told me, repeating the phrase already ringing in my ears. “They never get into arguments. I tell them it’s healthy every once in a while to get into an argument, and they say they never do—instead, they just go to the gym.”

I marveled at this odd episode on an otherwise routine train ride, where a man had just handed me the introduction to a story I’d been trying to figure out how to write over the course of the past week. Who could be less qualified than I am, a single woman in her late twenties, to answer a reader’s question about whether “happily ever after” exists? Ideally this story would be assigned to a woman in her eighties who has collected more earthly evidence than I have, but even she’d only have her own well of experience to draw from. I had opted to take a whack at this question in a vulnerable state after having finished Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (a filmic meditation on this very question) but I reject the idea that a movie, even one as contemplative as Before Midnight, is the place to seek real, meaty answers. Especially since this kind of idealized media is what got us into trouble in the first place.

Feminist scholars far more specialized than I am can tell you that “happily ever after” is a myth. They can deconstruct the stories directed toward young women, and they can remind you of the ways these stories program you to seek validation through another person, which won’t necessarily pave the path to fulfillment. And anyway, I think I’m setting myself up for disappointment if I adopt the mindset that one person will be everything to me. If I had to decide between this one mystery person who fills every void and checks every box, and all of my friends and family who fill my life with joy at present, I’m inclined to choose the latter.

I have a friend whose point of view I tend to agree with: She says that there’s no such thing as the one true love, the one soulmate, but rather the right person at the right time. I see how this idea looms large and ominous in our minds: What prepares us to commit to another person for 50-some-odd years, when we’ve made virtually no other decisions like that up until this point? Setting up a 401k, eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising are the only decisions I’ve made that are on par with committing to something for decades, but even those aren’t really binding.

And on the flip side, nothing is fixed. Nothing is assuredly permanent. Everything is always changing, even a relationship we want to padlock. What could be less fixed than another person? Hitching your wagon to someone else’s doesn’t mean the wagons stop moving.

I was recently reading a book that quotes John Updike on the topic of temporariness: In the foreword of one of his novels, Updike writes “that a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds.” I’ve never been married, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that a relationship that doesn’t last forever is a failure. How do you learn to enjoy something while recognizing its transience, without requiring a certain firmness of it? Is it possible? Doesn’t it feel like some people are much better at it than others? Do you need to come to terms with your own transience before you can do that? Every relationship is transient, after all. Some just last longer than others.

When faced with the question of whether “happily ever after exists,” I feel like I have no concrete data points; they’re each as flimsy as they are firm. I could tell you about the man I talked to on the subway last weekend, and the story about his cousin. I could tell you about the relationship advice relayed by women who have seen four more decades of the world unfurl than I have. I could tell you about the vows I heard exchanged at my friends’ wedding this summer, and how I often still think about what the bride said, choked up with tears, said to the groom: that she’d always love him and she’d always be by his side, now and in 20 years and then when they’re ghosts.

Or I could tell you about how I walked the length of Central Park this weekend, thinking about how on earth I was going to answer this question, on the Sunday when somehow daylight savings extended golden hour to stretch over two hours and the air felt like velvet—the kind of weather that makes walking feel more like floating, a kind of just-happy-to-be-alive buoyancy that always reminds me of a Marc Chagall painting.

Walking parallel to the 98th Street entrance, I slowed my pace and began to read the tiny plaques on the park’s benches. They ranged from the funny (“I love you very much and look forward to marrying you… but if we have a fight you can always sleep here”) to the comforting (“JACK ROCKETT’S BENCH: Have a seat! You’ll feel better. Jack was kind, charming and a great listener. Loved by J, J & W”). And then my Baader-Meinhof syndrome kicked into high gear as I saw two declarative benches next to each other: “Kate and David – November 17, 2018 ….Happily Ever After” and “Emma and Greg – September 27, 2014 ….Happily Ever After.”

Everywhere I walked, I saw couples: one seated on a bench studying their respective textbooks, another laughing and sitting on the grass face-to-face with their legs crossed and their knees touching, one smiling and embracing as they waited for the crosswalk, one standing up behind a wall not high enough to obscure them as they buttoned up their clothes. In the glow of late afternoon in early spring, it’s hard not to indulge a glimmer of hope, a feeling of anticipation for the sprawl of the future, and the kind of resolution it may or may not hold.

Photo by Beth Sacca.

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