Happily Ever After?
'Happily ever after' is the relationship story we've all been sold, along with the idea that our partners are meant to be our everything. But what if all that overbearing love is making us unhappy?
When you’re growing up, the meaning of ‘happily ever after’ seems so unambiguous. You find your person, you get together with that person, and then you spend the rest of your lives in a state of unified bliss. No need to see what happens after the wedding. That’s boring. Forget for a moment the myriad of broken relationships littering our parents’ generation. Love was love, and when you had it you could overcome anything. Nothing could be more natural.
So, we’ve spent our lives looking for a soulmate. That one mythical person who supplies all our affection, intimacy, emotional support and understanding. A perfect, unbreakable pair. Yet a rising tide of psychologists and evolutionary biologists are discovering that co-dependence is a far-from-natural state of being for humans to be in. And by dedicating ourselves so wholly to one person, we may be diminishing not only each other, but also the community around us. That we are, as the sex therapist Esther Perel puts it, “asking one person to give you what an entire village used to provide”.
Happily ever after: a modern romance
Our all-consuming vision of romantic love is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. For most of recorded history, marriage was more a question of commerce and class than it was actual love. Arranged marriages and marriages of convenience were the norm, forbidden unions common. Even in love matches, the emphasis was on the continuity of community and culture.
“Up until quite recently, most people recognised relationships as a functional thing,” explains Patricia Purnell-Webb, a psychologist and co-founder of the Relationship Institute Australasia. “We got into relationships, we had kids, we tried to raise those kids and provide them with food and shelter. If we got on well that’s excellent, but it was by no means a prerequisite.”
According to Purnell-Webb, the change in our attitudes can be traced back to the rise of Hollywood. “Prior to that, most people had no sense that their partner was supposed to give them everything they needed. But Hollywood offered us this very compelling myth of the soulmate. It was hard to resist.” The emergence of popular culture also coincided with the social fragmentation brought on by suburbanisation and the accompanying veneration of the nuclear family. Locked away in our little castles, we had little choice but to turn ever closer to the only other adult in the room: our partner.
The problem with co-dependence
In her work, Purnell-Webb has seen firsthand the damage that excessive co-dependence can produce. “Co-dependence can lead to a huge amount of conflict,” she says. “That's because it’s tied in with the language of rejection: you got that wrong; you made the wrong decision; your perception is wrong. In these sorts of relationships, you can’t be happy together unless you’re in absolute agreement.” (Although the outcomes are similar, Purnell-Webb differentiates between co-dependence and enmeshment. Co-dependence is where both partners are equally paralysed by the need for one another’s approval. Enmeshment, is where one person affixes their own emotional state to another.)
Co-dependent relationships often present as strong and even idyllic bonds to outsiders, but they can be marked by feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness. Left to simmer, these are the fodder of emotional breakdown, resentment and extramarital affairs—damaging behaviours that erupt from a hyper-pressurised environment.
The power of autonomy
The issue, explains Purnell-Webb, is the way in which these kinds of relationships tend to circumscribe a person’s feeling of autonomy. It’s certainly well understood that a lack of control, or mastery over one’s life, is a key indicator for depression and anxiety. “Everyone needs a sense of mission and purpose in the world,” says Purnell-Webb. “If we’re in a state of high emotional dependence we don’t have the space to set our own goals and explore the world on our own terms. Instead we get stuck in these patterns where the only way we can do or make a decision about something is when we completely agree on it.”
She cites the Jewish psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whose own experiences taught him that a feeling of mission and purpose was often the difference between who survived the camps and who didn’t. “We need this feeling as individuals in order to be the best versions of ourselves.”
However, this doesn’t mean the solution is simply an imposed distance. A pioneering 2007 study called The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships explored the relationship between one partner’s responsiveness and the other’s expressed feelings of independence. What they discovered was that the more actively responsive a partner was, the more independent a participant described themselves as feeling. While this might sound counterintuitive, it has much in common with the attachment theory of child-rearing. Namely that children who feel safe and supported are more likely to explore their world and cultivate a sense of independence than those who are actively pushed towards one. Or, to put it another way: tough love doesn’t work.
Interdependence over independence
The key in both cases is the feeling that one has a “secure base” to return to. “It’s the balance between being there for each other and leaving space for us to follow our own interests and paths,” says Purnell-Webb. In our relationships, she says, we should be working towards a state not of independence, but of interdependence, where we come to the task of relationship building as individuals rather than an automatic unit. “It’s a relationship where you share the philosophy that we both have our own way of seeing things and that both are valid and okay.
“It might not sound all that romantic, but the reality is that if we find someone who can fulfil most of our needs in terms of physical and emotional intimacy, then that is what the psychologist John Gottman would call the ‘good enough’ relationship.” (If that name sounds familiar, he’s the psychologist who made waves a few years back when he announced that by watching couples discuss a fraught issue, he could predict whether they’d get divorced with 90% accuracy; Purnell-Webb is a follower of his methodology.)
Renegotiate the fundamentals
Naturally, coaxing space from an excessively close relationship can be a delicate task, and open, honest communication is key. “Every couple I see I recommend that they sit down and have regular conversations around the shared philosophy, the shared meaning and expectations that they’re going to have in this relationship and their lives together,” says Purnell-Webb. “People and circumstances do change over the course of a life and sometimes we might need to renegotiate the fundamentals.”
From a more practical, day-to-day standpoint, achieving interdependence is about identifying the things that you don’t feel satisfied with, or that you’d like to dedicate more energy towards and working out where it can fit into your relationship. Purnell-Webb tells me about her partner’s love of golf, an activity she has little time for. “We’ve often had to renegotiate the amount of time and money that was being spent on golf,” she says, “but it’s never been okay for me to say, ‘No, you must stop that.’ As partners we have to be open to the fact that we all have different interests and needs and likes and that we won’t feel completely satisfied unless we can do some part of those things.”
Kids complicate things
These ongoing discussions are particularly important to have when children enter the equation and a two-way relationship becomes an often-tangled emotional triangle. Research has shown that most couples will experience six years of heightened conflict after the birth of their first child and that most of those conflicts are centred around the division between personal, family and relationship time. “Kids take up a lot of our time,” says Purnell-Webb. “In relationships, the perception of fairness and balance is really important in preventing resentments from building.”
The issues she sees are usually based around situations where one partner has, as she puts it, “self-sacrificed” themselves to be the primary caregiver, but the relationship doesn’t acknowledge that loss of independence. “On the face of it, it might look like both parties are working equally, but it’s a different thing if one person is with the children the whole time. The other party is in a completely different world where they don’t have to think about their relationship.”
There’s no magic bullet for such tensions, but communication is, as always, the key. “We have to have those discussions,” says Purnell-Webb, “even if they’re uncomfortable. We have to make sure we’re not simply repeating what our own mothers and fathers did, because every family is unique. And most importantly, you have to find a space away from the family in order to be the best parent and partner you can be.”
Happily Ever After was originally published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 18.