Guest Author: The Tyranny of “Happily Ever After”

Kimberly Kael, a regular poster to our forums, wrote this recently & I thought it really stood repeating:

Here’s a question that has been bothering me lately and that I’ve been trying to put into words: does the social emphasis on happily ever after as the canonical goal for relationships do more harm than good?

Sometimes the notion of true love feels like the platonic ideals of male and female – it serves as an interesting point of reference but taken too seriously it becomes a source of frustration because none of us can really live up to the implied expectations. That’s not to say there isn’t merit in aspiring to a durable relationship. I’m sure it’s been reinforced in many ways. There are relationships that look perfect and effortless from the outside. There are times in our lives when we’ve had that kind of connection and we want to hang onto it forever.

Of course there are also good economic and emotional reasons to encourage stability by giving people an incentive not to split at the first sign of trouble. Indeed, I’ve never been in a rewarding relationship that didn’t involve working through rough spots. On the other hand, how many people fall into the trap of expecting love to be free of these kinds of challenges? I guess that’s a notion most of us take with a grain of salt by the time we get a little experience in balancing the needs of a partnership.

What’s more insidious is that society encourages us to make a lot of explicit or implied promises about the distant future that we simply may not be able to keep without making ourselves and everyone around us miserable. That sets unrealistic expectations for everyone involved, which evolve into a sense of entitlement: “Where’s my happily ever after?” It seems fundamentally implausible that so many relationships end in divorce and yet when people wind up there it seems to come as a complete surprise. They have no backup plan and only an incomplete set of life skills beyond those specialized for the role they played in the relationship.

At the root of it all is that unlike the male/female dichotomy there’s no spectrum implied by a single point. Where are the other archetypal relationships? Okay, so there’s the affair. The one-night stand. But is there anything else that doesn’t have a strong negative connotation?

I’ve personally been talking to an old friend about this idea a lot as she’s been unhappy recently & wondering if the source of her frustration was her relationship or the compromises it implies. That is, she wasn’t necessarily unhappy with her partner himself, but unhappy at the kind of compromises she’s made due to being in a relationship at all, with anyone. Her “pattern” – if she has one – is one of serial monogamy: relationships of several years that end when the compromise:satifaction ratio starts to fall short.

As someone who once was poly – although initially somewhat unwillingly & eventually quite happily – I’m not sure why we persist in believing that one person can be all that we need emotionally, sexually, romantically. We often expect someone (1) we have good sex with, (2) get all tingly around, (3) whose conversation & company we enjoy, and (4) with whom we can build a life, a home, a family. It’s kind of a lot, no? I remember many years ago, before meeting Betty, at feeling astonished I could manage even two of those with the same person in a short period of time — but over a lifetime? In speaking with more & more poly people, and perusing Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up, the way that people “use” poly in their lives seems endlessly variable & creative. Still, though, it generally means to people “having sex with whoever you want.” Which I know, poly folks, is not what it means at all – but that’s still the popular perception.

I know, for someone like me, no one really bats an eyebrow if I mention missing having a male husband. Betty & everyone else knows I intended to be in a relationship with a man. So while Betty & I are still happy as two peas in a pod, there are days when what I’ve lost, and what I miss, is pretty acute. I don’t suspect I will ever stop missing having a male husband, even if the missing grows less acute and less chronic over time. As someone who has always had strong emotional relationships with men – the adoptive “older brothers” I talked about in She’s Not the Man – I miss some kind of masculine energy in my life (and not just sexually, you big perverts). This stuff is gendered because I’m the partner of a person who transitioned from within our marriage, but it strikes me that there are about a million things that a person might miss, or need, over time.

As in: I know there are women out there who have very little interest in sex but who love being wives and mothers. I know too there are women out there who only prefer being desired by men, and love sex, but have little to no urge for domesticity. Others who want the hotness & secrecy that being “the girlfriend” to a man with a wife might bring. There are mid-life crises, when our youth and value seem lost and make us feel diminished. There is menopause and child birth and enlarged prostates that fuck with our hormone levels and libidos. That is, it seems hard NOT to see that how we want to be loved, desired, seen, recognized, and validated will change over time for a gazillion reasons. The poly people I meet seem to be the only ones who actually acknowledge any of that stuff, while the rest of us – and yes, I’m including myself – prefer to put our heads down & hope it’ll go away, that our needs will return to what they were when we first met our life partner. For the record, & as a feminist, I’m going to hazard a guess that more women than men put their heads down, often because they have to out of concern for children, financial issues, & the like.

While I know that plenty who read this will find the ideas in it depressing, I know plenty of others – myself included – who feel really cheered by the way poly lives have started to examine this stuff and well, deal with it. My first revelation came when I attended a workshop by swingers about jealousy, because the idea that swingers were jealous, ever, had never occurred to me; I thought maybe they were swingers exactly because they just weren’t jealous types, and finding out that was not true – that swingers were jealous but had needs that trumped them giving into jealous & possessive relationships – kind of blew my mind. That is, they weren’t swingers because they weren’t jealous, but despite it. (& As someone who has always had a jealous streak, I found that damned near superheroic.)

I will add – because despite my having been about as clear as I can be in my writing, some prefer to try to read between the lines – Betty & I are just fine, thank you. We are still adjusting, as a couple, to our transition. But we have no intention of breaking up, not now or ever. As I’ve said before, being half of a trans couple – or half of any couple, I presume – takes a great deal of creativity and open-mindedness. Our poly friends have been, to a large degree, incredibly supportive of our own challenges and the kind of honesty we needed to make it through transition, which in turn lead me to wonder, exactly, what these folks had figured out. My need to overturn every rock notwithstanding, it has taken quite a while to get our poly friends to talk about why they’re poly; as with most cultures far from “approved institutionality” they are reluctant to share because they’re so used to being judged, and harshly, by the monogamous mainstream.

For the record, Kimberly & her partner have been together 13 years, & have also managed to stay together through her transition. (Bet you thought otherwise, didn’t you?)

So: your thoughts?