Falling in love is wonderful, right? You meet someone, feel sick to your stomach every time you talk to them and miserable whenever you’re apart. You care desperately what they think of you and can’t figure out what they think of you to save your life because you can’t actually think around them at all. Finally you reach the romantic getting together part, it really is wonderful, and the movie script ends. You’re past happily and headed into ever after, the territory beyond the roll of the credits that few people want to make or watch movies about. It’s here that you’ll eventually come back to your senses and find out how practical that decision your heart made for you actually was. Sure, they’re great, but can you live together?
I think part of the appeal of romantic movies where the characters are forced together in situations that are basically temporary marriages of convenience – like undercover agents or partners in crime who have to pretend to be a couple to achieve some goal – is that they bridge that gap. It’s sort of an accelerated or backwards version of the usual experience of dating. Rather than being on their best behavior and working to impress their prospective partner, characters tied together for some improbable practical reason usually don’t give a fig what the other person thinks of their personal habits. They leave their underwear lying around and drink milk out of the carton. They air out their most annoying habits like a dare: whatcha gonna do about it, huh? If I have to put up with all your crap, then you have to put up with mine.
The underlying romantic premise is that they fall in love despite being fully aware of each other’s most irritating habits and biggest flaws, which is basically the opposite of a fairy tale, where the characters are two-dimensionally perfect and easy to love from start to finish. It creates the sense that they really know each other, and therefore are truly in love in a way that could believably get them through an ever after strewn with dirty laundry. Marrying for love rather than practicality means that love is what’s supposed to see you through, so a storyline that gives the characters a chance to prove to the audience in advance that they can make it work helps sell the happy ending to generations familiar with the various paths that lead to divorce.
But suppose right from the start you know that you don’t want to get on any emotional rollercoaster. You’re afraid of heights and you hate that feeling of losing your stomach. What if instead of soulmates.com what you want is more like perfectlyadequate.com? You want to weed out anyone who would drive you nuts before you ever meet them and risk accidentally falling in love with them. Your personal ad is a laundry list of concrete things that would make someone a compatible long-term partner:
– likes to sleep with the windows open and the blinds closed
– does not object to multiple collections of knickknacks
– prefers to eat food directly out of containers to reduce dish-washing
– would rather get back to the hotel than back to nature
Or say that you did let your heart make that decision for you. It seemed like a really good one at the time, and honestly there are a bunch of ways where it was. Now you’re in the middle of ever after and you don’t really want it to end, but it’s less happily than you were hoping for. Maybe your partner is a great life partner but you both want to date other people, or you’re staying together for the kids, or you’ve found out you make great roommates so you’re still living together, or you’re not great roommates but you can’t afford to break your lease and move. You want to meet someone, but you can’t figure out how on earth to find anyone you like who won’t back away slowly as you explain your living situation. Joining your average dating site is likely to result in a depressing series of failures. What you really need is itscomplicated.com. Your ad reads something like this:
Of course, historically, marriages of convenience have played out much better for whoever was socially on top, so it was much easier for men and the very wealthy to have their cake made in once place and eat it somewhere else without being stigmatized. The odds have evened out somewhat, but unconventional relationships are still frequently a source of confusion and discomfort for many people, and the inequity of the “he’s a stud, she’s a slut” attitude is still a problem. There are very few examples in the movies of anything other than monogamy and romantic love truly succeeding, and very few narratives about maintaining those things or anything else through the challenges of a long-term relationship.
I still enjoy the classic romantic storylines, but I think the more we can find ways to tell ourselves stories about different kinds of people and different ways of living happily ever after, the more likely it is that we will each be able to find ways to live happily with each other all the way through our lives.
alex MacFadyen strives to be perfectly adequate in spite of life’s complications.