Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When Happily Ever After Doesn't End At The Alter

By J Perry Stone

I freely admit to being a hopeless romantic in the very traditional sense of the word. Perhaps this is why I’m attracted to romance novels, historical in particular. The hero and heroine overcome a slew of obstacles only to end up standing at the alter … and with a baby or two in the epilogue.

That’s how I like to read it. That’s how I like to live it.

Not so much my friends, however. In the past two years, roughly 70% of my husband’s and my contemporaries have gotten a divorce. Obviously the experience has been wretched for our friends, but it is also having a poisonous effect on me as my idealistic naïveté where happily ever after is concerned is taking repeated kicks to the ass.

What is going on? Splitting up assets and custody hearings do not a happy ending make. What’s more, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I’m setting myself up for a major depression if I keep applying what happens in romancelandia to the real world. Or maybe love conquering all is simply taking a roundabout circuit I don’t yet recognize.

As it turns out, many of my girlfriends have recently grown up to find themselves married to men who were so emotionally stunted, even a plant couldn’t subsist in their care. Two of my best girls are leaving their husbands with the hope that genuine love is still out there. But they’re also waiting patiently. Maybe they need to rest while their battle scars fade, but I suspect it’s also a growing sense of maturity that is making them pause. They’ve both realized they have to love themselves first. They have to be whole enough to be able give such a love before they can get such a love. They know—and this is a very un-romance book thought—that happiness comes from within first and love is simply the precious opportunity to share it.

So yes, I want everyone at the alter … but I’m slowly beginning to realize a wedding can include just one party.

Becky, do you take this woman, Becky, to be your lawfully wedded wife?

So how about you? Has reading/writing romance ever altered your take on reality? How are you able to rationalize real world suffering with your happily ever after point of view?


Sandy Elzie said...

Good morning Julie,

You are right when you say that happiness comes from within first and love is simply the precious opportunity to share it. I believe only we can make ourselves happy and if we're looking for someone else to do it for us, that's unfair and lazy.

I read, watch and write romance as an escape from the real world. No one get's divorsed in my books. My books and the movies I watch are for entertainment...not another dose of reality...I can get that on Fox News or from some of my friends.

The issue is that some couples make good choices and some don't. Some are willing to work hard to make a marriage work and some don't

If a couple is truly in love...not in lust...and BOTH are mature and committed to long-term...both have decided that failure is not an option and the "D" word is not to ever be put on the table as an option, then they'll be in the minority who celebrate 50 years of marriage. In a lot of cases, it comes down to whether or not they were telling the minister, witnesses and God the truth when they said 'For better or worse'.


J Perry Stone said...

I just didn't expect to be so affected by my friends' experiences, Sandy. It's one thing to be there as a support for my girls; quite another to feel like the foundation upon which I've built my life is in fact as fragile as glass.

But maybe this isn't such a bad thing. At least now I don't run the risk of taking my good marriage for granted.

Sandy Elzie said...


You are right on target. We should never take our good men for granted. (and they shouldn't do it to us either)

I've had friends divorse...some we saw coming, some we were thankful when the war they had raged was finally over...fortunitely in their case there were no children. Then there was that couple who had been married 25 years, appeared loving and supportive and wham! Yes, that one knocked the legs out from under me. Problem was, she didn't see it coming either. All we can do then is be a support and cry with them.


J Perry Stone said...

The out of left field divorce is the absolute worst. That poor woman.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning Julianne:
I think today's romances do a lot more toward dealing with a little bit of reality, but not much. We all wish for that Danielle Steele life where pain exists, but somehow time just flows around it and washes it away. And,of course, the right man always comes along.

After thirty-one years of marriage, I've come to realize that HEA is a lot of work and committment. Way more than an epilogue can cover :)

Marilyn Baron said...

I've been fortunate in that most of my longtime friends have remained married. Recently, we celebrated our 35 anniversary with three other couples who met when we were all in college. We looked around the table and commented that it was amazing we were all still married.

I do have three friends (I have to keep increasing this number because as I type I think of another person who got divorced)who got divorced, all initiated by the women who thought they should be happier and one sister who got divorced very early on in her first marriage but went on to find a great husband and now has three children.

But by and large the couples who started out with us are still couples.

I'm a romantic too and that raises my expectations, but the heroines I tend to write have issues with their heroes which is strange because it doesn't reflect what's happening in my life. But it's more fun to write.


Anna Steffl said...

You know, romance novels are pretty dang real in one way. They aren't about the HEA. They are about getting to the point where a HEA is possible. Almost every marriage these days begins in the adrenaline rush of courtship.I think women get the same thrill out of reading it that guys get from sports. Doesn't make it bad or unreal. Football players feel a heck of a lot of pain. They are our proxies, our safe way of living what lights fire in us. But every sports fan doesn't think he's actually a football player. Every romance reader doesn't expect her whole life to mirror the pages.

You know though,for a reality check, I imagine lots of the couples in romance novels probably don't really have HEAs -- the writer just threw together two people who hate each other in an elevator, their hate turns to love through some interior/exterior machinations, and things are rosy. Then, they're married a few years, a women's fiction writer adopts them, and we hear all about the agony. Its all about what part of the story you're telling.

Reconciling suffering? Has that ever been done? We can only be more or less compassionate. I don't think romance is without compassion or is a denial of people's pain. It just tells a different story.

Excellent post, BTW.

J Perry Stone said...

Debbie said: "After thirty-one years of marriage, I've come to realize that HEA is a lot of work and commitment. Way more than an epilogue can cover :)"

Amen Debbie. For me it's generally joyful work ... although not right now as my dh is suffering from a case of stress-related hives. He's driving me nutty and he's pissy besides.

Maybe I should just read a book.

Dianna Love said...

I feel for you, Julie, because watching other marriages of friends you care about fall apart does take a toll on your sense of HEA. I've seen some divorces that surprised me, some couples who really should have never married and some who just break my heart because I think they could work through the issues.

I've also seen couples who are dear friends that both faced situations I wouldn't have put good money on any couple working through, but both ended up facing their ugly issues, committing to counseling and are now incredibly happy and have a strong marriages several years later.

So there are some "good" stories that would have normally ended in divorce.

People are always telling me that my husband and I are "lucky" to have a great marriage. It's not luck - as all of you who are in the same situation know. The luck only happened in meeting each other. After that, it's a commitment to another person that exceeds any boundary on this earth.

I love romantic stories for the joy of watching two people overcome their differences and conflicts to reach out to each other. I've heard true stories that we'd never believe in a romance so I don't have any problem with the fantasy of romance, because romance does happen at times in real life so why not enjoy it in a story?

J Perry Stone said...

Marilyn, that is lucky. You all should go on a cruise to celebrate.

Interesting about the woman who initiated the divorce because they thought they should be happier. That seems to be the trend with most of our friends.

The last thing you said was that being a romantic raises your expectations. It's the same with me in real life. But, like you, my characters are not at all like this.

BTW, I was late to the party and only now commented on your posting on Monday. Great post.

J Perry Stone said...

Anna, terrific points. A romance does tell a different part of the story and I LOLed about the women's fiction writer adopting my little romance couple.

You're so smart!

J Perry Stone said...

Diana, this is going to be my battle cry:

"I've heard true stories that we'd never believe in a romance so I don't have any problem with the fantasy of romance, because romance does happen at times in real life so why not enjoy it in a story?"

Thank you! I have to remember HEA does exist ... just not for everyone all the time (or in the manner they think it's coming to them).

70% of my friends though. It's hard not to get a little bummed out about it.

Deborah Blake Dempsey said...

I think women, and some men, believe in the HEA and the euphoria of the beginning years that they are blinded to the fact that relationships, all relationships, are fluid and change. But not only the relationship, but the people involved.

In the beginning, we align ourselves with one another because the love, lust, and emotions are heady and powerful, even if the fit is a little too tight or foreign. But when we get more comfortable, we begin noticing things and asking ourselves questions, that does not necessarily fit within the marriage structure. Unless both parties are willing – and able – to open themselves up to the possibilities of new, and perhaps scary, changes, they will struggle and disconnect. It is these moments and situations that strengthen or weaken the couple or the individual.

I think, as with our romance novels, we want our lives to be the “perfection” we fantasize about and the mountainous terrain (both beautiful lush and rocky and difficult) we have. Once people realize they can’t have IT, they seek it elsewhere, but I always wonder if they ever really find it.

Susan May said...

My Husband and I are lucky we've had few friends that have gotten divorced since we have married. I think my fear is that it would rub off on me if we did. Nice post.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


I don't have to tell you what a great post this was--the subsequent comments prove it through the intelligence of the continued discussion.

Your question is such a valid one and one of the stigmas that romance writers have to face: how can you write these stories in the face of the actual odds? I especially love Anna's take that a women's fiction writer will "adopt" the couple from the romance novel and take it from there. : )

I think it's a combination of belief, call it naive if you want, with the understanding that, as Debbie said, a HEA is a lot of work and commitment. A lot of the divorces I have seen in the past few years have come from folks who didn't want to push back when the going got tough. They took divorce as the easy way out.

That's not to say that's always the case, but that's a majority of my more recent examples. Eleven years and going strong over here. Meeting some of our obstacles head on just made us stronger.

Loved it!

Mary Marvella said...

You made some good points, kiddo. For 33 years plus 5 years of dating the same man, I tried to believe in HEA and having a life partner. I didn't give up until I saw I was less and less a partner and that I never would be. The longer we were married, the more critical he became and the less I liked myself.

Now I'm happier though I have no partner. Yes, I'd like a partner, a man who values me.

Romance novels are about people who value each other and I still love them.

terrio said...

I'm divorced, as you know, but for reasons much better than I thought I should be happier. Funny enough, I AM happier. Now. For me it was the absolute right thing to do. Not that I want to do it ever again or would wish it on my worst enemy, but it was still right.

The divorce rate doesn't bother me as much as the infidelity rate. That's where I've lost my faith in people. But this entire discussion has reminded me of a Brad Paisley song. The bottom line is, we keep trying because love is worth it. In books and in RL.

If Love Was A Plane - B. Paisley
Imagine now the pilots voice on the intercom
Right before we leave the ground
Saying folks thanks for flying with us
But theres a six in ten chance we're goin down
But that's the strangest thing about this emotion,
Even knowng our chances are small,
We line up at the gate with our tickets
Thinking, somehow we're different

I mean after all
We're in love look at us go!
Now what in the world could go wrong?
To hell with the odds we'd rather not know
If love was a plane, nobody'd get on
Ya, if love was a plane nobody'd get on

Kim said...

Did you watch Jon & Kate plus 8 this week?! ;)

Linsey Lanier said...


Very thought-provoking post and some equally inspiring comments.

I always make a point when I read a romance to remind myself "this is fiction." If we compare our husbands, muscle-for-muscle and romantic-gesture-for-romantic-gesture, to the heros we read about, I think we'd all end up disappointed. :)

On the other hand, a real life marriage with a good man does reach HEA levels every once in a while. Those are the moments to cherish. And yes, it takes work on both sides to keep it going year after year.

The last couple of books I've written have divorced heroines. In one, the husband was an abuser, in the other, the husband wanted more happiness, like your friends. These men made life hard for both heroines.

I like Anna's idea about women's fiction recycling the couples from romances, too.


Tami Brothers said...

Oh man, terrio, I love that song!!!! Thanks for the reminder. It certainly does apply to a lot of things!

Great post, JP! You definitely know how to kick up a discussion...grin...

I WANT to believe in the HEA. I NEED to believe in the HEA. I also know it takes a LOT of work. But I know, too, that sometimes people change. The way one person is today is completely different from the way they were 10, 20 or 50 years ago. It does take work to accommodate those changes and then again, sometimes it's better to cut and run. I think it just depends on where each person is in their lives and how much effort they have already put into it.

I grew up with an abusive father and a mother who was bound and determined to stay for the sake of the kids. Let me tell you that I wish she had not. I think mine and my sisters lives would have been a whole lot different and I truly believe hers would have been, too. I see the shell of the woman I once admired and I wish she had not let life slip through her fingers. Now that she can finally think about herself, she has nothing left to give. That to me is truly sad.

Some people say that it takes a LOT of work to make a relationship work (and it does), but it takes a mountain of courage to walk away not knowing if things will be better or worse.

Thanks for starting this discussion. It makes a person stop and think!!!


J Perry Stone said...

Deb, I think you're absolutely correct. We expect a the HEA to fit our own specific expectations and when our lives don't cooperate, many of us bail.

Perhaps the problem is in the expectation.

J Perry Stone said...

Susan, your fears are well-founded. It's does rub off a little ... even if only in making a person a tad paranoid.

J Perry Stone said...

Sally. I completely agree with you. Many divorce cases are the result of a flimsy sense of commitment.

My husband and I are on your time line. 11 years so far. But I'm starting to see so many cases where divorce is the only option, it's wigging me out.

How can divorce be the only logical option?

J Perry Stone said...

And then, Mary, there are cases such as yours. You represent those cases where if a women becomes empowered enough, she has no choice but divorce.

You can't imagine how much I respect you for that.

But I also respect you for the continued pursuit of a traditional HEA. As I've said before, if you want a thing bad enough, you can get it.

Given that you're so fabulous, sweet and interesting, I fully expect an invitation to your wedding.

J Perry Stone said...

Terri, you too had no other choice but divorce. Any woman who would respond to her husband's behavior other than how you did would actually lose my respect.

And holy shit! That song! That's exactly how I'm feeling about marriage at the moment. And yet, as the super evolved women we are, we still hope for the HEA.

Maybe it isn't naivete. Maybe it's simply enlightened.

J Perry Stone said...

Kimmie. I'm going to beat you when I see you ;)

Seriously though, what with the friggin' media pummeling me as well as reality, what do you all expect.

Mama needs a Prozac.

terrio said...

Tami - Brad is the master of these songs, isn't he?

J - I think it takes real guts to go into something with your eyes open knowing there are no guarantees. But it also takes faith that the HEA can happen to keep us going.

Faith is shakey, but not gone yet. :)

Nicki Salcedo said...

I'm embarrassed to say that what's-his-name and I often do marriage weddings. It is mean, but I think some people get what they want. A lot of drama and not a lot of effort. Being married isn't rocket science, but it is serious business.

I think reading romance has helped me. I know a hero when I see one. As for real world about real world romance, too. Some real life love stories are so sticky sweet they'd be unbelievably bad stories.

We write so we can create the right amount of suffering and happily ever after for our characters. Great post, JP. You are my hero.