Marriage Isn’t a Nicholas Sparks Movie

notebookWhile I have never read a Nicholas Sparks novel and have only seen a grand total of one of his films, I understand the basic plot. Two good-looking people fall in love, they encounter some sort of obstacle or conflict that makes being together seem impossible, against all odds they overcome and end up kissing in the rain (or dancing in the street or rowing in the boat or take your pick). Bottom line is everyone falls in love and lives happily ever after.

In Sparks’ reality, every love story ends in romance and every romance exists in this magical combination of inspiration and passion that provides unlimited feelings of happiness. It’s a nice sentiment and it does make for a good story, but I’m sorry folks. It’s not real. You do know Nicholas Sparks got divorced last year right?

I’m not trying to sound calloused here. It’s just that I’m one day shy of celebrating 20 years of marriage and I’ve learned that real-life love stories look a lot different than the movies. Sure, they have their moments of romance and passion, but they are mostly forged through determination, patience, forgiveness, trust, selflessness, faith and friendship. That’s the stuff real marriages are made of.

When I counsel young couples before their wedding day, I usually tell them something along these lines: “Listen, you won’t always feel the way you feel about each other right now. Emotions ebb and flow, romantic feelings come and go, so it’s important that your relationship be based on more than romance.” They never believe me. They nod their heads in agreement but they are too busy making googly eyes at each other to listen.

On a few occasions, they have come back to me after three to five years of marriage and said, “I see what you mean now. We wish he had invested more time in building our friendship than maintaining our romance.” It’s good advice. And if you want to build a strong and lasting marriage, I recommend the same thing. Friendships endure when romance fades.

It’s not that romance is a bad thing. It’s just that a lot of couples go into marriage with unbelievably high expectations in this department. And when they anticipate a marriage of perpetual happiness and endless relational bliss, they set themselves up for disappointment. Esther Perel says it best in her TED talk when she explains how we’ve “brought happiness down from the heavens” when it comes to marriage and “made it first a possibility, and today, it’s a mandate.”

Sadly, she’s right and it explains why many couples end their relationship prematurely. They lament that they “just aren’t happy anymore” or they “just aren’t in love anymore.” What they are really saying is that they don’t feel the same way as when the relationship first began and they don’t know how to handle it. Simply put, their marriage is crumbling under the weight of unrealistic expectations.

We can blame Jerry Maquire for this one. Remember the iconic scene with Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger when he tells her “you complete me” and everyone swoons? That’s what many people are looking for today in their relationships—someone who will bring them continual happiness. Some researchers call it the “soul-mate” model of marriage. We want someone who will meet our every emotional need and fulfill our every romantic desire.

Sorry, but once again, that’s the stuff of make-believe. If we expect our love story to read like the plot of a Nicholas Sparks novel, we’re begging for discontentment. As Anne Lamott so bluntly put it, “expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” In other words, keep things in perspective and temper your expectations with the fact that your partners aren’t characters in a movie. They are real people with real flaws and they will let you down sometimes. So cut them some slack and save yourself the heartbreak of lingering resentment.

The bottom line is this. You don’t have a soul-mate. You have a spouse. Be faithful to them. You don’t have a story-book ending. You have a story that’s still being written. Keep writing it. And you don’t have a lover. You have a friend. Keep working on that aspect of marriage and the love will endure.

[published in Validity Magazine]

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