WARNING: If you are a raging Nicholas Sparks loyalist and can’t wait for the next book or movie to come out, then you will likely feel defensive and misunderstood if you read this post. Continue at your own risk.
I believe in the concept of keeping romance alive in marriage (apologies to those who think marriage has nothing to do with romance—in my marriage, it does). However, I’m something of a romance curmudgeon when it comes to the silver screen.
Recently, my husband and I were trying to find a movie to attend, and for lack of options decided to go see Nicholas Sparks’ new movie, The Best of Me. I’m always somewhat resistant to Sparks’ movies because they so often seem schmaltzy and formulaic, and filled with delusions of destiny. I TRIED to read one of his romance books. Once. (Confession—not a fan of the traditional romance genre).
As I exited the theater, my husband asked me if I liked the movie, and I told him I felt annoyed. The premise is that a man and woman who dated twenty years previously met up together again, and of course immediately felt fueled by fate as they had a brief sexual fling, declared their true love for each other, and painfully separated so he could return to his mediocre lonely life, and she could return to her predictably distant and colorless marriage.
The message: It is burdensome to keep your commitments and do the right thing. You are sad. You might as well curl up in a fetal position now. Oh, and you just passed up your chance at true love…Loser… Lonely loser.
Then, the movie shifted. I won’t COMPLETELY spoil the movie, but SPOILER ALERT and BIG SURPRISE, she divorces her husband. In the brief scene with her son post-divorce, he seems perfectly well adjusted to the fact that his mother and father have ended their nearly 20-year marriage, and she is of course happier than ever, pursuing a new career which will undoubtedly lead her back to “true love.”
As a marriage therapist, I felt sick inside. Since it is easier than ever to reignite former romances and to communicate clandestinely through technology with someone outside of the relationship, there seems to be an endless stream of people damaging or ending their marriages in order to pursue new or former romantic relationships to chase what they think is “true love.”
What the movie did not show was any emotional pain experienced by the son when his parents divorced after their long marriage. Nor did it portray the real grief, pain and loneliness many if not most endure after a divorce, or after the end of the romantic affair that imploded the marriage. That, my friends, is much more realistic.
At this point (especially for the Sparks fans), you may find yourself saying, “Settle down, lady…it’s a fiction romance movie, not a documentary on human relationships.” I know. I get it. However, I get very worried about how “true love” is portrayed in these romances, because the truth is, it affects viewers and their relationships.
If we define true love, by the very real dopamine-induced twitterpation experienced early in a romantic connection which inevitably diminishes over time as relationships become more predictable and secure, then it might be easy to feel like our long-term relationships aren’t “true” at all, and we are missing out. This is more dangerous when that feeling is used as a measuring stick for what is genuine. There is a very real physiological response in a new, exciting relationship, or in a secret affair, and people regularly mistakenly believe this feeling means that the relationship is somehow more legitimate than the long-term one which may seem prosaic in comparison. Over time, the long-term partner can even be viewed as the enemy, preventing “real happiness.”
There have been actual reports of people ending their marriages after watching some of Sparks’ movies, because they felt so disillusioned in their comparatively boring committed relationships.
Interestingly, Sparks is still in a long-term relationship, married to the woman he met in college, and raising a family of five children. That is undoubtedly not easy, even for someone with steady cash flow from writing fantasy romance scripts. He seems like a very committed family man. If I could conduct an interview, I might ask him about how he reconciles his fantasy romance tales with the realism in his own life. I’m guessing Sparks knows how to fuel a real-life romance, and the formula is different than in his stories.
I began wondering what I, as a couples therapist, would include in a really good true love romance, were I to write one (which I am certain will never happen)….one in which the partners have set up a life together, complete with children. Just for fun, I used “romance,” as an acronym.
A really good romance should include:
R for reality: As in real life. Like when your entire family begins vomiting in the middle of the night, and you and your husband both have somewhere to go the following morning, and you stay up all night cleaning up truckloads of vomit, and scrubbing the carpet, and you are cranky, and stinky…oh, and the mortgage was due yesterday and…..well, you get it.
O for obstacle: As in unemployment. As in chronic or devastating mental or physical illness. As in your preschoolers deciding while you are nursing a baby that it would be a good idea to mix the rice, flour and sugar bins together, put some of the mixture in the dishwasher, and then top it off with just the right amount of maple syrup for good measure, and you found out 15 minutes before you are supposed to have your baby at the doctor. As in your kids discovering that if you stomp on Christmas lights while they are still screwed into the string, on your garage floor, it makes a really cool popping, crunchity sound, so they must stomp on ALL of them on ALL of the strings—even the ones stored in the Christmas boxes on the shelf—rendering them useless and leaving miniscule shards of glass strewn about which, like the demon glitter, will find their way into your house months after evading the Shop-Vac…I could go on…
M for Memory: Memory is always being constructed, and has everything to do with the narrative we tell ourselves. People who want to stay married tell their marriage story with the positive things at the forefront. Like, do I want to remember the time my husband and I had one car and he left me standing in the freezing cold because he forgot to come get me, pre-cell phone days, or do I want to remember the time I had been out of town and walked into my room and there were dozens of floral bouquets everywhere? Be careful of entertaining narratives that someone else was your true love—brains remember things better (or worse) than they were. Memories are also notoriously inaccurate and more fluid than most people want to admit.
A for Attitude: Whether you focus on the positive or negative elements of your relationship is completely within your control. I can focus on the fact that my husband can step over a clean basket of clothes that needs to be brought up stairs and folded, for a seemingly indefinite amount of time (since I gave up on the experiment after 5 days) instead of picking it up and folding it himself, or I can focus on the fact that my husband never complained about a wife who asked him to please bring that basket of clothes up the stairs and fold it after it sat there for 5 days.
N for Negotiation: Negotiation is ongoing and necessary for romance to work out. Like when your husband wants to go to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but you really want to go see that action film (patience, dear reader…I threw that in to see if my husband is really reading my blog posts like he says).
C for Commitment: This is the most important variable in long-term relationship durability, and is necessary with any romance. C is also for “children,” who benefit from having parents who they can tell are in love, or who can distract you from your couple relationship because they are dependent on you for their survival. They are also guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.
E for Effort: A good romance requires work, plain and simple, and it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Once, when I had small children, I was feeling resentful because my husband was traveling for business, and I didn’t like the way I was feeling about him, mostly because I was envious that he was able to go to the bathroom by himself. I tried to think of what I could do for him, and I remembered the pile of shirts that needed missing buttons replaced, which I had successfully hidden underneath my more interesting sewing projects so that he would forget about them. I got them out and put buttons on 8 shirts and surprised him with them when he got home. Seeing how appreciative he was made me happy. Romantic indeed.
Please, enjoy romance, but get your education about romance outside of Hollywood.
I’m not a Nicholas Sparks hater. I actually did finish and enjoy, Three Weeks with my Brother, an autobiographical memoir which was actually quite interesting. I just don’t love his romances.
I did recently see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which looked a whole lot more like my life than the Sparks romance. My husband reminded me that I had given him the book while we were engaged when he was having a bad day, and told him it was my most favorite children’s book of all time. I had forgotten. The fact that he remembered, however, made it romantic.
If you are hankering for that romantic film, pick up The Princess Bride. It will make you laugh, unless you have no sense of humor at all, in which case you might want to consult a doctor…or a therapist…or a humor whisperer, I guess.
My favorite line in the movie is when the disguised Wesley said, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
Now, that’s a romance!