Occasionally, a movie is released that has enough universal impact that I hear about it repeatedly from my clients. So far in 2017, the movie is “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Since its release, I have had many couples come in and report that the low point of their week was seeing the film. Having read critics’ reviews, I realize that the movie’s ending is polarizing. People like it or hate it. I hated it. As someone who dabbles in relationship angst daily, it gave me anxiety. My husband liked it. He pronounced, “I liked that ending—do you want to know why? Because I didn’t let the girl get away.” I’m sure many have experienced it that way, but after watching it, I realized why it was having such a depressing impact on my clients.
If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading. Basically, the movie highlights the utopian budding romance of a couple with enviable chemistry. It generates nostalgia for the feelings associated with first love, which drive an obsessive need to be with one’s objet d’affection. The feelings elicit hope and great expectations.
Then, in the last few minutes of the movie, everything is turned on end when viewers watch the female lead go on a date with her husband (who is not the original male love interest) and stumble upon her old boyfriend’s favorite haunt, which is now his dream-realizing jazz bar. She sees him and immediately viewers experience a speedy montage of what her life and his could have been like if they had stayed together instead of following divergent paths. And guess what? Everything looked perfect. Then, BAM, viewers are slammed upside the head with the scene back in the present in which the female lead is now with someone else. Everything seems copacetic but also seemingly mediocre, even though she has realized her personal dreams and seems happyish.
Many critics like that the ending shook up the classic “happily ever after,” scenario which (sort of) suggests that life can go on even after lost relationships (All Hail Independence). For any of my clients in distressed marriages, it elicited some discomfort about the present and fueled yearning for returning to the wildly hopeful state associated with new love.
I get squeamish when long-term marriage is contrasted with developing relationships. They are quite different, but when they are compared, long-term love is usually presented with a stale energy, suggesting that people in those relationships are somehow missing out. In other words, it is “Blah Blah Land,” vs. “La La Land.” This feeling can be what drives some people to seek out alternative relationships which can ultimately destroy a marriage.
As humans, we are driven to attach to people, which often means setting up a long-term predictable relationship which can be a safe environment for raising children. Sometimes, however, the predictability can diminish novelty and excitement, and dullness ensues. When people talk about marriage being “work,” it’s more than just working at continual compromise—it also applies to actively putting energy and passion into the marriage.
There are several reasons why life in “Blah Blah Land,” (not meant to be pejorative, alluding to prosaic but meaningful process in quotidian family life) is worth pursuing. People in healthy long-term marriages overall enjoy better mental and physical health and financial benefits. They are likely to have better sex lives. Children raised in those environments also experience the same benefits and greater opportunities for academic achievement. Research is indicating that after children are raised, many marital relationships start becoming like they were during “La La Land” courtship. Keep in mind, though, that in contrast, a highly distressed marriage can be deleterious for well-being.
Here are some tips for surviving “Blah Blah Land” to get to the other side where “La La Land” is alive and well.
- Accept that feelings of love normally wax and wane in long-term relationships. If you wake up next to your partner thinking, “Really? This is my life?” it doesn’t mean that you are doomed. It means you are uncomfortable in that moment.
- Refuse to be boring. I started marriage knowing that I was going to be a marriage therapist. I have always put a lot of effort into my marriage because I wanted a marriage that stayed fresh. Fortunately, my husband has been on board, because it takes two people. The internet is full of ideas. Check out the dating divas for a plethora of options. Be spontaneous. Be unpredictable.
- Have something to look forward to. Research indicates that planning and looking forward to something can be more satisfying than the event itself. I try to always have a future event or trip planned for my husband and me.
- Try something new together. Anything—new food, a new activity, new restaurant, etc.
- Realize that today is not forever. If anyone understands the monotony of the daily grind of raising children, it is I. I don’t even try to explain to people what it was like to have 7 children under the age of 14, with 5 boys, and a husband working full-time and in MBA school. I had periods of time when I had to do a lot of self-talk just to keep from ending up in a fetal position in the closet. A few times, I was in the fetal position in the closet, hoping no one would find me. FYI—They ALWAYS find you (Just ask this mom with quadruplets who tried to get 30 seconds alone).
- Don’t ignore the sexual relationship. This is a sensitive topic, but I believe it’s worth doing what it takes to prioritize physical affection. If you need therapy because of past trauma, make that a priority. Don’t deny yourself the ability to have a bonded and satisfying sex life.
- Write down what you would miss if your spouse were gone. I have always known that if I weren’t married to my husband, I would never stop missing him.
- Make a “year’s worth of new things” calendar (See 2, 3 and 4 above). It only takes 12 things. You can do it!
- Ask your partner why he/she still loves you and tell him/her why you love him/her. I asked my husband this a few weeks ago and his answer was, “It’s 100% your mind,” which put me into a laughing fit. “Is that some kind of fat joke?” I challenged, and he said, “No. I like the way you think.” If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have that reassurance to carry around with me. Thinking about it brings me joy.
- Laugh, laugh, laugh. Anyway, anyhow. This isn’t always automatic. It takes effort.
- Different person, different problems. Sometimes it’s tempting to think that if you were with a different partner, you wouldn’t have problems, but the fact is that when you marry a person, you marry a set of problems. Sometimes people who remarry wish they had the old set of problems back.
- Don’t buy into the myth of soul-mateism. In the words of Gary Chapman, “Soul mates tend to be crafted, not found.” I can say comfortably that my husband feels like my “soulmate,” but I also know that I have worked very hard to make it that way. John Gottman asserts that, “There are tens of thousands of people out there that anyone could be happily married to.” I believe that.
I was still feeling a little melancholy about the movie’s ending when I walked into our kitchen and my son sensed that I was not in the best mood. He said, “Uh oh. Mom’s in a bad mood. OK Google, play ‘Eaten by the Monster of Love,’ by Sparks.” Immediately, our Google Home blasted the upbeat, electronic, bubble gum, everything-you-love-to-hate-about-80’s-music, song. I was assaulted with echoes of “Don’t let it get me, ow.” “How appropriate,” I thought, but it did have a cheering effect. I’m at the stage in my life where I can actually see “La La Land,” on the horizon.
In the game of long-term love, effort matters. Refuse to be boring. You will up your happiness quotient.
I Predict. (A little something for my Sparks fans)
Reference: The Science of Marriage (2017). Edited by Nancy Gibbs. Time Magazine Special Edition. Published by Time, Inc., New York.
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