The Impossible Dream: Two Authors Debate the Myths of 'Happily Ever After'

Every summer, tens of thousands of couples marry-idly fantasizing about white picket fences and happy endings. The reality is that a successful marriage has little to do with a successful wedding. Lifelong relationships aren't quite as simple as hiring the perfect caterer, staging a dreamy reception, and selecting that Vera Wang gown. Two recently published books, "Living Happily Ever After" and "Marriage Shock," address the trials and tribulations of matrimony. While both authors focus on the elusive goal of a fulfilling partnership with another human soul, the books present perspectives in keeping with their titles-one hopeful and one cautionary."Marriage is the good the bad and the ugly," said Laurie Wagner, author of Living Happily Ever After (Chronicle Books). The handsome book, richly illustrated with quality black and white photography, is a collection of stories from veteran married couples. It seeks to offer hope for those entering holy matrimony and, in this divorce filled world, it provides plenty of reason for optimism.Wagner, who conducted all the interviews, found that the overriding factor that made the marriages last was often the couples' ability to find perspective and laugh at themselves. "A lot of the couples had a sense of humor and that seemed to bode well for their marriage," said Wagner in a phone interview from San Francisco. "That goes hand in hand with the ability to forgive one another for silly humanness and foibles."The more you can embrace everything that comes down in a marriage, the better chance you and your spouse have to grow and create a full marriage of love and passion," said Wagner.Living Happily Ever After winds up as a cross-sectional portrait of American couples whose notable accomplishment is a marriage that has endured 30 years or longer. The book illustrates the complexities of love and sex and strife. These 30 couples have managed to navigate through it. "The Hollywood storybook image of life is far fetched," said Wagner.Contained amongst these pages are couples like Helma and Benno Schneider who have harrowing stories of surviving Nazi oppression in WWII Germany. Helma volunteered to go to a concentration camp so she could be beside her beloved Benno. Her parents told her that if she survived they would be together forever. The two escaped and lived in the forest on berries and nuts. They were in their teens at the time. They came to forge a new life in America in 1961 and own and manage an apartment building now. Their marriage continues after 57 years together.Paul and Inez Jones were jazz musicians who lived in Kansas City who were married for 60 years. Inez recently passed away in May 1995 at 82. Paul used to run with jazz icons Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Although their son died, they didn't allow the tragedy to tear their relationship apart. "In a sense it brought Inez and I closer together, realizing how we loved each other and how we loved our family."While Wagner's compendium offers an optimistic inspirational sense of potential, Dalma Heyn advances a more cautionary tale in Marriage Shock (Villard Books). As the subtitle (The Transformation of Women into Wives) alludes, Heyn's endeavor is to sketch a road map of the psychological potholes on the matrimonial highway."We often feel we have to inhabit that model of womanhood," said Heyn. "It's really about staying the person you were before you were married, staying the couple you were." Authorities in human relation studies warn that women often blame men for holding them to a standard of goodness. "The men usually say I didn't want that," said Heyn. "I didn't want another mother. I wanted the woman I married."Heyn did extensive research, interviewing newlyweds and couples who have survived Marriage Shock, a psychological phenomenon that Heyn has identified as a post wedding depression. "The first moment a new wife feels this odd remove -- her words not coming from her own soul, her real life suddenly clashing with the expectation of what that life is supposed to be -- that is a moment I call marriage shock," says Heyn in the title chapter of her book. "A woman may first experience marriage shock simply as a conflict between two voices, her own and one that is not hers -- like a crossed wire suddenly cutting into, and cutting off, a private phone conversation.""You're not supposed to say that this blissful institution you entered is so complicated and that there's loss involved," said Heyn. Often couples begin to face problems and this is when the seeds for divorce are sown. What often happens early on is men and women don't communicate and remain clueless about each other's feelings. "What often causes the split-up is men are not brought in early on. They can be the best source to say you don't have to fill the conventions." Heyn's thesis is that these conventions, so difficult if not impossible to live up to, are the aspect of marriage that needs to be fixed. If contemporary society has embraced the strong independent and autonomous woman, then the institution of marriage needs to play catch up.Wagner echoes these sentiments as well, "We can love more if we start accepting who we're married to and who we are," said Wagner. We need to lay down those false images and be able to look the other person in the eye and start accepting we're just human."Whereas Living Happily is illustrated with portraits that capture the intimacy of long term love, Heyn has chosen the more literary route with Marriage Shock, elaborating on issues she tackles with references to such great writers as George Eliot, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Drabble among others.Despite what lesser self-help books say, Heyn and Wagner seem to agree there are no simple prescriptions for a perfect marriage. Marriage is hard work and there is often a great loss associated with the institution. Both books advocate weathering storms, maintaining perspective and nurturing communication as the triumvirate of not only a successful love partnership, but also the creation of a rewarding life.


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