The English Patient was recently on TV and while I hadn’t seen it in almost 15 years, I well remembered all the viewings in high-school, a pile of tear-soaked tissues by my side for the confounding sadness of brief true love moments lost.
Something surprising happened as I re-watched the film: I didn’t shed one tear. There was almost a dribble at Kip and Hana’s parting, a quiver as Hana read Katherine’s last note to Laszlo. The only real threat of waterworks was in thinking about Anthony Minghella’s untimely death in 2008, which was a huge loss to the arts community.
How could this be? Had I stopped believing in true love?
Instead of early morning crying, I lay in bed thinking. What’s changed?
All those romantic films with their tragic loves created a woman with her eyes peeled for true love. It was all I wanted in life — more than money, or a career, or success. I wanted to find the one great love that would complete me.
I found loves, but most were disasters. And certainly nothing like my treasured fairy tales. Relationships are hard, and I didn’t know how to be in them. My filmic education left no room for the ugly truths of people and real lives trying to fit together, and my parents’ dysfunctional relationship wasn’t much of a teacher.
Then, living in Seville, Spain something strange began to happen: what I perceived as signs about someone I would meet — someone from Florida who would change my life. Dreams. Signs. More dreams. More signs.
A year later I fled Seville for Granada after yet another broken heart, and the signs followed close behind. Lo and behold, I met my now-husband, who owned the school where I was to get my teaching English certificate. He proposed ten days after we met. We were married three months later.
My true love! I’d done it! I’d believed! I’d followed the signs! My search was over!
But true love was not nice. Or easy. In fact, we both would have been better off finding someone with more similar interests, upbringings, and cultural backgrounds. We seemed incompatible at best, and a nightmare at worst.
My perfect true love story became messy, and seemed disastrous like all the other loves previous, while my husband and I struggled to cope with the more differences we had than alikeness.
True love isn’t supposed to be a struggle if you’re together! The struggle is when you’re apart! Why is this so hard? Why doesn’t my true love understand me? Did I read the signs wrong? Have I (we) made a huge mistake?
Back was I to crying into all hours of the night, watching Edward Scissorhands and Practical Magic, wondering what I could have done to deserve such pain. But not the “good” pain of loving and losing, but rather the pain of loving someone who seemed not to be right for me at all. And vice versa.
Where was my happily ever after? Didn’t I deserve it?
Fast forward, and come April 20, 2016, my husband and I have spent a decade together. Holy matrimony, Batman.
We have our struggles as do every couple, and we actively find ways to get through them. Unexpectedly, we are more in love now than we ever were and my comprehension of the emotion expands each day I love him more. By now we’re also best friends, with all the benefits. But it took these ten years to get here.
Had I clung to my romantic notions of what it means to meet and marry my true love we’d be divorced by now. Together we learned that being in a healthy relationship is nothing like what we learned from the movies and other external sources. We began to make better choices as a couple. We learned how to communicate with each other. We figured out each other’s triggers and stopped pushing them.
Watching The English Patient and not having my heart ripped from my chest showed me how much my own perception of love, true or otherwise, has changed during this decade of marriage.
True love isn’t this fireball from the sky, this balcony moment, a look exchanged between two people. That is romantic love. Actual true love in a partnership is work, compromise, acceptance, forgiveness, and the decision to continue loving each other even when the ride gets bumpy.
But none of the films and songs that shaped my concept of (true) love ever taught me that.
Which got me to wondering: Why do we have a billion-dollar industry that promotes the misrepresentation of relationships in such damaging ways? And why do we give the celluloid lie machine so much money to perpetuate these myths?
There’s a reason why the divorce rate in western nations all top the list: people think that marriage will be easy. People get married based on (Disney-promoted) myths of romance, fleeting passions, or sexual attraction, not for the reasons that make a relationship work like commitment and perseverance.
Nobody who’s married talks about how difficult marriage and partnerships are. Just like most parents won’t talk about how difficult it is to have and raise children. It’s as if there’s a societal smoke screen for these major life events and once you’re on the other side you’re not allowed to tell people what it’s really like. Because if you do that, then nobody will get married. And if nobody will get married then how will the romance industrial complex keep spinning? Who will buy the blood diamonds? Who will spend dozens of thousands on a wedding and honeymoons? All the divorce attorneys will be out of jobs.
I’d like to go back and rewrite some of those clean Hollywood endings into what they really would be: a whole lot of compromising, hard times, good times, anger, frustration, sadness, all those things that are so conveniently left out these mythical love imaginings.
Find someone to love, of course. Find someone who loves you. And let it be based on reality, not just the Hollywood fairy tale version of love.
True love is not something you fall into, or passively happens to you beyond your control. True love is an active choice, that each day you must wake up and make. Stopping loving someone means you either never really loved the person, or you’ve chosen otherwise — you’re enmeshed in the idea of inert romantic love.
There’s no happily ever after. Just sometimes happy. And only when you choose it.
This piece was originally featured on Huffington Post Healthy Living in April 2016.