What Hollywood Teaches Us About Marriage

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week, I’ve been talking a ton about marriage and movies on the blog, so I thought I’d summarize in my column. (And if you missed my post on the 50 best romantic chick flicks, you really need to see it!):

I love a good chick flick. Sure, I’ll watch Band of Brothers or Die Hard with my husband, but when he cuddles up and sits through Pride and Prejudice, I melt.

Unfortunately finding a decent movie is often an exercise in futility. Most new releases gross me out. There’s too much horror or blood, and throw in a zombie or two and it’s supposed to be a blockbuster.

Nevertheless, dig deep and you’ll find some gems. And increasingly lately I’ve been discovering that gems in the chick flick genre have less to do with falling in love and more to do with keeping a marriage strong. Hollywood does marriage better than it does dating.

Take the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love, which I thought I’d detest for the first 45 minutes, because it revolves around a younger, cooler guy (Ryan Gosling) teaching an older, just dumped guy (Steve Carell) how to attract multiple women. It seemed so shallow. But the ending is supremely satisfying (and comes with a twist we never saw coming). Both Gosling’s character and Carell’s ex-wife realize that commitment and stability are actually far sexier than living an empty life, a lesson that Carell knew all along.

Or take Hope Springs and Date Night, two movies portraying married couples who have fallen into a rut. The reality of the way the couples relate to each other is just too perfect, and the central message–that commitment matters, and that having someone to walk through life with matters–is beautiful. In fact, most movies that focus on marriage, from It’s Complicated to Couples Retreat to Shall We Dance say the same thing: those flighty feelings of infatuation eventually fade, and life settles into a routine. Will you then commit and keep working at your marriage, or will you drift and lose one of the greatest potential sources of happiness in your life?

Yet if Hollywood believes that the best marriages are those between two people who are committed to work at it–a very intentional approach–why do they portray love as something over which we have no control? A couple is thrown together and they “fall in love”. They complete each other. And these feelings alone should make them want to marry.

Most of my professional life revolves around marriage, as I blog and write books and speak. In the mountains of emails from desperate women I receive every week, one of the most common themes I see is this: My now-husband cheated on me while we were engaged, but we got married anyway. Recently I caught him having an affair. Or: My husband lived with his parents until we moved in together, and now we’re married. I hold down two jobs, and he barely works part-time. But he refuses to do any housework.

Reading these I find myself so frustrated, because the warning signs were there. Why would you marry a total couch potato? Why marry a lying cheater? Because you love him, of course! And love will magically transform him. We can’t ignore those feelings, right?

Except that scientists say those feelings last, at most, eighteen months. And then you hit that rut, and you’re in trouble. In dating romances, Hollywood gives us this idea that it’s feelings that sustain a marriage, not the character of the two people involved. Yet if all your friends and family think he’s a lout or are sure she’s flighty, you should likely listen to that–no matter what you’re feeling.

Maybe we need to start applying the same principles to dating as we do to marriage. It’s character that counts, not just feelings. That’s a lesson Jane Austen tried to teach us long ago, and perhaps we could all do with a little more Austen and a little less Zombie.

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