A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Unhappy in Happily Ever After

When they tell you all the “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” stories, narrators traditionally describe how the hearts of the prince and princess soar just as care-freely as birds when they are united at the end of the tale.

Nearer to the beginning of the story, audiences are given some information how the princess is miserable while the prince is dating her best friend. Romance includes misery – check. We got the memo. We should all be prepared for the heartache, right? But we focus on the "happily" in the ever after.

There is an awful lot that follows the “Happily ever after,” but most of that gets left out of pretty much every fairy tale, whether it is the Brothers Grimm version or the Hollywood version. No one really wants to read or see a movie about married people because they’re all old and boring, say The People In Charge of The Story Formula. (This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to novels and films.)

So we say “I do,” shove cake in each others’ faces, and ride off into the sunset (possibly still wiping off the cake). But because everything we know in life, we learn from Hollywood (right?), then there are a whole bunch of potentially dramatic emotional upheavals for which we’re completely unprepared. It wasn’t on the screen, so we lack a script to guide us, and we wonder, what do we do now?

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit. A bit.

But sometimes things still catch me by surprise, like the way that my emotions are so entangled with my husband’s emotions. I should expect this, though, because despite Hollywood’s general tendency to be silent on the subject of certain types of emotional drama, Joss Whedon has always been straight with me on the subject of pain in relationships:

Buffy: “It’s too late. I’m already at the ‘I hurt when he hurts, I smile when he smiles’ stage.”
Anya: “I hate that part.” (“Goodbye Iowa,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer 04.14)

But even when you know that your mood is susceptible to his mood and vice-versa, you don’t think about it too much until one day, his frustration or grief swings around and full-on punches you in the gut. Your own mood plummets and you might not even be able to figure out why. At the sight of bare tree branches outside of the window, you suddenly feel like crying (or is that just me?). If you’re lucky, you realize: this is the ‘I hurt when he hurts’ stage.

It turns out that even when you’re still happily in love, you can be unhappy – even when you’re not fighting with your partner.

But isn’t that a bit annoying? It’s like your own emotions have been hijacked. You were perfectly fine (or at least managing alright) before he started talking about his own unhappiness. And then all the sudden, you’re dissatisfied and grumpy. Perhaps even unable to look at the world in the same way. It’s like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

This is what happened to me when we went to Washington D.C. for a visit over the long Easter weekend.

Everyone wants to know how you are doing and what you are up to, of course: “I haven’t seen you in months! What’s new with you?” Usually this is an invitation for me to begin a twenty minute soliloquy, since I’m typically the talkative one. But because my husband has been so stir-crazy this winter, this time he took center stage whenever this question was raised. And what followed was not only excessive praise of the warm weather and blooming trees in D.C., but a corresponding rant about the cold and lack of sunlight in New York during December, January, February and March.

After a while, I guess it just wore me down.

It’s not that I don’t agree – I hate the cold, too. I think I’ve even come to terms with the idea that we will end up moving again eventually, in order to settle and retire in a warmer climate. A small part of me has even begun fantasizing about owning a cottage or a Spanish-style condo and boat.

But the larger part of me was still ready to enjoy spring and summer in New York – until I listened to my husband reiterate over and over again that the winter weather had depressed him. Never mind that he kept repeating, “For eight months of the year, we love it in Nyack.” All I heard after a while was, “Dark. Cold. Dark. Still no green on the trees.”

And oh, what a contrast it was in D.C., with the sunlight beaming down and a hint of humidity already hanging in the air.

Everything was green, and we even worked up a bit of a sweat when we went on a walk by the Potomac River on Saturday afternoon. “I know it sounds strange,” said my husband. “But it feels good to be sweaty.”

So by the time we drove back up I-95 and through the smoggy pit that is industrialized New Jersey, watching the clouds roll in overhead and cover the warm sunshine, I was feeling more and more down. I was hoping that once we got through Jersey, New York would seem more welcoming – but all I could see through the pouring rain was the bare tree branches, and my heart ached a little bit, missing all the green leaves that were already so abundant and shady in D.C. What’s wrong with me? I thought. It was just a few weeks ago that I was fighting with Jeremy to stay here in New York for the rest of our lives. Now I feel almost as dissatisfied as he does, knowing that he’s unhappy.

It’s the ‘I hurt when he hurts’ thing.

And when I realized what was going on, I was annoyed. So then I was depressed AND grumpy, snippy with my husband and trying to figure out how I was going to muster the excitement to go in and tackle my to-do list at work the next day. I felt as though his dissatisfaction had robbed me of the ability to enjoy the coming summer months in New York, even though he’s actually looking forward quite a bit to exploring the state parks and NYC this summer. I may have been in a worse mood than he was at the prospect of returning to New York after our weekend in D.C. Ironic, right?

He and I talked about my grumpy mood, discussing how your emotions can be so inter-connected with those of your best friend, and after that I felt a bit better. But it still somewhat amazes me – how in this situation, my emotions seem to have been hijacked. “And they lived happily ever after, sharing everything they had – even their unhappiness…”

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