A few years ago my daughter was telling a story that she either was trying to read or that she was making up herself. It easily could have been both, I suppose: perhaps she was turning the pages of a book and making up her own version of what she saw and the words she recognized. At any rate, the only part of her story that I can truly remember was the ending. Whoever her main characters were, she said that they lived “happily ever again.”
You may note the slight alteration of the phrase we’re used to hearing, that being “happily ever after.” Usually our protagonists are assured a lifetime of joy no matter what happens after you close the book and put it back on the shelf. This part of their story is complete, and every part that comes beyond it–ever after–is happy.
Intentional or not, I found my daughter’s take much more reasonable and honest. How unrealistic, after all, to think that a love story will always be one of happiness. That’s a very high standard to live up to. Do Cinderella and Prince Philip never ever get upset with each other as they begin living together? What if Philip is a snorer? What if Cinderella chews too loud during meals? And once they have kids, you mean to tell me that they never disagree over the best ways to raise them, or argue over whose turn it is to get up for the 3 a.m. feeding?
“Happily ever again” is more grounded in what really goes into a relationship. First, it takes the pressure off of putting on the facade of perfection. That stuff works better in fairy tales, but not so much between flesh and blood people. Because those hard moments that disrupt happiness are inevitable. They may range from little annoyances that come as you learn each others’ habits to big disagreements about finances, tending to mental health, maintaining your relationship to each other after kids come along, helping each other through career decisions, and so much more.
The strain can be palpable in times like that. It can loom over things for a long while. But then, with enough intention and communication, you can find happiness again. No one is promised ever after, but you can find it again, and again, and again.
Today, my wife and I have been married for 20 years. We were in our early 20s and we did have some silly notions about “ever after” back then. They fell away as my being in grad school quickly demanded that we learn patience and frugality. Moves, career changes, becoming parents, learning better forms of communication, and tending to emotional needs among so many other things reinforced that “ever after” is only for Disney movies.
But “ever again” is something we’ve been able to work with. At times, “again” was slow to return, and it certainly doesn’t happen without effort and occasionally some space. “Ever again” is not rooted in an illusion. Rather, it recognizes that uncertainty and anxiety and friction happen, but they also don’t have the final say.
“Ever again” recognizes that what once was can return. It will be in a slightly altered, more seasoned, more self-aware form. It will have learned new skills and gained greater appreciation and deepened its knowledge of individual and collective needs. The happiness that comes again becomes deeper, the superficiality of being a newlywed having given way to something stronger, yet also more tender.
For 20 years now, we’ve been happily ever again. For that, I am so very thankful, and I hope for many more years of re-discovering such a happiness as we continue to grow with each other.