I was thinking about movies tonight as I cleaned the kitchen (most specifically how I have only been able to bring myself to go to 2 since last summer) and my mind strayed to the plot of the movie 'You've Got Mail.' I remember seeing this movie and enjoying it at the time, but it has long since occurred to me that I view the world very differently than I did a year ago.
In case you were living under a rock around 1999 and never saw that movie, here is a short recap. The opening scene shows a quirky Meg Ryan character cheerfully waving her partner out the door after solidifying date plans for the evening. As soon as she makes sure he is gone, she sneaks back to check her email to see if she has any messages from her new email pen pal (Tom Hanks). She has, and skips off to work with a light heart. Long plot short, the email relationship progresses to where they decide it is time to meet. Wires get crossed, hilarity ensues, etc. etc. until the final idyllic meeting in a flower garden complete with a final kiss and a handsome dog that practically winks at you as the credits roll. Happy ever after...
Here is my problem. Both characters are in committed relationships with others. With Tom Hanks' character there is some back story that we don't see and despite whatever history and decisions caused them to be exclusive, she is portrayed as being a little nutty and clearly "not a match" for him, but of course he doesn't 'realize' this until the 'woman of his dreams' comes along. So, the audience is released from any guilt they might feel over this jerk who is dating one woman and starting a relationship with another. On the other side, audience guilt is assuaged by the fact that Meg Ryan and her boyfriend determine over dinner that they are not in love after all, and isn't that amazing?...are you seeing anyone? Voila! Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are free to fall in love and live happily ever after and everyone is taken care of. I get that no one would sit through a romantic comedy that depicts reality, where the partners left behind fall into depression and humiliation and loneliness and go through boxes of tissues, but I can't help but feel a little tricked, given my new perspective.
We find ourselves rooting for success in a situation that involves cheating and justifying it based on the fact that "they weren't right for each other" or "they were soul mates." Except in the movies it gets all wrapped up at the end and there is none of this messy, painful aftermath. Those who would probably not condone cheating in real life find themselves buying into the fallacy that 'true love' is an acceptable justification regardless of who gets ditched or trampled over. 'Enchanted' is another movie that comes to mind. In this case, the "other woman" starts out with the best of intentions (as they all tell themselves), is not consciously making a play for the leading man and even gives advice on how to be a good boyfriend. Despite this, they just can't keep themselves from 'falling in love' and the final dance scene leaves the very nice, very normal fiancee sad and at loose ends...for about 10 seconds, until prince charming whisks her away and they immediately get married. All taken care of!
I get that I am a little super sensitive right now, but one of the things I am constantly aware of is that my situation leaves me open to a certain amount of speculation by others. People, even with the kindest intentions, probably wonder what went on behind closed doors. Why would a man cheat if his home life was going well? (This is called the Prevention Myth among therapists; that a happy marriage is insurance against infidelity. In reality, a recent study showed that well over half the men polled indicated that they became involved with someone else even though they would have classified their marriage as 'happy.') Those who are sympathetic to J and don't know me well, likely assume that I was a crazy wife who was unbearable to live with, or we just ultimately didn't click (despite 2 years of dating, 8 years of marriage and 3 children...). Why else would he stray, right? What I didn't realize was that I, myself, had bought into entertainment that perpetuates many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding affair relationships. Finding what you think is your 'true love' or 'soul mate' is never an acceptable reason to cheat, yet we find ourselves cheering for just that assuming that the original partners are either wrong or crazy on some level. How much does this kind of media saturate how we view love and/or the reasons things go wrong. How much does it sink in when our children watch it without us realizing it? Does it very quietly teach all of us that stepping outside of your committed relationship is sometimes ok, as long as the people are clearly meant to be. And besides, if they were really in love with the other person, they wouldn't be interested in someone else, right? Every time I hear that theory, I just want to poke holes in it with a huge stick (a justice stick... :-)
So, what's the answer? I am clearly speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has been damaged by betrayal, and I understand that they are just stories. I am not suggesting that the solution is to boycott the 'soul mate' plot line or anything, but we need to take care how we view them and how insidiously some of the ideas can take root to help us justify our own or someone else's behavior. It's important to constantly remind ourselves that 'soul mates' are made, not born. Getting married (or committed) does NOT mean that you will never be attracted to, or have the ability to emotionally bond with someone else. Having your relationship take work is NOT evidence that it is wrong or that you must not have been right in the first place. Loving more than one person at a time is possible, if confusing. It's called Polyamory and obviously gets messy in a society where monogamy and fidelity are highly valued. Most affairs start by being placed in a situation where you are required to work together and thereby bond on some level and almost always start out as 'just friends' who find reasons to share more and more of what they have in common, which is exactly what they should be doing with the person they originally committed to. And you absolutely cannot measure the value of a relationship when someone else is in the wings.. The biggest mistake any couple can make is to assume that it will not happen to them. It can, unless you take measures to protect the relationship you committed to through marriage or family or even just a mutual understanding. People wind up hurting their partners without even realizing how they got there and I promise that the aftermath is nothing like a Hollywood movie. There is more than just one possible fish in the sea for everyone, and because of that, you have to do extra work to constantly build the soul mate relationship with that one person and keep swimming with your chosen fish. I don't believe that being in love is always easy, especially when real life intrudes, but I still do believe it is worth the work.
I have a lot of ideals that I would love my kids to know to avoid the same trials I am going through, and one of them is that the only insurance for any relationship is constantly working at it and caring for it like a living thing. You cannot ignore it and assume it will always still be there. In many ways, I carry the guilt of that as well as J. I made assumptions that his level of commitment always matched mine and just assumed we would come out of any rough patches together. I did not see what happened even as a possibility and I was incredibly naive. As I do harp on so often, I would want my kids to remember that they always have a choice, and that doesn't go away once the rings are on the fingers. The idea of 'meant to be' kind of takes away our agency and lets people get themselves off the hook when they stray. People rarely, if ever, get married by sheer relationship inertia. They do so because they want to spend their lives together and raise their families together. When you choose someone, you have to keep bonding and reminding yourselves what brought you together, because in the wake of real life (and the possible indoctrination that love is supposed to be easy and happy every minute of every day), you can forget you ever had your reasons in the first place and sometimes you don't realize that until it is too late.
As for me, I will still (eventually) go see romantic comedies with the 'soul mate' plot, but I will likely watch them with a lot more cynicism than I did before. And I can't promise that I won't be doing a lot of eye rolling and snorting in jaundiced disbelief. I'll try to do it quietly though...