The “fairy tale” myth of relationships: Both false and destructive

In my book on attachment theory, I briefly take on the “Fairy Tale” model of romantic relationships:

[T]he ideals of romance remain culturally strong; every fairy tale, every Disney animation, (almost) every Hollywood and Bollywood movie idealize the One True Love, who you will see across a crowded room at just the right moment, fall madly in love with, marry, and live happily ever after with in a vine-covered cottage with a picket fence.

The hazard of such modern cultural programming:

One day we realize that we are completely possessed and dominated by a set of beliefs that we, as individuals, never chose. It is as though we breathe them in from novels and movies, from the psychological air around us, and they become part of us, as though fused with the cells of our bodies. We all know that we are supposed to “fall in love” and that our relationships must be based on romance—nothing less will do! Every man knows what he is entitled to demand from his [partner.] It is spelled out in detail in some unseen layer of the unconscious mind. This is “romance”. —anonymous

Note the word “demand.” It is a self-centered expectation that my needs will be satisfied, my happiness will come from my partner. This is a child’s narcissistic view of a relationship—it’s all about me. The fairy tale model tells you you are entitled to happiness and your partner is to provide it. Or else! Of course this is not a relationship of adult equals in loving attachment—it has no place for real life, for struggle toward goals, for temporary unhappiness and loss for the sake of a future goal. And those who cling to it generally fail.

Idealized romantic love was not considered especially desirable before Medieval troubadours promoted it. Adult long-term relationships have historically been about family, property, and influence, with eventual love a desirable but not necessary factor. In wealthy urban societies, long-term married persons often sought sexual outlets and the thrills of romance from secondary relationships.

Peter Wright, writing in A Voice for Men, captures the problematic cultural relic of the Fairy Tale with more scholarship than I could muster — we’ve been exchanging emails. From his point of view, modern feminism and the Fairy Tale are closely entwined, and modern feminists don’t recognize how much their beliefs owe to a feudalistic ideal of female privilege (the “Fairy Tale Princess” model):

Feminism promotes a neurotic vision of what constitutes true love. It takes its model directly from the Age of Feudalism which saw vassals bowing down and kissing the hands of Lords. In the 12th century that model served as the basis for a new kind of love in which men were to play the role of vassal to women who played the role of an idealized Lord. C.S. Lewis, back in the middle of the 20th Century, referred to this historical revolution as “the feudalisation of love,” and stated that it has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched. “Compared with this revolution,” states Lewis, “the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature.”

Not only has this feudalistic notion of love permeated almost every corner of the globe today, it continues to be vigorously promoted by both feminists and traditionalists alike. The love we are referring to is what Hollywood, romance novels, and other media refer to as “romantic love,” the fantasy to which every modern man and woman pledges blind obeisance…. [C.S. Lewis commented:]

Everyone has heard of courtly love, and everyone knows it appeared quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century at Languedoc. The sentiment, of course, is love, but love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, and the Religion of Love. The lover is always abject. Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim. Here is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to his lord. The lover is the lady’s ‘man’. He addresses her as midons, which etymologically represents not ‘my lady’ but ‘my lord’. The whole attitude has been rightly described as ‘a feudalisation of love’. This solemn amatory ritual is felt to be part and parcel of the courtly life.

C.S. Lewis wrote that many decades ago; I’m not sure “everyone” knows it today. We ought to remember his words, because in the long sweep of human history, what we think has been with us forever is something people only a few generations ago knew to be mostly an artificial, idealized notion.

One of the issues of the modern age of electronic media and overabundant entertainment is the lack of accountability and feedback — in earlier eras, most of a child’s time was spent with parents, siblings, and peers in the real community, and their self-image was molded by feedback from those real people. Today many children get less guidance from adults, and spend much of their early years viewing entertainments from Disney and others that were drenched in the Fairy Tale model of romance. The content of these tales has grown more sophisticated in recent years, but they still often center on either a girl who is pretty and does well by finding the Prince Charming to whisk her off to Happy Ever After Land, or a boy who bests his competitors through wit and daring. Neither of these scenarios is an actual experience with the feedback required to sharpen life skills; both allow a sort of lazy, I-am-owed-this fantasy view of how life works. The willingness of the most effective teachers to demand excellent performance from their pupils has been buried by bureaucracies punishing teachers for upholding high standards, and refusing to let teachers remove disruptive students from their classes. Even worse, the “self-esteem” movement called for praising and rewarding all children, no matter what their performance, lest their self-esteem be damaged — but untested, unreal self-esteem based on false praise crumbles as soon as it encounters real-world setbacks.

Peter Wright goes on to suggest a view of marriage or partnership as friendship-plus — the values of friendship with the addition of sex and family interests — as a healthier way of looking at it:

The field of attachment science concludes that an absence of close and consistent human attachment causes children to literally wither and die, refusing to thrive despite being provided with clothing, food and an adequate number of toys. Likewise adults literally commit suicide to escape feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially after a relationship separation. Even if we don’t end up suiciding from loneliness we have to ask ourselves if the absence of an intimate relationship in our lives leaves us limping, or somehow unfulfilled? Some would suggest we can fill our intimacy void with friendships, but this leads to a further question of whether there is an adequate formulation of friendship that can satisfy our needs – a relationship that doesn’t rely on the usual vassal and lord model at the core of romantic love.

In ancient cultures friendship was a more lofty aspiration than it is today. It was synonymous with love and it often involved sexual intimacy. In Ancient Greek, the same word was used for “friend” and “lover.” In our culture we have succeeded in separating friendship from the category we call love, and excised all trace of sex from friendships. Today when we say, “They are just good friends” or “she’s only a friend” we are indicating the absence of both intimate love and sex.

Sexual attraction and desire also need to be put in their place. They may generate some chemistry and may be the first thing that attracts you to a person, but like the shiny trinket that catches your eye at the shopping mall, you will first stare at it in wonder, maybe have a feel, and then decide whether you really want to take that thing home and share your life with it. Friendship is much the same, and if a person you meet has little in common you will be inclined to leave them on the shelf and move on, despite their sexual attractiveness.

I once again note that the breakdown in relations between men and women has been painful, and men have suffered the most in this I would think; in the current socio-political climate, marriage and even cohabitation is like jumping out of an aeroplane with a chute you’re not even sure is going to open. And all change can’t simply be political. Still, if we are ever to look forward to a cultural change that might make for a new era of improved relations between the sexes, ditching these feudalistic attitudes about “romantic love,” and restoring the ancient tradition of seeing intimate friendship being the highest ideal for a relationship, would probably by a major step in the right direction culturally. This will require a shift in the attitudes of men and women alike, but the evidence for this being possible is strong; we’ve done it before, and we still see it in some cultures today. It’s not impossible for human beings to think and act this way. So can we return to a culture where that’s the more normal way of thinking? I’d like to believe that possible for us today, or at least in the future.

In one of those elisions, Peter comments: “One of the worst-kept secrets about married couples is that they often treat their friends with more kindness, compassion and generosity than they ever do for each other. When best friends are together they are charming, engaging, helpful and courteous, but when they return home to their spouses they appear resentful, angry and uncooperative with each other.”

I think we disagree about this. When the arranged-marriage, marriage-for-property-and-dynasty system went out of style, marriages became a choose-for-yourself project, with a much larger pool of candidates to choose from. While this freed many to find more compatible partners, it also cast the losers into a game of musical relationship chairs where most of the remaining candidates were problematic; 50% of the population have insecure attachment types, and freedom of choice meant those insecure people were more often thrown in together into dysfunctional marriages. No longer feeling obligated to make a marriage work, and finding a year or two in that their partner is either too controlling and clingy or too cold and avoidant, the sniping and the negative communication games begin. You could call this another facet of assortative mating, where the best partners find each other and leave the worst to deal with each other.

There’s also a selection effect: we notice the marriages where people fight or snipe at each other. The half of marriages that do well do so quietly, and it’s easy to assume married people treat each other badly behind the scenes when nearly everyone tries to maintain status and self-image by presenting a falsely positive view to outsiders. Those whose marriages are happy tend to quietly enjoy themselves and get on with their lives, while the unhappy participants in bad marriages are more likely to let everyone know just how awful their partner is, after presenting a glowing but false picture at first.

There is a real world, and a couple has to join together and face reality as partners to be successful both with each other and in surviving and thriving in a sometimes harsh environment. A real partnership grows stronger with adversity overcome by mutual effort; if one or both partners think life should be easy because they are goodlooking, or great at sports, or Daddy’s Little Girl, the normal setbacks of life will have them blaming their partner and running for the exit. Happiness — or great sex or a perfect house — is not the goal of a successful relationship; the goal is a bond that strengthens both of you and helps you be more the person you want to be. Happiness in marriage, when it happens, is a byproduct of love and loyalty and accomplishments together over time.

Belief in the Fairy Tale Model is crippling, often leaving believers battered, poorer, and alone in middle age — ask many of the bewildered divorced fathers. And the divorcées, having moved on to what they expected would be sexier, more attentive men? Having thrown away their shared history and often damaged their children by depriving them of a father’s guidance, their lives are not improved. What they wanted was an illusion.

Another excerpt from my book, the list of “Fairy Tale Assumptions” from a friend who now knows better:

There is only one person for me. Really? With five billion other people walking around, that’s a rather unlikely assumption. If you can only partner with one person on the planet, it seems more likely your requirements are so demanding there is no one who could meet them. It’s probably wiser to strive to be the kind of person who could be a good partner to lots of people. Yes, they should be very special—but not the only one!

Money doesn’t matter. Only when you’re rich. You have to be able to talk about money. Who makes what? Does the person who brings in more money have a bigger say in how it gets spent? Do you have a spending plan? A savings plan? What if one of you gets a great job opportunity in another city—will you move?

Love will keep us together. Love is not a force in the world. It doesn’t pay the bills or get you a job or make you smart; in fact, you could argue the reverse. Love is a reason to try hard, to go above and beyond, and to accomplish things that ordinarily you wouldn’t do. Because no one is perfect and even your perfect life-partner will forget to take out the garbage or will wake you up with his incessant snoring.

You can only love one person at a time. Attraction is a function of brain chemistry. Companionate love is what remains when the limerence finally leaves. There’s nothing to prevent you from having strong feelings for more than one person. You have an infinite capacity to love.

This relationship will never end. All relationships end. Everyone dies. Everyone’s circumstances change. Instead of imbuing one relationship with magic picked up in an after-school special, it might be worthwhile to tell someone how much they mean to you and then work on showing that. Because words are cheap. Signing on a dotted line for a mortgage or having children or jointly caring for family elders shows that you’re not just another bed warmer. And all those people in high school you absolutely loved? You won’t even remember their names in 30 years.

People should love me for who I am. Oh dear. Have some more kool-aid. Just because you exist doesn’t make you lovable. If you have to do things to manipulate how people feel about you, then you are a mess. Clean your mess and stop using other people until you have.

Sex is bad. Don’t buy into that. Sex is neither good nor bad. It is a natural function, like eating and breathing. Using sex as a weapon for nonconsensual dominance or withholding sex as punishment are childish games.

I am the center of the world. You may be pretty and smart, but there are many people who are prettier and smarter and they do more chores and make more money and can run marathons. Just be your best. Love your friends. Talk to your kids. Do a good job.

The world owes me. The world doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you, nor should it. You are no more important (and no less important) than anyone else.

People never change. Do you think your mother married a balding oaf whose idea of a good time is to fart the alphabet? Did your father marry a woman because of her intense bingo addiction and her desire to wear polyester stretch pants in colors not found in nature?

My sweetheart will love me if we have children. It is morally wrong to use other people, especially children, to get what you want. Having babies to keep your man in a marriage does not work. Leaving your wife and kids because you don’t like children makes you a douche, not a dad.

I can change him or her. Guess what? Alcoholism, obesity, compulsive gambling, drug addiction, and sex addiction don’t exist because of you. You can’t fix them. You can help them get help but you have to understand that you are not the change agent.

You have to be honest about what you want and how you feel. You have to give honest feedback. Lying helps no one.

Feature image by Loren Javier

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