Between 40 and 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. While most of us find that statistic alarming, perhaps we should be more concerned about the percentage of intact marriages that are unhappy.
In my twenties my husband at the time introduced me to Before Sunrise, a romantic drama with actors Julie Delpy (Celine) and Ethan Hawke (Jesse), who meet on a train in Europe, spend an unplanned night together roaming Vienna, and vow to meet again in six months. It wasn’t the last time a person would point me to the film as an example of the type of love they want—full of curiosity, exploration, playfulness, passion, openness, and emotional, intellectual, and physical intimacy. Who wouldn’t want that?
I recently had the opportunity to watch the third movie of the series, Before Midnight, and was surprised to find the state of the couple’s relationship drastically altered. One of the scenes that conveys the most potent metaphor for the change in their relationship takes place as they watch the sunset. When it’s over, they don’t turn to each other in awe of the phenomenon they just witnessed together. Instead, the brilliance is straight up gone.
Rejecting the Norm
Some might say the trilogy documents the progression from romantic to real, seasoned love. The vibe that each movie captures is actually pretty true to what I’d guess most people experience in today’s culture of dating, marriage, and divorce.
I’ve lived that though, and I’m telling you right now—I don’t ever want that again.
So what does real, long-term love look and feel like? Despite my years of dating, marriage, and divorce, I’m not sure. Looking back on my marriage, I think we lived more parallel lives of exploration rather than deep diving into each other as whole, healthy individuals. At this point in my life, I mostly have a lot to say about what real, long-term love doesn’t look like.
Don’t Do That!
From the first car ride scene in Before Midnight, I knew something had been lost. After following my triggers and confused thoughts all the way to the scripted end, I honed in on eight things from the couple’s conversations. Here’s what not to do if you want to steer clear of being trapped in an unrewarding relationship, subconsciously inspired by deeply rooted cultural norms.
1. Don’t get so uptight. As we strive to attain marriage, parenthood, and career success, it’s so easy to get caught up in the to-do’s and logistics of daily life. You must carve out room for romance, creativity, and authenticity—for yourself and your partner. Otherwise you end up emotionally bankrupt with a dying self and a dying relationship.
2. Don’t tease and belittle in front of others. We resort to this immature form of communication when we feel we’re not heard and want validation of our viewpoint from an external source. In sitcoms, this style of communication comes across as entertaining and comical. In real life it damages people and partnerships ever so slowly and surely.
3. Don’t ignore relationship karma. Somewhere between the second movie of the series, Before Sunset, and the third, Before Midnight, the premise is that love conquers all. Jesse and Celine reunite a decade after their first meeting, and Jesse leaves his marriage and son to be with Celine. How you get into a relationship and how you end it matters, and this becomes all too evident in Before Midnight. If you don’t treat relationships with respect and authenticity, they will haunt you like a past life through resentment, complications, and guilt. Honor your relationship cycles, and treat their beginnings and endings with dignity.
4. Don’t fight dirty. Learn the basic rules of good communication. Emotions are allowed, but they must be managed. Don’t allow them to run wild and control the show. Discuss the problem at hand—not the whole tit for tat of your relationship balance. If you need to address something larger and can’t do so productively, seek help from a therapist.
5. Don’t lose yourself. Prioritize and romance yourself. Keep singing. Keep playing. Keep writing. Your individuality is what fuels your love for yourself and each other.
6. Don’t seek validation from others. If you committed to a monogamous relationship and feel stale or unappreciated, deal with that. Spice things up. Go to therapy. Consider the commitment cycle of your relationship. Is it time to honor an ending? Or is it time to surrender more deeply into intimacy? Seeking attention elsewhere will just compound the problem today or in the future.
7. Don’t lose sight of self love. You have to take care of you in the way that only you can. You also have to be brave enough to open yourself to intimacy, because nobody will be able to set you as free as you have the power to let yourself be.
8. Don’t look at each other like improvement projects. You cannot control or change another person. So choose your partner wisely with eyes wide open, and then get busy continuing to work on yourself. Unless you want a lifetime of frustration, be sure your partner is equally committed to working on themselves.
My life experience so far has taught me a lot about what not to do. But I think I’m onto something in recognizing the possibility of a new, more highly evolved way to love beyond the scripts we’ve inherited. I at least know it needs to be different than anything I’ve experienced so far. And I believe it’s possible to maintain a sense of awe in the hours of life between sunset and midnight.
Which of the eight don’ts is most applicable to you? What about yourself or your partnership might change if you’re able to stop?