I have a pet peeve about the love stories in many popular movies and novels. We could call it the and-they-lived-happily-ever-after complex.
For classic fairy tales, “And they lived happily ever after” is the most popular ending. Here’s the pattern: The story opens with, “Once upon a time. . . .” Then the characters are introduced, and they get into various adventures and troubles. Finally, their troubles are resolved, their adventure ends in success, and they live happily ever after.
This is also the most common format for love stories in popular movies and novels. The basic plot runs like this: “Boy meets girl, boy and girl separate, boy and girl join again and get married.” Sometimes the separation is emotional rather than physical; often it is both physical and emotional. This pattern is followed in thousands and thousands of love stories.
For children’s fairy tales, a happy ending is nice. It conveys the idea that even if we have to go through many troubles and hardships in life, things will all work out in the end. True, often that is not the case in the material world. But from a spiritual perspective, unless we willfully choose to turn our back on God and our fellow human beings, things will work out in the end. No matter what pain and struggle we have to suffer through here on earth, we will ultimately find happiness as angels in heaven.
I suppose adults, too, need continual reassurance that things will all work out in the end. Happy endings are very popular in adult fiction and movies as well.
But here’s my pet peeve: Over and over again, love stories are all about the boy getting the girl and the girl getting the boy. What about their lives after that?
Marriage is the beginning of the story
Over and over again, we’re treated to the attractive young man pursuing the beautiful young woman (or vice versa) and all their misadventures and misunderstandings along the way, until the story comes to its uplifting climax when they overcome their adversities and their differences, and fall madly in love. If a traditional ending is wanted, they then meet at the altar to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride,” and depart arm in arm in a snowstorm of confetti—or an eco-friendly confetti substitute.
And, we are left to assume, they live happily ever after.
The problem is, it rarely works that way in real life.
As exciting and powerful as falling in love can be, when a couple has fallen in love and gotten married, that is the beginning of the story, not the end. Only in the movies does the beaming couple emerge from the church all decked out in their wedding finery . . . and then the closing credits roll. In real life, the couple generally heads off on their honeymoon, and pretty soon they’re back at home going about the everyday business of getting along with one another.
This can be a lot of work. Soon each partner’s rough edges begin to show, and that wonderful “soul mate” turns out to be made not only of soul, but of many earthly attitudes, desires, and habits—some of which can be quite annoying. Even couples who have already lived together for years often find that getting married changes the dynamic of the relationship.
The wedding day is the beginning of the story. “Ever after” brings the much less exciting job of actually living together and building a relationship day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year.
Born again: before and after
It’s similar to the Christian idea of being born again. (See “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?”) Many Christians seem to think that once you’re “saved” by being born again, that’s the end of the story. Everything else is just the closing credits. Yet if we look at the physical process of birth, we find that although birth is the climax of nine months of gestation in the womb, it is still only the beginning of the story. A whole lifetime stretches out in front of the newborn!
Wise advice for those who are expecting their first baby: Don’t forget that the birth lasts only a few hours, but you’ll be taking care of the baby for years and years. While you’re reading all those books on childbirth, be sure to learn something about how to take care of the baby after it’s born!
Similarly, thousands of books and movies give us just about every conceivable variation of how couples can fall in love. But as nice as that is, it doesn’t mean a lot if the resulting marriage soon breaks up in bitterness and pain. We have many examples of how to fall in love. We have very few about how to be in love—and even fewer about how to grow in love.
The Bible on marriage?
Considering how important our love life is for us humans, you would think that the Bible would say a lot about love and marriage. But in fact, there is very little direct instruction in the Bible on the subject. Yes, there are Jesus’ statements about marriage, adultery, and divorce. There are a few rather controversial passages in the letters of Paul. There are many laws in the Old Testament Levitical code about various sexual relations that are and are not allowed. There is the ancient book “Song of Solomon,” which is a poetic expression of the love between a man and a woman.
But for the most part, the Bible’s “instruction” about love and marriage comes in the form of telling the stories of various couples as their lives intertwine with the Bible’s storyline. We are left to glean what wisdom we can from those stories. Practically speaking, we must turn to other sources to come to a deeper understanding of the realities of marriage.
One of those sources is the book Marriage Love, by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). This is one of Swedenborg’s more popular—and more controversial—books. I recommend a thoughtful reading of it for those who are married or moving toward marriage. While many of the social customs and gender roles described in the book draw on European culture as it existed over two hundred years ago, the deeper, spiritual principles it offers are timeless.
The marriage of Isaac and Rebekah
The story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24 is one of the more endearing love stories in the Bible. At his master’s command, the chief servant of Isaac’s aged father Abraham went back to his extended family’s home four hundred miles northeast in the town of Haran. Led by God, he found Rebekah, the young woman who would become Isaac’s wife. After the servant brought Rebekah back with him, the story offers this understated conclusion:
Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24:67)
This is about as close as the Bible comes to saying, “And they lived happily ever after.”
As a pattern for us to follow, there are some problems with the story of how Isaac and Rebekah got married. For example, not many of us would be happy to have our parents—let alone our parents’ hired hand—choose the person we will marry. We prefer to choose our own partner, thank you very much!
Yet there is an element in the story that is just as critical to a happy and lasting marriage now as it was four thousand years ago.
Who picks our true partner?
It was neither Abraham nor his servant who picked out a wife for Isaac. Yes, they both had an important part in it: Abraham sent his servant on a journey to get a wife for his son from his own people. The servant did his master’s bidding. Yet just before he successfully made contact with Isaac’s bride-to-be, the servant prayed to the Lord (Genesis 24:12–14). It was the servant’s reliance on God’s guidance that enabled him to achieve success in his mission. The one who really chooses the right partner for us—if we do find the right one—is God.
Years before we meet our “soul mate,” God is making preparations for that wonderful event. Even before we are born, God is preparing us for one another. As we make various choices and take various directions in life, if we long for a life partner God is always working to provide us with just the right person to share our life with, and to introduce us to one another at just the right time.
However, even more important than finding the right person is being the right person.
When we get married, we live at very close quarters with our partner. It is wonderful to find the “right one.” But if we are all wrapped up in ourselves, and oblivious to the needs and the happiness of our partner, our marriage will soon be headed for the rocks. For more on being the right person, see “How to Attract the Opposite Sex—and Keep ’Em.”
The surest foundation for a happy marriage
Achieving happiness in marriage is a huge subject! We can only scratch the surface here.
I will leave you with just one thought, which is the most important part of a working, growing, loving marriage. Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage worked over time because they had a critical ingredient for marriage: a willingness to follow where God led them.
As soon as Rebekah heard Abraham’s servant tell his story, she knew, along with her family, that this matter had come from God (see Genesis 24:50). When asked—on very short notice—whether she would go with this man, she said without hesitation, “I will” (Genesis 24:58).
Isaac’s life as recounted in the Bible is the story of a man who was willing to be led by God, and who lived at peace with his fellow human beings.
Whether we are looking toward marriage or living in marriage, there is only one way to live happily ever after: we must listen to what God is saying to us, and follow it.
The surest and most solid foundation for marriage is a shared faith in God. For Christians, this means a shared faith in Jesus Christ. The best guarantee that we will live happily ever after together is a shared commitment to do God’s will as we understand it.
If we have that shared faith and commitment, although we will have temporary struggles, disappointments, pains, and setbacks in our relationship, we will be laying the foundation for an eternally happy marriage.
This article is edited from a talk originally delivered on October 21, 2001.
For further reading:
- How to Attract the Opposite Sex—and Keep ’Em
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
- Real Marriage vs. Legal Marriage
- What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
- How to Know if Mr. or Ms. Right is Right for You: Pointers from Gloria and Emilio Estefan