We get sold some pretty outrageous stories when we’re growing up. The most famous, of course, is the knight in shining armour. I would be willing to bet that the story of the knight (or prince; he can incarnate as any number of things, so long as it’s suitably medieval and heroic-sounding) is responsible for delaying or ruining many a would-be happy partnership.
Thanks to that fairy tale, many perfectly suitable people turn down the possibility of genuine love and happiness in order to wait for ‘The One’.
This prophesised One will be obvious when he appears – how handy! – and will whisk us away from our tedious lives to live enraptured in bliss. We grow up to realise that placing such massive expectations on a new boyfriend makes things awkward and can scare him off.
We realise that the butterflies of new romance is often just insecurity and disbelief that we’ve been noticed – and not, in fact, an announcement from the Cosmos that our prince has materialised. We realise that often the people worth holding onto are not the ones who arrived on horseback to the sound of trumpets.
And we may even have to confront the scenario in which we have to be that knight-prince for someone – we don’t get to just wait around in turrets busying ourselves with needlework.
Relationships – and especially gay relationships – require balance. We will each be required to step up at certain points to do some of the rescuing and some of the whisking away from life’s sadness. The knight-prince archetype is not a healthy choice for us to strive for, because it’s both disempowering and weirdly selfish.
More dangerous than the knight-prince, however, is the seemingly innocent little line with which most children’s stories end: “they lived happily ever after.”
Far too many of us are fooled by this line, lulled into believing that once you have found a partner you adore, the years just roll on by, easy and uneventful.
But in real life, the start of a relationship is not the end of the story. It is not the threshold after which we just live happily ever after, without hiccup or tragedy. The start of the relationship is the start of the story – and most of the interesting, wonderful bits take place in exactly the years that “happily ever after” tries to airbrush away.
“And then I noticed, with horror, in my first long-term relationship, that I still found other people attractive…”
To paraphrase Tolstoy’s happy and unhappy families, all new relationships are alike; but every older relationship unfolds in its own way. The excitement of a new relationship is always the same, but with time the beautiful, unique and real stuff about your relationship begins to take shape.
Happily ever after sets us up with some profoundly damaging expectations. It makes us assume that if we love someone, things will always be easy – and, conversely, that if things are not easy we must not really love the person. The logic of happily ever after leads people to give up on their relationships before they should and to take convenience as a sign of something cosmic.
For me, the happily ever after narrative had been subconsciously absorbed into my beliefs on faithfulness. I had always just assumed, because of the fairy tale, that once you had fallen in love you would automatically lose interest in sex with other people. Being faithful must be easy, I thought, because once you had found The One, you lived Happily Ever After. Other things don’t get in the way. There are no affairs, no drunken regrets, no hurtful secrets. Stories of unfaithfulness were for those who were not really in love in the first place.
And then I noticed, with horror, in my first long-term relationship, that I still found other people attractive. I loved my boyfriend, but I never stopped noticing when other guys were hot. There was no magical moment when sexual attraction dried up for everyone but my boyfriend.
It unsettled me badly. I asked myself if I had some sort of affliction; if I were incapable of being faithful. My parents’ relationship had imploded, messily, from infidelity. I had seen what it did to my mother and I had sworn never to do that to another person. But what if I had the same genetic predisposition to stray? What if all men, in fact, could not keep it in their pants?
I realised that you cannot assume men who cheat do not love their partners. Love, actually, doesn’t have much to do with it. The urge to sleep around is evolutionary, and it does not disappear when you fall in love. Where love comes into it is in deciding whether you will respect your partner enough not to follow the urge. Loving someone means taking responsibility for your actions and choosing to be faithful.
Faithfulness is a conscious choice, not the serendipitous by-product of finding love. Being faithful means choosing your partner over the whims of your penis. It means working for all that is amazing and fulfilling and beautiful in your relationship, and never being lazy or selfish enough to think that it only affects you.
The problem with fairy tales is that they make us lazy. Happily ever after makes us believe that love will do all the work and we can just sit back and grow old together. The thing is, love does not stop us from fucking up – only we can do that.
Love, and the joy it brings, is the reward we earn for getting that right.