And They Lived Happily Ever After …

By Adam Holz
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Hollywood film cover of couple living happily ever after
Illustration by Heather Landis
We might laugh at Hollywood's ideas about marriage, but movies have the capacity to both undermine and inspire our relationships.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, at the neighborhood Cineplex, to witness the union of two people in holy matrimony.

Though big-budget Disney remakes, superhero films and sci-fi sagas from a galaxy far, far away often get the most attention at the box office, movies about marriage remain a cinematic staple. That’s because good movies depend on interesting conflicts, and marriage offers no shortage of storytelling fodder in that department, whether we’re talking about Hallmark romances, silly rom-coms or serious dramas.

We may snicker at the contrived situations and the stilted dialogue that Hollywood often delivers, but the fact is that we do indeed have high expectations of marriage. And movies tap into those “happily ever after” longings, sometimes in ways that are constructive, other times in ways that quietly reinforce unhealthy expectations of what love and marriage are all about. So let’s take a look at the potential perils and promises of onscreen relationships, especially when it comes to how they influence our perceptions of marriage.

Unrealistic expectations?

Most of us like happy endings, and most movies give us exactly that. In fact, we typically get mad when they don’t. And when it comes to relationship movies, happily ever after often comes wrapped in passion, intensity and neatly resolved conflict. The message: The world is a better place now that these two people have finally worked through all their issues.

That desire for a happy ending is, I believe, hardwired within us. We long for a world where broken places are healed, where rough edges are filed down, where the most unlikely couples somehow navigate their differences and discover that true love can conquer any and all obstacles. Classic rom-coms like Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, Hitch and Crazy Rich Asians — not to mention virtually every movie on the Hallmark Channel — are built on this same narrative template.

While I am well aware of their derivative nature, I actually like these kinds of movies. I’m a romantic at heart. But I sometimes face the temptation to compare my marriage of 15 years (with three kids) to a nice, neat, feel-good story that’s completely wrapped up in two hours. And if I’ve had a recent conflict with my wife, or we’re dealing with some unresolved issue in our marriage or family, these films can make me feel like there’s something wrong with my own relationship — that it’s not as good as what I’ve just seen on the big screen.

In those moments, I have to remember that rom-coms are essentially fantasies and that life in the real world isn’t always neat and tidy.

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Catalysts for conversation and inspiration

And yet … a well-told story has the capacity to move our hearts, to unlock feelings and ideas we weren’t even aware of. Movies can inspire us to be better people — to make us want to love our spouse with more intentionality, more understanding, more forgiveness. Films can open the door for us to talk about weaknesses, faults and foibles that might otherwise be difficult to acknowledge.

Sometimes, movies also provide a powerful portrait of what faithfulness looks like for the long haul and in the face of loss or struggle. A Beautiful Mind, for example, depicts a wife who struggles to love a husband with schizophrenia. In Shadowlands, we see C.S. Lewis’ faithful love for his wife, Joy Davidman, as she succumbs to terminal cancer.

Turns out that “happily ever after” is a lifelong journey, one full of triumphs and troubles, victories and setbacks. Some movies powerfully remind us of this reality, some inspire us, and some prompt us to laugh at ourselves. Just remember that it’s on us to recognize that our nagging marital problems aren’t going to be solved in two hours at the Cineplex.

Movies that Inspire Conversation

If you and your spouse are looking for an evening of uplifting entertainment, consider the following films. These movies just might inspire you and lead to heartfelt and honest conversation about love, marriage and family (Note: Some of these movies are rated PG-13, so be sure to check out PluggedIn.com if you have any questions about a film’s content.)

  • Father of the Bride
  • Shadowlands
  • Marley & Me
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Fireproof
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • The Incredibles
  • Wonder
  • Julie & Julia

© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the February/March 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.

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