After six years of work and the craziest emotional roller coaster of my life, a documentary film I recently completed about marriage has made its way to audiences, some of whom have even been thoughtful enough to send me relationship advice. Thank you kind strangers, particularly Dora, who tracked me down to say that I needed therapy.
I guess Dora was concerned because she knew that I had started the film, "After Happily Ever After", together with my second husband, looking for the secret formula to marital bliss. She also knew that our romantic quest hadn't exactly ended with happily ever after.
My new husband and I began the project on our honeymoon, interviewing long-married couples about their secrets to success (sometimes while simultaneously bickering behind the camera ourselves). It quickly became apparent that there is not any one magic formula to a successful marriage. This became even more clear when couples started giving opposing answers on top of their differing answers.
But it was only when our own young marriage hit the rocks that I realized there were some bigger, broader questions to examine about the institution itself -- like, for example, what motivates 90% of us Americans to marry at all, considering the dismal odds. And should we still be doing it? Why is marriage so hard? Might there be a better way? I began looking for some answers.
The irony of producing a film about marriage while my own was crumbling before my very eyes became impossible to ignore. Eventually, I had to hesitantly turn the camera on myself, and then, in a strangely timed twist of fate, edit "After Happily Ever After" just as I was beginning divorce proceedings. Editing a film requires a filmmaker to look at footage over and over again, and, in my case, it was the collapse of my marriage that I was watching on an endless loop. I barely slept or ate for months. I could hardly stand another second of it at times. It became like a particularly un-funny joke. Despite the agony of it all, the forced examination and self-reflection that resulted turned into one of the most profound learning experiences of my life in terms of relationships and marriage. My views shifted completely.
While editing the film, my own faults in relationships became unavoidable, including my incredible knack for picking the wrong guy in the first place. So, I obviously got excited by Dora's second bit of advice: "the partners have to have their heads on straight and have chosen each other wisely. Others have learned what they needed to, and you can, too."
Well, I sure do hope she's right about my still having a chance. But it was her last point that really made me appreciate Dora's message the most. It was when she said, "the institution alone can't do the work" that I knew we were truly on the same page.
It's so true -- the institution alone can't do the work! But let's be honest; the institution of marriage, in its current form, no longer seems to do anything useful at all.
So while I'm sorry I didn't find happily ever after in time to satisfy Dora, I do have a little un-requested advice to share in exchange for hers -- let's not wag our finger at individual couples when a marriage doesn't work out; let's point to the broader issues of the institution itself. Let's throw away our antiquated ideas, our outdated formula for marriage, the ones that only work 50% of the time. Instead, let's start thinking more creatively. Let's find a way of making love, relationships and marriage thrive with formulas that work well for specific pairs of individuals, not for anyone else, and not even for the most well intentioned stranger.
Kate Schermerhorn is the director of "After Happily Ever After" which is out now on DVD and On Demand, including Vudu and Amazon Instant Video. Visit http://www.afterhappilyeverafter.net for more information and to receive a free list of ten secrets to marital bliss.