3 Ways Fictional Marriages can Sabotage Real Ones—and How to Get it Right

Not long ago, I was taking a lunch break and reading a novel—and was jolted by a particular scene that reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my college-age daughter. She’s been dating a young man for more than a year, and as their relationship has deepened, she has been realizing the differences between how things work in the fictional relationships she sees all around her—in the latest TV series or fiction books—and how things work in real life. “I’m just now realizing,” she told me, “that these shows and books often portray great marriages but not necessarily the truth for how you create great marriages. The goal is right but the examples they show of what the couple is actually doing are often so wrong. In real life, I don’t think good stuff comes from doing those things!”

Perhaps because of that conversation, my eyes were suddenly opened to one such example as I was reading that novel. And then I saw another example a few pages later . . . and another. The next day some other examples jumped out at me while watching a movie. And then in an episode of the latest TV show we’ve been bingeing. I’ll share some of these examples shortly. But it caused me to realize . . . these “that approach only works in fiction” examples are everywhere. And we need to identify them so we can purposefully replace the wrong approaches and expectations with the right ones.

There are so many examples, I could write a whole book on this (hmm . . .) but for now, here are three common ways we must replace fiction with truth:

Fiction #1: You can speak truth in a cutting way and your spouse will shrug it off or even accept it because they love you.

Truth #1: Just because your spouse loves you doesn’t mean their feelings don’t get hurt—even if they don’t always show it.

Jeff and the kids were watching an old episode of The Big Bang Theory not long ago, and one of the characters—a pretty, bubbly wife—was saying things to her husband like, “I’ll stop doing such-and-such when you stop being a nitwit.” She paused for the studio laughs, and her husband sheepishly shrugged and accepted it.

I thought: it sounds okay when you’re an actor with great comedic timing, especially when your next words are back to normal. But in real life, we are not like those actors and our spouse doesn’t think it is funny.

In our research with the happiest couples for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, one of the starkest findings was that happy couples are completely honest with each other—but always in a kind way, never a cutting one. After all, think about it: would you speak to a friend in that way? A colleague? If you want to spend the rest of your life in a thriving relationship with someone, you have to care about their feelings.

Fiction #2: If you do hurt your spouse’s feelings, they will forgive all and not pout, cry, or hold a grudge.

Truth #2: If you hurt your spouse’s feelings, there will be consequences you have to navigate.

The novel I mentioned earlier was an action-fantasy-romance story, and the main character is a woman who meets and marries a powerful but kind king in disguise. (Yes, this book is purely a guilty pleasure; don’t judge.) One afternoon after she begins ruling at her husband’s side, she disagrees with a decision he makes and snaps at him in front of everyone in his inner circle. Things are frosty between them for several hours solely because of her irritation(not because he is upset), and by dinnertime he approaches her to say he is sorry he made the wrong decision, and that she has every right to question him.

How he approaches the situation is the very picture of grace, equanimity, and kindness—and represents how only a tiny fraction of real people would handle it. Not because he apologizes for his part so quickly (many spouses try to keep short accounts). But because in most cases a real-life spouse would not be okay with being undermined in front of others. Especially in front of those whose respect they most need. It would humiliate them. Their feelings would be terribly hurt, and they would struggle greatly with a desire to pull away, or to criticize back.

Fictional relationships (especially in romance-type-stories) very rarely show the love interest getting their feelings hurt—at least not for any length of time. In other words: there are simply no consequences for words and actions that in real life would be hurtful. So when our real-life spouse does have hurt feelings about something we said or did and withdraws (or gets angry or cries), something inside us believes they are being oversensitive. Maybe even “dramatic.” We subconsciously view them as unreasonable for having those hurt feelings. And although some people do indeed take their hurt feelings to unreasonable levels, in most cases we have to consider that their hurt is legitimate.

As we discovered in the research for many of our books, including For Women Only and For Men Only, each of us have deep insecurities inside. Triggering these insecurities is what leads to the hurt feelings. And unlike what we see on TV, we will need to navigate the consequences. Far better to avoid hitting the nerve of the person we love in the first place.

Fiction #3: My spouse will respond to me in the way I want—and if they don’t, there’s something wrong.

Truth #3: My spouse is a very different person from me, with a different makeup in many ways—and thus is unlikely to always respond the way I want even though they deeply care about me.

One of the most pernicious ramifications of fictional portrayals of women in hard or soft porn, and of men in erotica and romance stories, is how these portrayals subconsciously set up completely unrealistic expectations for how our spouse “should” behave and act in certain situations.

For example, most men in this culture have regularly seen either hard-core pornography or soft-core erotic scenes in the average streaming TV series—and don’t realize just how much it has shaped their view of what mutual, loving intimacy is and what their wife “should” want when it comes to sex. After all, the women in those erotic scenes are always eager for it. Not only does her bad, emotional day at work not get in the way of her libido—it sparks her to want to hop into bed to feel better. Needless to say, many real-life women are wired quite differently. Although one in four women do have a higher desire than their husbands (according to our most recent research), in most marriages the husband has the higher drive. And although such a husband may not be surprised that his wife wants a listening ear as soon as she gets home from the emotional day at work, he may be very surprised if he reaches for her later that night and discovers she is not eagerly hoping for sexual comfort. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about sex (or about him)—but it does mean that she is wired differently than he is.

Or, when the heroine in the romance novels gets weepy, worried, and withdrawn after a fight, the hero always pursues her to find out what’s wrong and reassure her of his undying affection. That is, of course, what many real-life women wish would happen! But in real life we can’t think that is what should happen. Why? Because after a fight a man is highly likely to want to withdraw, too! Not because he doesn’t care but because he may instinctively want time and space to process what just happened, address his own hurt or anger and/or think about what to do next.

It is so crucial to realize that the real, warm, caring person we are married to isn’t any less warm or caring just because they are real. Just because they are not consistent with the fictional portrayals we see all around us. Let’s learn to not only avoid the fictional expectations—but also to love and celebrate the person our spouse really is.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at nowens@shaunti.com.

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