Brad and Angelina proved there’s no such thing as the perfect marriage: so why do we pretend?

Recent research shows the number of extremely unhappy couples has doubled in the UK, but popular culture still clings to the fairytale ending

Pretty much all the cliches of the fairytale (the noble prince, the helpless princess) have long been satirised, in everything from The Princess Bride to Shrek to the Zog books by the brilliant Julia Donaldson. But there is one myth that even the most cynical of humans stubbornly clings to the promise of happily ever after, even if all around us is the proof that this is about as likely as a fire-breathing dragon.

According to a recent report from the Office for National Statistics, the number of couples in Britain who describe themselves as extremely unhappy has doubled in the past five years, while those who describe their relationship as perfect has gone down from 9.2% to 5.9%. The ONS does not state how many of those who claimed their relationship was perfect in previous studies are now saying they are extremely unhappy, but Id wager there was significant crossover. After all, those who cling to an illusion are the most likely to be disappointed by the reality.

This summer has proffered plenty of evidence of the death of this myth. From Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat,Pray, Love, and her husband, some of the most loudly self-proclaimed happy relationships have come to an end. When a high-profile marriage ends, the journalistic cliche is to say thatthe reason fans feel unnerved is because theythink that, if the celebrities cant make it work, who can?

This is nonsense. As much as people still desperately want to believe in a happily ever after, only the most naive child would think that buckets of money, the constant glare of attention, and at least one desperately needy and narcissistic person sounds like a recipe for ahappy marriage. Frankly, Ive always thought it a miracle that any celebrity marriages last.

Instead, the shock of a high-profile divorce is that these are the people who, more than anyone, have promoted the myth of happily ever after, through their work and, often, through interviews and romantic photo opportunities. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard met on movies, as did Pitt and Jolie films that ended with the promise that only happiness awaited their characters after the closing credits. Elizabeth Gilberts relationship with Jose Nunes was the basis of her best-known books, from Eat, Pray, Love (made into a predictably slushy Hollywood film) to Committed, her book about her marriage. But in July, Gilbert announced they were divorcing, and that she is now in a relationship with her best friend, who is currently undergoing cancer treatment. Amid the supportive cheers, some of Gilberts fans expressed sadness for Nunes, and who can blame them? He had been sold as their symbol of the happily ever after. (By contrast, the most recent celebrities to separate, Zo Ball and Norman Cook, were always extremely open about their struggles with infidelity, addiction and the general mundanity of marriage. For this reason, the announcement of their split felt to me like the saddest of all.)

And yet the myth persists. In her third Bridget Jones book, Mad About The Boy, Helen Fielding famously killed off Mark Darcy, presumably partly because she herself was divorced by this point and somewhat over the happily ever after storyline. (It is often forgotten how sceptical the original book was about marriage, with its satirisation of Smug Marrieds.) But Hollywood would never allow such cynicism: in the latest absurd movie instalment, Bridget Joness Baby, Darcy is firmly resurrected. Do you really need a spoiler alert if I say Guess the ending?

The best books I have read recently are the ones that resist the simplistic love-cures-all conclusions. In Jessi Kleins terrific collection of essays, Youll Grow Out Of It, she continues the story after her wedding, describing her fertility struggles and the toll this took on her relationship. Rachel Dratchs memoir, Girl Walks Into A Bar, is a fascinating riposte to the upbeat you go girl! female memoir cliche, detailing not just her diminishing professional success but an honest account of what its like to be single in your mid-40s. On screen, Desiree Akhavans Appropriate Behavior has proved it is possible to make a delightfully optimistic romcom that begins and ends with a breakup.

I never liked Elizabeth Gilberts gratingly simplistic memoirs, but her last novel, The Signature Of All Things, is astonishingly brilliant: big-hearted and beady-eyed, it looks at how the romantic fantasy can corrode a womans imagination and blind her to reality. Most of all, it knows that happy endings come in all guises, not just with a bridal veil.

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