Is believing in Happily Ever After just “Toxic Positivity”?
Holly Skey, Founder of Happily Ever After Relationship Training argues both sides of the case…
What is Toxic Positivity?
A quick Google search gives a couple of impressions about what Toxic Positivity is:
“Toxic positivity involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy. It comes from feeling uncomfortable with negative emotions. It is often well-intentioned but can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.”UW Medicine
“Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking; toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.”VeryWell Mind
So, is believing in a Happily Ever After really ‘Toxic’?
Well, I think it depends entirely on how you look at it. If you follow society’s general maxim that you meet someone, fall in love, and because of this initial attraction you will automatically live happily and problem free for the rest of your lives then yeah, the idea of Happily Ever After is not a particularly productive one.
In fact it’s this model of Love that leads to so many broken hearts; and a divorce rate that hovers around 40 – 50%.
This is a representation of Relationships that tells you that natural chemistry, not conscious effort, is the thing that will ensure that you remain together in a blissful state forever.
But that’s simply not true.
I myself fell foul of this particular story when I met my husband.
A man with whom I felt such a strong, instant connection, that I instantly believed we were soul mates, fated to be together through time and space. I have since learnt a fair bit of science that more accurately pinpoints why we are so attracted to each other and although it almost pains me to admit it, it has far more to do with our subconscious minds and our upbringings than it does to do with the magical machinations of the cosmos!
[I say ‘pains’ but actually I have found over time that my beliefs about the Universe, Energy medicine & various Spiritual practices are still very aligned with all the Science I teach, which is so very necessary to understanding and creating a great Relationship.]
So Happily Ever After, as proposed in kids stories and Fairy Tales is not realistic. Why then would I, as an intelligent, well educated women, decide to call my business that? Am I just a fantasist?
Let me explain:
The ‘new’ Happily Ever After
Just over 2 years in, our marriage hit a wall. Well to be honest, I was still very happy. My husband however was not. He wrestled with how he was feeling for months; (although he never talked to me about it for fear of upsetting me – instead choosing to wait til it all came out, Mount St Helens style – with a similar amount of fall out). You see, Andy too believed in the Happily Ever After; and for some time he had not been feeling like he was in love with me any more; (something we were both later to find out was totally normal and nothing to be worried about).
He had thought that it was supposed to be as good as it was in the beginning, forever. He thought because the rainbows and butterflies had simply upped & fucked off for him at that time, that it also meant that we were over. Because the way he was feeling was different to how it used to be or was ‘supposed’ to be (according to the old, accepted narrative of Happily Ever After), he thought that it sounded the death knell for us.
And of course the more he worried about it and tried to get the feelings back, the more they evaded him.
Luckily we sought out the help of an expert online, who helped us to change the way we saw relationships. We spent months learning and implementing things in our Marriage so that we could be happier together again. I loved the topic so much that I also spent years after this point studying and learning it ‘just for shits and gigs’ as they say.
The result of all this learning, study & implementation was that I made a new discovery:
Happily Ever After IS real; but only when you consciously create it.
If I were to ask you what a great relationship looks like, then likely you’d have some very different ideas about it to me; we’re all unique individuals after all! However, after years of considering what makes a Relationship really work, it’s hard to boil it down to just one thing. And honestly why would it be just one thing anyway? If you ask someone why they have a successful Business for example, there won’t be 1reason. It will be an amalgamation of the people, strategies, knowledge and abilities involved. It’s definitely not ‘just one thing’.
Same goes for Relationships.
What I do know is that everything in a good or a bad relationship, stems from the presence (or lack of) Safety.
Safety in a relationship context is not physical safety. It goes without saying that one should not be fearful of physical harm from their partner. Safety in a relationship equates to a Safe Emotional Connection. One which indicates that the other person has got your back, without question – just as you have theirs. That you will never threaten, frighten or distress each other on purpose (even in jest). It also indicates that you love and accept one another, 100%, exactly as you are (even the stuff that annoys the crap out of you!).
Now it goes without saying that couples who are currently in distress will have some issues around how safe they feel together; and it usually takes some time and self reflection to discover where the gaps are and to make any necessary adjustments.
Once this vital Safety element is in place though, then you are free to create the Relationship you really want. This will look different to everyone and, depending upon how much Relationship Theory you have decided to learn, will depend on ultimately what you feel is realistic, and achievable, for you two.
These days My Husband and I exactly the Relationship we wanted.
- Have created an environment of respect, where contempt, blaming and accusations simply do not fit in.
- Don’t fight about the big stuff. Instead we have ways of discussing potentially explosive issues so that we can both feel heard, seen & understood.
- Have radical intimacy and can reveal our deepest, darkest thoughts, fantasies & secrets to one another, without fear of rejection or judgement.
- Accept there are things about each other that will never change and, because we are not fighting that reality anymore, it doesn’t bother us and we’re not wasting energy on it.
- Feel Safe together – we100% know we have each other’s backs. Whatever is going on, we ensure each other is the priority and will stop what we are doing to make sure each other is OK.
- Have worked through our insecurities, so fear & jealousy don’t motivate our behaviours anymore.
- Create and experience ongoing deep love and passion for one another.
Honestly, if I had read that list before our Marriage problems, I’m not sure I would have even thought that it was possible. I honestly didn’t know that another option existed or was available to us from our old reality. We just acted in the way that we thought was best; whether that be from what we had learned growing up or just from instinct.
We didn’t realise that there was a whole other way.
By tackling all our old patterns and bad habits and installing new productive mindsets and strategies, we effectively razed our old relationship to the ground. And in its place we were free to create something new that really suited us.
It was our very own, realistic, Happily Ever After.
And not a hint of ‘Toxic Positivity’!
Now, am I going to tell you it’s 100% perfect all the time? No, of course not. We’re humans and so we’re fallible. Sure, sometimes we slip into old, destructive behaviours. At least now we can allow the other one to make us aware of what we’re doing (even if we’re clouded by emotion or just being cranky because we’re tired and/ or hangry at the time!).
Because we now understand each other’s behaviour and the reasons behind it, we don’t get offended or triggered by it, we can simply call the other one out in a factual way – no harm, no foul. We don’t avoid the bad emotions because we’ve now learned how to process them; nor dismiss how each other is feeling, we simply offer comfort or solutions as appropriate; we understand that we both have needs; sometimes those needs won’t be in perfect alignment with what the other wants or needs themselves.
Full disclosure: I struggled badly through Lockdown.
I experienced a bout of depression, the likes of which I had not had for years. Both through awareness of my own state, and Andy’s awareness of how I work and what I needed, I was able to get through it, albeit very slowly, without causing too much fallout to our love life.
Sometimes I kept my distance (as much as one can in a lockdown!) & slept in the spare room for weeks on end; & sometimes (when travel restrictions were lifted) I’d spend weeks away on my own.
My emotional state and resulting behaviour might have broken us…
…if we both didn’t understand what was needed – both for us as individuals and also for the relationship – and how best to support each other through it. And that most definitely wasn’t by adopting a ‘good vibes only’ attitude. It had a lot more to do with my husband actually letting me wallow; not pressuring me to do or be anything other than that which I could manage at the time.
I never took an eye off what he or the relationship needed though. I kept him fully in the loop about where I was emotionally so he didn’t feel unloved, unwanted or rejected as I dug my way out of my sadness.
We were so grateful to be able to handle our love life without the additional stress of totally misunderstanding each other; at a time when it was hard just to handle life itself.
We weren’t the only ones.
I got an email from an old client out of the blue one day in the 2nd year of the pandemic, which read “[We] were just saying how glad we are to have a solid relationship during this crazy time in the world. I’m feeling more secure and peaceful with [my Husband] than ever.” It’s the foundation of Emotional Safety and Security that allowed them (and Us) to still have a high functioning relationship at a time when the World was so exceptionally difficult to handle.
And you know what?
Creating the kind of relationship you want is a total relief. One where you’re not constantly expending energy on all the draining emotions of fear, anger, judgment, shame, guilt and hopelessness.
Because your current reality might be more like this:
Feeling tense around your partner because you expect a fight; or because you want to avoid sex, or even a diffcult conversation; because you feel compelled to lie to them to somehow spare their feelings; or you want to pass the blame onto the them and be right all the time; because you feel jealous and insecure about attractive friends, colleagues or even complete strangers; or you don’t understand them well enough to really know the deep reasons for their behaviour; or you want to love them but you feel like they need to change – this all just wears you out.
So, if an absence of all of this, consciously created, because you want to experience all the love, joy and fulfilment that a Relationship can offer is deemed ‘Toxic Positivity’, then I have to wonder what is the World coming to?! Are we all so addicted to our problems that we cannot bear to be parted from them?
My version of Happily Ever After is a very realistic one:
It’s the summit of the mountain we must climb – it’s not just a quick, scenic journey to the top!
It is not one overly-Positive side. It is absolutely made up of the full experience of life.
The famous psychologist and ‘Father of Modern Analytical Psychology’ Carl Jung, talked extensively about what he termed the Shadow Self. A part of the personality consisting of things that society, or you yourself deem to be unacceptable.
You cannot get rid of your Shadow side.
Just as in your physical existence, you can’t not have a shadow. No matter how pleasant someone may seem, they have a shadow side like anyone else – they will have negative traits. Equally you can’t get rid of or heal your shadow – it’s a part of you that doesn’t need changing – it needs accepting.
Acknowledging and accepting the Shadow self is the path to making yourself whole. Jung believed that we needed to fully see this dark side of ourselves if we were to be a fully integrated person. Like the well known Chinese Yin Yang symbol – it’s only complete when both the dark AND light elements are present.
A great relationship is the same. When we learn to embrace each other’s dark side, as well as our own, and see how that benefits the relationship, rather than damages it, then we can truly craft an epic union. A Happily Ever After MUST therefore have a dark side.
The Shawshank Redemption
I often liken working out your Marriage issues to the sewage pipe which Andy Defresne must crawl through in The Shawshank Redemption. Yeah, great image, right?!
The reason this comparison works is that Dufresne consciously creates an escape route from his unbelievably less than ideal reality. Yet always keeping his end goal in mind – a glorious beach on the pacific ocean. He knows that it will take planning and endurance to get there but he wants to escape the prison he’s in. This Hope keeps him going. He neatly explains the sentiment to Red in the simple sentence: “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying”.
And get busy he does.
The feeling of elation when he emerges into the the river at the end of his escape is truly magical. More than this, he can then live out his days in his own Happily Ever After. Zihuatanejo Beach on the pacific coast of Mexico. Which is a total paradise compared to the walls of Shawshank that held him for so many years.
As one contributor on Quora writes: “The scene at the beach reinforces the theme that Hope never dies. Instead of committing suicide the way Brooks did, Red holds on to hope and that enables him to create a better life for himself post-prison.”
And, as Andy himself writes to Red, in the letter hidden in a specific hayfield near Buxton; under a rock that has no business being there:
“Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
A belief in your very own Happily Ever After is the belief in better things being yet to come. It is your Hope for the future and it is underpinned by faith in yourself; that you can create a better life for yourself. And when you are free you have the option to make those choices. You are free both to Hope and to make good on that Hope.
Is that ‘Toxic Positivity’?
Or is that the one thing that we all have in common: A feeling that our Hope can make things better?
Hope is profoundly positive. It is a ‘Good Vibes’ emotion. In the Map of Consciousness it is the emotion that sits with Willingness on the upside of Neutrality. It’s the gateway to the positive upward spiral of emotion. In fact, the Map of Consciousness was conceived to help us overcome the natural negativity bias that exists in the human mind. So perhaps we should be considering the Toxic Negativity that occurs naturally in our brains rather than the ‘Toxic Positivity’ that we can be accused of?
Hope is more than just wishful thinking though. Hope is the often the pre-cursor to real world action.
The psychologist Charles Snyder linked hope to the existence of a goal, combined with a determined plan for reaching that goal:
He put forward that there are three main elements to hopeful thinking.
- Goals – Approaching life in a goal-oriented way.
- Pathways – Finding different ways to achieve your goals.
- Agency – Believing that you can instigate change and achieve these goals.
Hope is therefore the belief in your ability to reach your goals. It’s also finding ways to do so.
Note, it’s the self-belief that generates the motivation here – just as it was for Andy Dufresne. Even in the face of the overwhelming evidence in front of him, he not only dreamed up a different reality, he also found the strength inside himself to find a way to reach his goal.
Would the scene where Andy shared his dream with Red have been half as powerful if Red just dismissed it as ‘Toxic Positivity’?!
Now it is true that in some ways Red does tell Andy he’s dreaming, that this idea of getting to Mexico is not realistic. But this is from the mind of a long term inmate; someone institutionalised so that his ability to see possibilities was starkly limited. He only sees his current reality, not the possibilities that Andy sees.
Therein lies the difference between the 2 men: one wanted to Get Busy Living; the other was conditioned to Get Busy Dying.
Red’s monologue at the end of the film simply say this:
“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.
I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
Hope. I also Hope.
In fact, I sincerely hope that you don’t discount Happily Ever After as simply ‘Toxic Positivity’; Or as a Fairy Tale, or the immature fantasies of a little girl. Happily Ever After is both the Hope that we all need in life AND an entirely realistic goal to aim for.
“Get busy Living or get busy dying” Watch the scene where Andy shares his dreams for a better future with Red here
Holly Skey is a Relationship Repair Expert and founder of Happily Ever After. She runs an 8 week Relationship Training programme designed to save, heal and radically improve your Marriage.
She encourages people who are ready to ‘take the Red Pill to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org