Happy Endings Suck

The other day, I read this piece in The Guardian about literary fiction writers feeling somewhat pressed to avoid unambiguously happy endings to their stories. There’s a lot of hand-wringing included in the piece at the bleak endings which are often pervasive, and references to the happied-up ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as proof that happy endings can be good.

I find the Dickens reference particularly telling because I’ve always felt the changed ending of his classic of unrequited love is totally out of character with the rest of the book. All things being equal, in reality, Pip would have zero chance of getting what he wanted from Estella. In fact, anyone who would throw himself back into that emotional thresher years later has to be one of the dumbest men walking. Even implying the possibility of a happily ever after ending there simply doesn’t mesh with anything else in the entire damn story. I could buy that Pip may convince himself what he wants is within reach, but anyone out here who’ve experienced a real live Estella knows without doubt that he’s lying to himself and, when he goes through that gate, his hand in her’s, he’s taking his first steps toward future rack and ruin.

That is the main reason why I have a general contempt for happy endings in fiction; they’re usually contrived to the point you can practically see the writer straining to ignore the psychology of the characters established throughout the work to make an ending where everyone goes home happy fit on the page. Certainly, depending on what you’re seeking as a reader or what level of escapism you’re willing to accept, I can see how someone might find an ending like that hopeful or fitting to the tale. I, myself, found that ending far too unrealistic to the characters as I knew them to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

I’m not the only person with a predisposition to disliking happy endings. Not by a long shot or there wouldn’t be articles like the one linked to above decrying their dearth. I think, for me, I expect more than a happily ever after in my fiction choices because, in near 40 years, I’ve found endings in real life to very rarely be happy and, quite often, miserable and scarring. I, and many others apparently, are attracted to tragic endings in stories because it’s an aspect of life familiar to most. We have trouble relating to happy endings because so few of us experience them on any kind of regular basis.

Then there’s the issue of whether the happy ending actually makes us feel happy. Personally, I tend to have a visceral negative emotional response to a happy ending, particularly one that doesn’t ring true to life. Dark or tragic endings can reinforce that your woes aren’t as bad as you think. Happy endings, however, can often feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with your failures. I do it with films, too. I see a sad movie and I walk away feeling my problems aren’t so bad. Happy movies, though, just serve to amplify my troubles. That doesn’t mean I think all endings need to be soul-crushingly horrific. I’m more apt to buy into an ending that’s dark but hopeful than an overtly rosy fairytale. Emotional lottery winners are far more rare than the monetary kind. Besides, I’ve always found tragedy and loss far more fertile ground to explore creatively. Happiness can be boring, and more than a little annoying, to those lacking or not directly involved in it.

Romances are the worst offenders at this, too. Despite what Ryan Reynolds might say, the friend-zoned dude doesn’t ever win the girl. All he gets is to cry himself to sleep, alone and drunk, after her wedding to someone else. I’ve always liked the ending of St. Elmo’s Fire because of that. Andrew McCarthy pined for Ally Sheedy for years and years before he finally got to have her but she only hooked up with him because she was distraught over the guy she really wanted. McCarthy was totally getting ditched shortly thereafter. On the surface, if you don’t look too deeply, it appears true love and perseverance won out but the clear implication of the movie’s ending was that his heart was going to end up broken far worse than if he’d just walked away.

If that ending had been of the fairytale variety, it would’ve, one, rubbed salt in the wounds or, two, provided false hope to untold numbers of folks who have found themselves in that exact situation. I think that ending is just about perfect, a subtle reminder that, sometimes, getting what we want most in the world can be the worst thing that can happen.

Happy endings can work, if they grow organically from the characters and don’t press. I’m of the opinion that truly good fiction passes on some wisdom in the process and shouldn’t fall too far into the realm of wish fulfillment. Overly contrived happy endings are nothing if not pure wish fulfillment, both for ourselves and the characters we’ve grown to care for.

All this being said, it still comes down to your particular tastes as a reader. To me, the unhappy ending and how characters deal with that is what attracts me. Do they respond with nobility and integrity or do they drop into rage and frustration-created depression? There’s value in those endings, of the kind we can use when we inevitably face the plethora of unhappy endings in our own lives. The Disney-esque, everything works out and they all lived happily ever after endings bring nothing to the table in that regard. There are no lessons to be learned when everything ties up into a neat little bow of unrealistic happiness.

It’s a popcorn ending, one that doesn’t call for too much considerstion, that invites us not to think too hard about it. I, and many others, enjoy seeking lessons I can adapt to my own life from what I choose to read or watch. Happy endings, especially contrived ones, steal those moments of contemplation and learning from us. Stay true to the story and the characters you’ve created and your endings will ring true even if they end up seemingly bleak. Slap a giant smiley face on them, and your happy ending will end up having the exact opposite effect on a wide swath of your readership.

Happiness isn’t as simple at getting everything you think you want. Fictional endings that perpetuate that meme do us all; writers, readers and the characters they’ve created and/or loved; a great disservice.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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The Unrequited Problem

In a world where nearly everyone is searching for love, why do do many of us end up infatuated with someone we can’t have?

Love is blind, so we’re told. It’s one of those casual little cultural lies to which we all subscribe. In reality, it isn’t blind at all. If anything, love is ignorant. We see the people we want only too clearly on the surface, and that informs our choices in ways that we often don’t take the time to understand. I’ve been tossing the notion around that love doesn’t exist at all, that it’s actually a form of self delusion based on convenience and gratification. That may be an over-simplification of complicated emotions, but there might be something to it.

We are inundated with love in our culture, from Nicholas Sparks novels to romantic comedies to entire aisles at the store filled with cupids and hearts slapped on cheap plastic. The concept of love is so pervasive that most of our lives are spent in search of something called a “soulmate,” as if such a thing exists outside the realms of mythical creatures and fairytales. “There’s someone out there for everyone,” we’re also told, the implication being that if you’re one of the majority who hasn’t yet found yours, then you’re not looking hard enough. And the loop continues.

We talk a lot about what we want in someone; caring, compassion, sacrifice, among others, but many of us are drawn to people who treat us like shit, use us and throw us away when they’ve exhausted our value. If love is truly blind in these cases, it’s willfully so to the people as they are beneath the surface.

At least in those situations, however, there is a tangible relationship, however awkward or difficult it may be. The worst byproduct of our love-obsessed culture, though, is the unrequited kind. I’m not referring to the creepy, stalker-types who don’t even know the object of their obsessions. That’s not love, more like straight-up mental illness. When I say unrequited, I’m referring to situations where two people have a connection, and feelings ensue but unevenly. One side sees someone they could be with forever but the other is perfectly happy to just be friends.

Keeping our emotions under control isn’t always the easiest thing. When faced with unrequited feelings, many of us hold on, hoping the object of our passions will come around. We’ll sit and listen to them complain about the people they choose to pursue, give them a shoulder to cry on, while we keep our feelings bottled up. We watch the person we want throw themselves at people who manipulate them, lie to them, hurt them with impunity and play the role of the steady advisor, just wanting to ease their pain. But our pain is far deeper. We can’t help but think “why not me?” as we watch them bounce from user to user when all we really want is to hold them up, get them to see the person we see. Eventually, those unexpressed feelings come out, when the frustrations and the longing become too much. Despite the fact that we know rejection from the ones we want most awaits the broaching of the subject, we do it anyway, hoping beyond reason that this will be the time they truly see us.

But they never do. They care about us, they say, but “our friendship is too important to risk.” That phrase is like a gut punch to the unrequited. First, it’s nearly always a lie. It means they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the emotional support you bring but in doing so, they inadvertantly devalue your feelings. They chase after dead ends in failed relationship after failed relationship but never give a thought to trying with the person who’s always there for them. Eventually, you end up being the one who patches them back together so they can leave you home alone while they find someone new to break them all over again.

In this narrative, you’re supposed to just swallow your feelings and be satisfied with 30% of what you want. Otherwise, they get upset. The other part of the lie is that, if they do find someone who gives them the emotional support they use you for, that friendship that was too important to risk will be over in a matter of weeks anyway. What it really means, far too often, is your friendship is too important to risk when they don’t have a ready replacement for it. Once they do, however, you’re out and left only to wonder what you did wrong.

They never realize the damage they inflict, because that line is really about them holding on to just the parts they want and puts the honus on you to ignore feelings they find inconvenient to that narrative of your friendship they’ve constructed. And even when they’re gone, they never really go away. They might vanish for months, but one morning there will appear a text message saying “I miss you.” Maybe you’ve just spent three months trying to forget them, grasping to make sense of a world where your feelings have no meaning, matter only to you and weren’t enough for the one person in the world you wanted them to be. But once you get that message, it all comes flooding back, bursting through the barriers you’ve built up just so you don’t implode from the feelings of loss and inadequacy. You find yourself wondering if maybe something went wrong, maybe they feel your absence as keenly as you feel theirs. So you reply “I miss you too” and try to arrange a meeting. Sometimes, even though they first contacted you, they don’t reply to this at all. Other times, they make excuses about being busy but assure you that you’ll do it soon.

Again, it’s a lie. Little more than a residual emotional reflex. Maybe they had a fight with their significant other that morning and fell back to you because you’ve always been there to hold them up. But by the afternoon, they’ve smoothed things over and you’re back to being forgotten or left behind. The whole brief experience is just enough to set you back to square one, forcing you to start rebuilding the barriers.

“The Friend Zone” may be popular fodder for television shows and romantic comedies where the protagonists just have to be persistent and sweet to break out of that box. In real life, it’s a prison and anyone who finds themselves trapped within its stone walls and steel bars has a life sentence. There is no parole in the Friend Zone. Being persistent only gets you pushed away. Being sweet only gets you used, and then pushed away somewhere down the line.

There’s an old adage that you can’t make somebody love you and it’s very true. But loving someone who knows what your feelings are yet still subjects you to the ins and outs of their failed relationships, someone who drags you out to bars where you end up sitting alone, drinking too much too fast just to numb the heartbreak you feel watching them fawn all over other people is its own particular slice of Hell.

So why do we continue to do it? Why do so many of us subject ourselves to the torture of being so close to what we want but with no chance of achieving it? We like to sit around and blame them for not loving us, condemn them for playing fast and loose with our feelings. But it’s not all their fault. Certainly, there are those who will take adavantage of our feelings, but mostly they just don’t see us as an option and their actions reflect that. They feel the way they do, there’s no requirement in life to love someone back just because they love you. And chances are, they’ve been honest with us about it. We’re the ones being dishonest, continuing to act as though just being friends is enough when it’s clearly not. In those cases we’re the ones faking it, not them.

Put the blame where it lies, on ourselves. Maybe we lose a good friend in the process, but our feelings have already cost us that friend, we just don’t see it yet. They’re only still around because we deny those emotions. Any sane person would walk away from a situation where their feelings get crushed every time we’re around them. Yet we continue to hope, we continue to seek out that crack in their denials that could open the door to what we want most. Worst of all, we find ourselves hoping their other relationships fail. Ask yourself, what kind of friend is that?

If we truly love them, we can’t want them to be miserable for our benefit. We need to suck it up, wish them the best, pick up the tattered pieces of our hearts and move on. Maybe we can rejoin that friendship somewhere down the line when our feelings aren’t so raw. Maybe not. But continuing to act one way and want something else entirely isn’t good for anyone, us or them.

I think we get in these unrequited relationships because, somewhere deep down, we don’t feel like we deserve to be loved. We may actually seek out situations where our feelings are guaranteed to not be returned. That way, we can carry on our personal torment, punishing ourselves for whatever perceived slights we feel. But really, we’re just window shoppers, standing outside with our face pressed on the glass staring longingly at what we tell ourselves we want most in the world while ignoring those who pass behind us on the street, some of whom might actually be the person who could or would return those feelings.

The only real answer is to walk away. We don’t want to lose them but eventually, as we all inevitably must realize, they are already gone.

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 7:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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