Happily ever after is complicated.

Happily ever after is complicated.

Last weekend Will and I finally watched 112 Weddings, a documentary that’s been on my radar since it first came out two years ago.

The documentary’s concept hooked me from the start: to make ends meet, documentary-maker Doug Block sidelined as a wedding videographer for years. He did it to pay the bills, but after watching over a hundred (112, actually) couples get married over the years, he realized he was sitting on a goldmine of material.

Over the years he’d wondered what became of the couples who hired him. He’d seen them on day one of their married lives, which is the easiest day to make happy. (“You’ve just thrown a ton of money at it—and liquor!” explains the rabbi Block interviews in the film.)

But the real significance of a relationship lies in what happens next. Block decided to follow up with the couples whose weddings he’d captured to find out.

He couldn’t track down everyone, and some wouldn’t talk to him (especially not those whose marriages had ended badly), but in this documentary he interviews a dozen or so former clients, who had been married 3 to 19 years (with the exception of couple #112, who are planning their wedding at the film’s opening and actually get hitched in the final minutes).

Block alternates flashbacks to each couple’s wedding day with candid interviews about how they’re doing now. The reviews described it as “heartwarming.” We found it … really depressing.

As Block himself says, “happily ever after is complicated.” He says that when two people get married, they have no idea what they’re beginning together.

112 Weddings

Several of the couples he interviewed were unhappy or already broken up. Several sounded stable but still made me cringe. Every couple had experienced a hefty dose of Real Life after the wedding day, in the form of depression, high-need infants, job woes, kids with cancer, and extended family struggles.

It’s a thought-provoking film, for sure, but it was so painful to watch some of these couples talk—to the camera, to each other.

My favorite couple might have been the two free spirits that didn’t believe in marriage when Block first filmed their “partnership ceremony.” Nearly twenty years and two kids later, they’ve changed their minds about marriage, and it was so interesting to hear them reflect on why, as is the subtext of why their relationship has worked for nearly two decades. (Block films their actual living-room wedding for this documentary.)

I was also struck by one couple that didn’t seem to be happy right now (due to the wife’s clinical depression) but they seemed to think that if they were going to be in the fire, they’d chosen the right person to be in the fire with. They weren’t happy, but their relationship was working.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so much unhappiness in a documentary about marriage. As Block says, “Happy weddings are a dime a dozen. Happy marriages are much more rare and therefore much more precious.”

After watching this documentary, happy marriages certainly felt rare and precious, and watching this together was a great discussion starter. But maybe learn from our mistake and don’t watch it Valentine’s Day weekend.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this documentary in comments, along with your thoughts on the complicatedness of happily ever after. 

P.S. ‘A diamond is forever’ and other fairy tales, 10 tips for making love last, and how rare is a great marriage?

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43 comments

  1. I might have to watch this when I’m in the right mood, but I’m very grateful for your warning! I’m a romantic and an idealist, and I religiously give everyone the benefit of the doubt…so films like that can really upset me.
    Without having seen it, I wonder how much the filmmaker was able to distinguish between unhappy circumstances and actual unhappiness. (Here I am with the benefit of the doubt again!) My husband and I have basically been broke (by American standards, though I’ve always felt fairly wealthy by world standards) our whole marriage, but I couldn’t imagine being any happier. I often thank God that we started out with so little, because it forces us to look honestly at any moments of difficulty–we can’t blame them on the circumstances, only on allowing selfishness to creep into our relationship. Being married to someone constantly trying to better himself for me and grow closer to me is worth suffering through a host of unpleasant circumstances, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Because of our experiences, I have a huge pet peeve about people advising young couples to “enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts.” I don’t feel like our honeymoon has ended, and we’re five kids and ten years into our marriage. I advise engaged couples to love proactively–now and once you’re married–not reactively.
    If you need a pick-me-up after the film, read Madeleine L’Engle’s Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. It’s the happiest story of marriage I’ve ever read, even if it does involve a spouse dying!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I haven’t watched the documentary and probably won’t-I don’t enjoy weddings, and really didn’t want to attend my own (I didn’t like the idea of a “fairy tale” and a “happily ever after” because it meant the highlight of my life was over, if that makes sense), but we’ve been married ten years. We made it through a kid with colic and major PPD for me, going back to school, life in the military …. And if I have to say why we made it, I’d have to say it’s because we decided we weren’t quitting. Not romantic, perhaps, but that’s how we roll.

    • Anna says:

      I’m not that into weddings either, and I thought I was the only one. I agree with your dislike of the concept of “happily ever after,” like life ends there. It’s always bugged me how much focus can be placed on the wedding with so little focus on the marriage. What is much more beautiful than the perfect wedding day is the deep love, commitment, and partnership that grows over time- through the good and through the hard.

    • Anne says:

      Yeah, I can see how if you didn’t want to attend your own you wouldn’t want to watch a documentary about a whole bunch of other couples getting married. 🙂

    • Angela says:

      You totally said what I felt about my wedding. That everyone said it was to be the best day then everything after would be downhill. I love being married and always tell people to think of a wedding as just the beginning of something great.

      • Lisa says:

        This! All of these comments. I never wanted a fairytale wedding. I wanted a fairytale marriage. And I think I have one. But my kind of fairy tale. Not Walt Disney’s. 🙂 We got married by a Rabbi, with just the two witnesses required. People questioned whether I was pregnant or if it wasn’t a real marriage, because we didn’t have a large gathering. My response? Who said the wedding signifies any of that? The wedding is just a step forward to the marriage. And that is what matters. The marriage.

  3. beth says:

    I always find the concept of happy a bit difficult to understand. What is “happy”? It’s not easily defined or quantifiied and likely means different things to different people. And different things to the same people as time passes. So I find it hard to interpret when people talk about whether they are happy in their marriage, their job, their family, life in general. Would their happiness equate to my happiness? Maybe I feel happy today but have a disagreement with my spouse tomorrow and feel unhappy. What if I feel my marriage is happy and my spouse feels it is unhappy? Does that make our marriage a happy one of an unhappy one? In general I think striving for happy can be nearly impossible. Happy comes and goes. That’s just me though. Many people seem to find happiness a more achievable goal than I do. I think I have a tendency to aspire to things that are more concrete. Perhpas it is a personality thing.

  4. Allison says:

    We’ve been married 35+ years, have raised 3 sons, have 2 daughter-in-law, have had multiple animals, and, thanks to the military, moved all over the country. We’ve endured too many deployments and TDYs to count, which started when the only forms of long-distance communication were hand-written letters and phone calls that had to be paid for.
    For us, there was, is, and always will be two “secrets” to our marriage: the power of Christ holds us together, and divorce is not an option, period, end of sentence, end of conversation. We are no different from any other couple… we’ve wondered if our love was strong enough, wondered who the heck this person is and what have they done with my beloved? But in the end, we are married today, and happily so, because there has never ever been any other way to be.

    • Kendyle says:

      My husband and I have been married for 37 years and echo everything you said. We have had our ups and downs but in the end I wouldn’t trade my husband for anything. He is my rock.

    • Jules says:

      Thirty-four years married here and agree. A lot of a lasting marriage is based on the determination that it will last, that divorce isn’t an option and that we will ride out the seasons of life together. An older woman told me in the early years marriage is like the ocean with ebbs and flows. I’ve found that to be so, certain times are harder than others but there isn’t anyone I would rather have at my side through all of them. I married at 19 so most of my life has been spend with my husband. Being willing to encourage and accept growth and change in each other is necessary if you plan to spend a lifetime together, as none of us stay the same through the decades.

    • Guest says:

      I appreciate your comment very much. Earlier I had written a comment but then deleted it because I didn’t know how others would take it. Basically I said that if it hadn’t been for my religious beliefs as a Christian, we would have divorced. We never had a honeymoon phase, it was pretty much awful for the first 2 – 3 years. There are a lot of reasons I won’t go into it that led to that but I know most of my friends would have left. I’m so glad I didn’t see divorce as an option because we worked through it and almost 15 years on are happier now than before. Since divorce wasn’t an option (except in cases of abuse and unrepentant infidelity), I had to figure out a way to be content and joyful. The Lord used that to mold both of us and most definitely our marriage.

  5. Anna says:

    I haven’t seen the documentary, but it sounds like a good one. I’m always interested in people’s stories, and the complexities of personality and the decisions that they make. It is discouraging to see how many marriages break up, or stay together unhappily.
    It does seem that happy marriages are rare and precious. Perhaps part of the problem is taking that happiness for granted- because you really love each other, you will remain happy. We should know that happiness can be a fleeting emotion, not the basis for a lasting relationship.
    I can think of a time about a year ago, when my husband and I were facing a difficult decision that was breaking our hearts. There seemed to be no good options, just two difficult options. You couldn’t have described our lives as happy at that point, but our relationship was good and strong, and we struggled and grieved together. Were we happy- no. But that didn’t mean anything was wrong in our relationship. I think we need another word in place of “happy,” but I can’t seem to find the right one- joyful, fulfilled, strong, committed- none seem to capture it.

  6. Rebecca Jo says:

    Being a wedding photographer, this documentary is up my alley!
    & my assistant & I always say we can tell how a marriage is going to work out just based on how they handle their wedding. So far, we’ve been right. Makes me so sad to hear of my past bride & grooms divorce.

  7. Janet says:

    Haven’t seen the documentary and it does sound depressing. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last fall and I think we’re happier now than we’ve ever been. We married young and grew up together. He was in the Army and we were always away from home and knew we had to depend on each other. We learned each other’s strengths and weakness and learned when to help and when to step back. I wonder what kind of expectations couples have when they marry. It sometimes seems like the bride is more interested in the big wedding than in the marriage.
    For us it was knowing that we’d always be together and that was pretty wonderful.

  8. I remember this movie being a part of the Hot Docs festival, we opted not to see it as, well a movie about marriage isn’t what you want to watch with a new boyfriend. I will have to check it out, after being in an unhappy common law marriage for almost a decade, I became very cautious and now take things slow. I’m lucky to have found someone who likes this approach as well, and I think that if you find someone whose ideal happy relationship matches yours then that will take you a long way. I mean not every one would enjoy serious dating for years on end, but that is what makes us happy right now.

  9. Dana says:

    My husband and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary later this year. He tells everyone we are still on our honeymoon! Now I love that sentiment and him for saying it but it is an oversimplification of what at the core it means: We are still in love and still committed to one another and believe wholeheartedly in our wedding vows. Has it been all picnics and daisies? Hardly….
    We have endured lots of job losses/changes, job stresses and financial struggles, dealt with infertility and dashed dreams of parenthood, but through it all we stayed committed to each other. As someone else mentioned, a lot of this was in our first few years of marriage and I think it was good for us to go through those stressful times early on. We grew together through the tough stuff. We can look back and see we have made it though a lot and we are still here and still together.
    We had a very simple, small, small , small wedding. We had 12 people in attendance , ( family only) and then we all went out for a nice dinner. We had a cake and a marriage candle and maybe one flower arrangement in the church. I really cannot remember and we have only a few pictures. We did get a portrait made together that we keep on his nightstand. I think sometimes the whole fairy tale wedding, hoopla , months of anticipation , preparation, and over-the- top weddings lead to inflated expectations afterward.

  10. Kate says:

    Thanks for writing this post. After ~6 years of marriage and the birth of our daughter (and my mom moving in with us), this puts everything in perspective for me. I think a lot of us who have highly functional relationships full of things we take for granted like laughs and weekend adventures need to come back around to the fact that disagreements, frustrations and personality conflicts are inevitable. And the “perfect” marriage that you think you see at every party or function isn’t real. Our relationship may be better than the ideal marriage – because it exists and it’s functional right now. Thanks for reminding me to be grateful.

  11. Samantha D says:

    Sure marriage is hard but it is so much more than that – marriage is a joy, an honor, and a privilege. “Hard” is not (or should not be) marriage’s defining characteristic. Real life happens – there are ups and downs in our personal lives with illness, jobs, etc. but having someone who is a true teammate and supports you through those times is invaluable. Also, the point of marriage is not happiness but sanctification so measuring how successful a marriage is by how happy each spouse is will never give us a full picture of what’s going on with a marriage.

  12. Jacquie says:

    Your review actually makes me want to see it. If I wanted to watch a bunch of “happier ever after”, there are plenty of rom coms to choose from. I am much more interested in actual stories of what goes on behind closed doors. I have a pretty great marriage but there are days my husband annoys me. I think it would be nice to see a cross section of other marriages and to know that no one is perfect. It is like the opposite of someone’s Facebook feed about his/her marriage.

    • Anne says:

      “It is like the opposite of someone’s Facebook feed about his/her marriage.”

      Good point. It’s not a highlight reel, and in many ways that’s a good thing.

  13. Adrienne says:

    I think I would like this documentary. My wedding was a fantastic day. I loved it. We had such a great time. On the other hand. The last 19 years have been pretty fantastic, too. We’ve had good times and bad times and it wasn’t always “happy” times. But we never thought it wasn’t worth getting through. I married my best friend. Happy is different as we grow older. Not better or worse, just different. Yeah, we work at marriage, but I also think I got very lucky. There were others I could have married, and that would have been a disaster, no matter how much we worked at it. I just thank my lucky stars every day and go back to working on marriage.

  14. Brigette says:

    I don’t think I’ll watch this documentary. There are good things in marriage that need to be pointed to more in our culture. Not the fairy tale idealism of our modern weddings, but the real benefits for working at a good marriage.

  15. And this is why weddings are silly xD
    No, marriage isn’t silly, but weddings are. Yes, it’s exciting to do something…concrete…in regards to your relationship, in the hopes that it will last forever, but it’s also easy (in my view of things) to get caught up in “getting married” and not “staring a life” with someone.
    My mom and stepdad (already a good start to the story, ha!) were married when I was in kindergarten. And they split my senior year of high school, and the divorce was final less than two months before I graduated. It’s easy to look alright in a relationship, on the outside.
    From your synopsis, it sounds like the marriage with the woman who is depressed is the most realistic – being in the fire with someone you could manage being in the fire with. That’s what marriage is for. Not “getting married.”
    Then again, I’m a pessimist, generally speaking xD

  16. AuburnCathy says:

    I had not heard of this documentary but will try to watch it. On marriage itself, the thing to consider is why did God ordain marriage? A great read is “Sacred Marriage, by Gary Thomas. The subtitle says it all: “What If God Designed Marriage More To Make Us Holy More Than To Make Us Happy”. A great read for anyone serious about a lasting marriage. The 52 lesson devotional book is equally good. Get ready for the fairy tale to come tumbling down!

  17. Nichole says:

    I found it depressing as well. But I am so shocked that your fave couple is the free spirits!!! I thought it was great that they finally married. But it was very clear to me that they could have married back then if she wanted to. And after 20 years and 2 kids and him aging way better than her (I say this knowing it sucks but it’s was soooo obvious), she wants to so they do. I actually felt a little ill after watching it.

    • Anne says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who found it depressing. I like hearing about how and why people change their minds, and I was paying more attention to that than the dynamics of their individual relationship—-to a much greater extent than I did with any of the other couples.

      And can we talk about how people aged in this documentary? Some of the couples’ changes were so jarring, I think especially because for the women you first see them with perfect hair and wedding makeup and then on an ordinary day 3-19 years later.

  18. Jamie says:

    Too many of our friends have decided to divorce or separate lately. Like, I-went-to-your-wedding-three-years-ago friends. More than anything, though, it sobers me to the point of NEEDING input and accountability and help for my blind spots in marriage and striving for deeper levels of self-awareness. Not to live in fear of ‘it could happen to me too!’ but with a holy reverence towards the precious gift of my marriage and the man I have pledged myself to, for better or worse.

  19. Jamie says:

    I like this post title. It seems that growing up is a process of learning everything about happily ever after, not just marriage, is more complicated than at first glance. I haven’t seen this documentary, but I like what was mentioned about not necessarily always being happy, but being committed. When hubs and I are in moments (or months) like that, it helps to remember everything we’ve walked through together. No one else has watched my c-section, held my hand in a shady Central Asian airport, made new friends alongside me again…then again, or witnessed my joys quite like he has. No one else can name his favorite memories, finish his sentences, or share his dreams like I can. When I look through that lens, the happiness of the current moment seems an insufficient gauge for whether or not we choose to make it. We are family. We are each other’s. Committed ever after.

  20. Erin says:

    There ARE happy marriages, I know many couples who ‘fit the bill’. Yes I also know many couples who tell me marriage is HARD work. But really I don’t think it should be hard work, not all the time. My wish for my much younger family members is they all marriage the ‘right, special someone’ unique for them and they are happy. Not expressing it well but this has been an issue percolating with me for some time.

  21. Faigie says:

    I think the #1 reason for divorce is unrealistic expectations. There is a book called “The Death of Cupid”..how hollywood has basically given us all unrealistic expectations for what marriage is supposed to be. It’s alot of hard work and if you don’t know that and are not committed…you won’t stick with it when the going gets a bit rough which it undoubtedly will at some point

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