Eleanor Vere Boyle, "Beauty and the Beast"
But a huge reason for this is simply: fairy tales come out of a time in history where there was no dating. Marriages were largely arranged for much of human history, sometimes as business transactions, often just out of necessity so that the people could help each other out in all the work it took to feed and clothe themselves. People got married much younger, meaning there wasn't this time of limbo in which people could dream and wonder about what their spouse might be like; their options were much more limited in small rural communities. In the 1700s the idea of individuals choosing their own marriage partner began to take hold, but even then dating looked a lot different-gentlemen callers would woo a lady in her own home, under the supervision of a chaperone. Dating as we know it today-two young people going out on their own, potentially to see if they are compatible for marriage but sometimes just for fun and to enjoy each other's company, has really only been around for about 100 years.
So fairy tales don't reflect our current issues involved with dating; breakups and heartbreak, the stresses of figuring out what to look for and expect out of a partner, because they couldn't. However, although many fairy tales end with a marriage that leads to the cliche "happily ever after," many fairy tales also reveal some of the problems that can happen within a marriage.
In "The Fisherman and His Wife," an unhappy wife is never content with their current situations. Her demands on her husband and the magical fish he found become too much.
In the line of Selkie tales, magical sea creatures who turn into women are tricked into becoming wives of the men who hide their selkie skin. While they may appear to live happily for a time, the Selkies long for their true home (sometimes their original husbands,) and as soon as they find their skins, they leave their mortal husbands and go back to the sea.
A. H. Watson
In Rumpelstiltskin, we see a marriage that was based off of a father's deception. As a result, the nameless bride must labor under the threat of death from her husband. She was naturally distraught and only escaped that harsh punishment by a strange little man who manipulated her into promising to give him her first child.
How about the parents from Rapunzel? The mother was overdramatic and demanding about her pregnancy cravings-"if I don't get some rampion to eat...I know I shall die." Her husband then agreed to give the witch the child he and his wife longed for so much, so you know there was lots of marital strife in their house when the mother found out.
That couple as well as many others-such as the parents in Sleeping Beauty-begin their tale unhappy because they are childless ("so sorry that it cannot be expressed"). Then they have to deal with the stress of having a death curse put on their only child. Although their marriage itself may have been healthy, their married life was far from perfect.
Jessie Wilcox Smith
How about the wife from Hansel and Gretel who convinces her husband to abandon their children in the woods? And the host of fairy tales featuring domineering wives who abuse the children in their care, Cinderella, Snow White, Wild Swans, and Juniper Tree-the husbands, when present, are weak enough to be overpowered while his wife takes over and tries everything in her power to get rid of his children.
What about East of the Sun, West of the Moon? The wife soon became sorrowful because she was left completely alone all day and ended up looking at her husband at night when she wasn't supposed to. He was taken from her, and she had to go on a long, arduous journey and win him back from another woman.
Then of course, Bluebeard is the ultimate example of a warning about the potential dangers found within a marriage. It can be read on a more symbolic level as well as literal-sometimes the person you are dating has figurative skeletons in his (or her) closet. As much as you can, make sure that your partner is totally trustworthy before you marry.
So although many tales end with a marriage and a "happily ever after" (although there are many different ways to end a fairy tale), that turns out to be simply a convenient way to wrap up a story. If we look at fairy tale as a generational pattern-that the children, who usually enter adulthood by the end of their story, will end up being the parents who later traumatize their own children in some way-we see that fairy tales actually paint a fairly bleak picture of marriage. Can you think of any fairy tale characters who have been married for any length of time and live an idyllic life?
We seem to have the idea that "happily ever after" means "perfect in any way with no struggles at all." How did we get to that conclusion? A perfect life is not attainable for anyone, no matter if you're single or in a relationship. But finding happiness and joy, despite your struggles, is possible and it's worth hoping for and working towards.