Heather Havrilesky on the realities of marriage and how her novel explores the gray areas
“Everyone is unhappy in their marriage,” a divorced friend once told me. “You don’t realize it until you’re divorced and then other divorced people finally tell you the truth.”
I told him that I was happy in my marriage. “You and Bill are different. Most husbands aren’t like Bill. I told her that most couples I know seemed pretty happy in their marriage. “That’s what they say you,” she said.
But the married couples I knew didn’t sugarcoat things. They were extremely open about their frustrations and disappointments with each other. We would sit around complaining about how irritating our spouses were and then our spouses would walk into the room and we would say it to their face and we would all laugh. As little as you can discern a marriage from the outside, my married friends seemed satisfied — or at least satisfied enough to be cheerful and honest about their frustrations.
These two extremes – the idea that married people are mostly miserable but don’t talk about it, and the idea that married people are mostly happy and their complaints are just the noise you make when you are married – were so at odds with each other. on the other hand, it hinted that there was something strange about the way we talk about marriage in public, in writing, at parties and even in private, directly to each other. And the more I discussed marriage with my closest friends and with the readers of my advice column Ask Pollythe more I encountered the fear that if you say anything negative about your spouse, people will assume that you are deeply unhappy and that your marriage is doomed.
For a while, I called these fears irrational, assuming most people understand that even great marriages have their ups and downs. But I’ve encountered similar flaws in the books I’ve read on marriage: From the first to the last chapter, the author mentions her husband as the best man she’s ever known so often it’s unsettling . Even if that is true, where is the drama? Can’t you dig up a little bad times, if only to create suspense? It’s as if the author assumed that the slightest crack would call his true love into question. Meanwhile, divorce memoirs tend to serve up ruthless portrayals of exes and marriage in general.
And then there’s this burgeoning faction of online experts whose marriages, partnerships, and relationships are happy – really very very happy and content, they are so fortunate, they are so unmatched in their deeply egalitarian and communicative ways! Somehow, however, these authors almost uniformly suspect that more the other people are absolutely miserable in their marriages. These writers look down on their perfect unions, the so-called feminist victims of compromised and unsatisfactory pairings, and shake their heads at how blind and trapped these women are, ignoring a surely abusive conflict, tolerating an unequal separation of domestic chores that is almost certainly manipulation, one spouse maliciously and selfishly asserting their needs while the other spouse suffers.
Such assessments strike me as not only myopic, but extremely uncharitable for the vast majority of actual marriages. It is one thing to state unequivocally that domestic abuse and violence remains a big problem in our country. It’s quite another to loudly proclaim your own marvelous marriage while dismissing others’ as clearly miserable.
I wrote eternal country because I longed for a more compassionate portrayal of the enormous challenges of married life. Trying to tolerate the same flawed person until you’re dead is funny! Yet so much discussion of marriage today is incredibly solemn and moralistic, so absolute and unforgiving, always boiling down to the chilling proposition that a married person could never – should never – land in a gray area: either you walk on air together, or you should divorce immediately!
Personally, I want to read and talk about the uneven realities of trying to love someone through many stages of your life. It’s an unpredictable race, even when you’re happy together and often acknowledge that. I want books and online discussions about marriage to have more in common with the honest conversations I have with married friends who admit to the frustrations and even anger that come from trying to accept and embrace a other mortal human from the day you get married until the day you die. In my book, I wanted to capture the joys and also the disappointments of falling in love, getting married and managing three children, two jobs and several nervous dogs, from the years of newlyweds to our ongoing pandemic, without turning on each other. others. other for no good reason, other that we were just exhausted.
But I also wanted to wrestle with the emotional and imaginative freedom that comes with feeling extremely secure in your marriage. When I started my book, I knew deep down that I would probably never leave my husband, and it seemed like that for life too. So we started having long conversations about ways we could theoretically part ways someday. Instead of scaring us, these discussions felt invigorating: by giving way to doubts – and imagination and desire – we not only rediscovered our commitment to each other, but opened up a larger conversation. about how we wanted to live as we got older. Honest discussions that initially seemed a little risky ended up deepening our understanding of why we are together.
As the pandemic took hold and my book and my marriage began to look more and more like an interesting and weird thought experiment, I took more intellectual and emotional risks, if only at the inside of my mind: what was it like to cheat? Wouldn’t it be great to lie to the one person you’re always completely honest with? These are thoughts that started on the page, then evolved into open discussions with my husband who, to his credit, was invigorated by the honesty and ideas in the mix, rather than threatened by them.
But let me clarify that my husband Bill and I are not always so good at this marriage job. During the pandemic, when we were trapped in the same house for months, we knew life would be tough. We’re both overwhelmed and defensive when we’re stressed. So we took the time to slow down and talk about absolutely everything – our daydreams, our obsessions, our silliest preoccupations, our most ridiculous notions. Along the way, we made a new commitment to honoring each other’s deepest desires and cultivating compassion for everything we heard from each other’s mouths, from trivial musings to core beliefs.
One afternoon when Bill had a cold, I wrote half a chapter about the bad noises he makes when he’s phlegmatic. I kept stopping and laughing as I wrote, and finally he asked to read which was so funny. Then he laughed, coughed, sneezed and laughed again.
This chapter was published by the New York Times during the holidays, and it angered a lot of people. If you hate your husband so much, why don’t you file for divorce? people wrote in the comments. This suggestion struck me as odd as someone walking into a party full of my married friends and insisting that the whole laughing gang of us call our lawyers immediately.
Why was anger in a marriage so repugnant to so many people? How had the old familiar notion that passion arises from a strange dance of love and hate been seen as so menacing? Even the obvious “Do I hate my husband?” joke. Oh sure, yeah, definitely,” was taken at face value, though I called him “my favorite person.”
Like so many other discussions in this volatile time, our larger marriage conversation continues to migrate to binary extremes of adoration and contempt, bliss and divorce, forever and only now, as what I decided to write was the exact opposite: an acknowledgment that human lives are not easily reduced to such simple, non-confrontational descriptions. We are all complex animals, ferocious and sublime, capable of love and hate and all the rest, capable of joy and frustration, of quarrels and full-body communion, of annoyance and admiration and of great imaginative leaps of faith. But the extreme stress of the pandemic, combined with hostile partisan politics and social media’s tendency to reduce every complicated issue to two simplistic extremes, has made many of us more self-protective and less open than usual – to our own feelings and to everyone else. else.
Relocating our sense of humor to marriage – our failures, our shortcomings, the way we struggle just to love and be loved – is good for us. Because the goal is neither to stay married forever nor to quickly conclude that a marriage is ruined. Love thrives and flourishes in the gray area between these rigid poles. And when we are as honest as possible, our marriages and our lives in general seem Following free, no less. It is the possibility that lives between “happy” and “doomed”: the exuberant passions and the banal satisfactions of an ordinary life.
Heather Havrilesky’s new book, Foreverland: On the divine boredom of marriage, is now available at your favorite bookstore. This essay is part of a series spotlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club – you can join the conversation and discover more of our favorite book recommendations.
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