The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Marriage Are Wrong

Our society is deeply invested in a rosy version of romance while offering little support for families to survive the challenges of marriage and child-rearing. We can’t survive those challenges without honest narratives about the maddening realities of love.

Havrilesky’s portrayal of the gritty underside of marriage is honest and searing. (Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash)

God forbid a woman should compare her husband to a heap of dirty laundry.

When an excerpt of Heather Havrilesky’s new memoir, Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage, ran in the New York Times in December, half the internet seemed to explode in incredulous indignation. The excerpt, like the rest of her book, skates a wonderful line between being refreshingly and brutally honest about the challenges of marriage.

Havrilesky writes an advice column called “Ask Polly,” known for its blunt honesty and self-deprecating humor, where she counsels readers to be honest and be your flawed self; that you will find the people who love you anyway, and you may just be able to love them back.

In the excerpt, Havrilesky describes going back and forth between seeing her husband, Bill, as a handsome professor, a “leader among men,” at one moment, and a “tangled hill of dirty laundry” at another. She complains about his grunts, his sneezes, his phlegm. (In fact, she recounts him coughing and snorting four times over the course of three paragraphs.)

Good god, complained a chorus of defensive men and a not-insignificant number of self-righteous women: Does this woman not love and adore her husband? Get a divorce!

Tellingly, just a few days after Havrilesky’s excerpt was published, Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote an essay for the Times arguing against the idea of marriage as the norm and describing her own experience as a happily divorced single mom. She was just as soon regaled with stories from readers about how great marriage truly is.

Women, it seems, are only allowed to tell sanitized stories about our lives and relationships, those that conform to society’s expectations of us as warm and nurturing caretakers, good mothers, and excellent listeners, exhibiting just the right balance of confidence and humility. We’re to be funny but not mean, ambitious but not selfish, self-sufficient but not distant.

Now Foreverland has been published, and the New York Times chose to assign a review of this memoir about a woman’s experience of relationships, pregnancy, mothering, and sexism to a man who seems steeped in a conception of marriage from the 1950s. Rather than grappling with Havrilesky’s experiences, reviewer Walter Kirn honed in on the perceived feelings of her husband.

“I know only my own marriage, like her,” lectures Kirn, “and I prefer to hide its nuttier moments. Marriage is — for myself and others — a secret.” Requiring secrecy of marriage is exactly what ensures that it will be a suffocating, ticking time bomb.

Our society is as deeply invested in a glossy, rosy version of romance as it is in the portrait of the nurturing mother and her cherubic babe. Both fantasies are beneficial to capitalism, which depends on us buying into the end goal: a nuclear family that serves as an atomized unit of private reproduction and personal responsibility. The more the social welfare state is degraded, the greater the financial, physical, and emotional responsibilities that families are expected to individually shoulder.

Marriage also carries the baggage of its historic role: property ownership and the domination of women. But in today’s world, particularly among younger generations, many couples gravitate toward gender equality and nonconformity (even if it can’t quite be achieved in the absence of social supports for families). Marriage and child raising are not for everyone, for very good reasons. But for many, our families provide a source of nourishment and comfort. Karl Marx once wrote that religion was the “heart in a heartless world”; the same could be said about the family: a site of love and altruism in the face of incredible harshness about us.

Fact Versus Fairyland

Last year, my dad wound up in the emergency room three times, the last stint for a harrowing week, in which there were moments when we didn’t know if he’d pull through. My mother stayed glued to his side, advocated for him, cared for him, and most of all kept him company.

My father has never been an effusive man. Growing up, the greatest compliment one could hope for was “not bad.” But at his most vulnerable, lying in the hospital bed in his gown and finally starting to recover, he took my mom’s hand and said, “I don’t know if it was a good idea for you to marry me, but I’m glad you did.”

My mother, without a moment’s pause, answered, “I’m just trying to accumulate points now, so that when I get Alzheimer’s, you’ll have to take care of me.”

My parents are coming up on fifty years of marriage. When I was a teenager, there were times when things between them got so bad, I wished they would just divorce. There was a period of almost twenty years when they chose to live on different continents. But somehow, they managed to stick it out and eventually land back in each other’s space, evolve together, laugh, argue, talk politics, and grow old.

Marriage, as Havrilesky puts it, is “the world’s most impossible endurance test.”

My parents’ story of marriage, like Havrilesky’s and many others, has been no fairy tale. Foreverland asks what happens to relationships after the first leap of faith in romance.

What’s so interesting about falling in love? Our culture tends to zoom in on those first locked eyes, the first passionate kiss, and then fade out just as things are starting to get interesting. I say skip over the heartfelt stares and locked lips and show me your first conversation about recurring minor digestive issues . . . I want every romantic comedy to open on a couple’s first detailed discussion of past dental work, and I want it to end with a two-hour-long game of Monopoly, in which our dashing hero is forced to mortgage Boardwalk, then has a spectacular meltdown and quits the game in a blizzard of fake money and flying red plastic hotels.

“Most engaged couples,” writes Havrilesky, “bumble onto the marital bullet train without even knowing where it’s headed. All that matters is that we’ll be together, they whisper to each other.”

The rush to marriage is to be expected. Women are told that marriage (along with childbearing) is the ultimate aspiration, that it will make you whole. The wedding itself will be the pinnacle of your life — so much so that you should throw down tens of thousands of dollars (or more) on it. The dress alone (which you will only wear once) costs hundreds, often thousands, of dollars. But this is the Most Important Day of Your Life, so anything goes.

And yet the number of people choosing to marry in America has declined significantly, while divorce rates remain high. It’s little wonder, considering the limited material advantages afforded to married couples and the excessive economic, social, and emotional strain that capitalism puts on the family, on top of the personal challenges inherent to long-term partnerships. Still, the fairy-tale notions cling on.

Havrilesky continues: “After many satisfying years together, married life has an uncanny way of making even the most buoyant soul feel like a fool and a failure repeatedly. It’s a feature, not a bug. Marriage is designed to break you.”

How could it be otherwise? Along with the safety, the companionship, and the rush of love comes the reality of two deeply flawed human beings, facing all of life’s ups and downs together as one coughs up phlegm and the other makes snarky remarks. “Having someone by your side every minute of your life sounds so romantic before he’s actually there, making noises, emitting smells, undoing what you’ve just done, interrupting, undercutting, begging to differ.”

Our world forces you to cling desperately to the person beside you, but it has also ensured that both you and they are stretched far beyond your capacity to remain ever-present emotionally, financially, and physically. Over the course of umpteen years, you inevitably love them at one moment and loathe them the next, each of their weaknesses reflecting your own imperfections right back to you just at those moments when you’re at your most vulnerable.

Heather and Bill

Foreverland chronicles Havrilesky’s relationship with her husband, Bill, who she met at age thirty-four. She immediately connected with him, ignored all potential red flags, and imagined him as her perfect future husband, “a man who magically filled in all the gaps in my life.”

As Heather and Bill plan their first trip to Europe together, she imagines their romance elevating them “to a higher level of consciousness and gorgeousness and confidence. We are in love, after all. We have found our person. This is the start of a whole new life. All former selves — intractable, lumpy, ungrateful, repetitive, needy — will be left behind. But our former selves disagree. They are packing their bags for their first trip to Europe, too.”

There Bill goes from being the “perfect future husband” to the “disappointing future husband” just at the moment when he plans to propose marriage, in a scene that is one part wacky high jinks comedy, one part ominous warning, and one part reasoned advice column.

Around this time, Havrilesky begins her own transformation from a young woman who looks with unease bordering on revulsion at mothers to deciding to be a mother herself. Havrilesky describes seeing “jumpy women” everywhere, who had “uneasy smiles when they talked to me, like they’d left cookies burning in the oven at home and they really needed to go.” This was not her imagination. Motherhood means always being on the clock, and usually on the run.

“Once you had kids, you no longer had the luxury of staring at the ceiling listening to Radiohead for hours, or eating Girl Scout cookies in bed while watching Temptation Island.” More than that: “If there was one thing a jumpy woman didn’t have time for, it was self-pity.”

Maybe she was driving somewhere in her car, lost in thought, wondering if she was really the same woman who could once command the room at a party. She didn’t go to that many parties anymore. People didn’t listen as closely to moms. Moms were too wound up about their children to be interesting. Who made them that way, though? Why did the kids at home always make the moms look bad, but somehow the dads got to be the same people they were before they had kids?

No wonder the jumpy women looked tired. They looked like they’d lost something along the way, but they couldn’t even remember what it was. And anyway, there was never time to reflect on such things.

Just as unappealing as these jumpy women were the unlikable children that weighed them down. Nevertheless, Havrilesky decided that her solution to “the problem of disliking children . . . was to get pregnant as soon as possible.” Through pregnancy, she discovered that society at large, and the medical establishment in particular, deems you but a vessel, “a baby delivering system.”

Once the baby comes, you are plunged into another world — one that is much harder and more intense than the uneasy smiles of the jumpy women let on, but also one that is much more beautiful and full of love than the loud, messy babies reveal from a distance.

Havrilesky falls in love with her baby upon arrival. And almost as quickly, she discovers a profound truism: “A baby is a marriage crisis.”

Before, you were separate people. You only had to agree about which toothpaste to share, or to never share toothpaste. You only had to split up the housework, or just neglect it with no serious consequences. You didn’t have to sync up your emotions. You didn’t have to trust each other with your life. The baby lands like a bomb in the middle of your life and lays waste to everything.

Of course, every marriage crisis has its own flavor. Heather and Bill’s first marital explosion takes place when their child is three weeks old and Heather leaves the house for the first time. She comes back to find her baby draped over Bill’s forearm, her legs and arms dangling, as he stirs a steaming pot of macaroni with his other hand. The baby is three weeks old at this point, and Heather sees their newly created human just inches away from being dropped into the boiling water like the dinner’s main course. She manages to communicate her feelings, God bless her — panic, vulnerability, spinning out of control — and convince Bill that even if he didn’t feel the same level of panic as she does over parenting, he needed to occupy that space with her and think as she would about parenting decisions, out of “love and solidarity.”

My husband, Matt, and I had been together six years before we got married (though we had broken up for a year early on), and we had been together seven years when we had a baby. By this point in our relationship, I had given up my “always self-sufficient at every moment” vibe and grown quite accustomed to being affectionately cared for by him. That constant affection flew out the window as soon as our child arrived on the scene, requiring undivided attention from both of us and giving way to sleep-deprived snippiness and defensiveness.

Unlike Havrilesky, I didn’t muster the headspace to talk through the jarring discrepancy between my admittedly unrealistic expectations of our relationship and our new reality. Instead, I determined that I was simply too exhausted to file for a divorce and too in love with my baby to consider sharing custody. So our marriage staggered on until a point, months or years later (what is time anymore?), when we had the bandwidth to pay some attention to it.

The truth is that even seemingly healthy marriages between compatible people buckle under immense pressures, leaving us to take out our frustrations on the adult standing in closest proximity.

Real Romance

Foreverland is above all deeply relatable. The details of how marriages play out are always different, of course. Bill has phlegm. Matt likes to end humorless jokes with “just kidding” (no matter how many times I explain that announcing that you kid does not automatically imbue the previous sentence with humorous content). Replace Bill’s ongoing complaints about his bad knee with Matt’s never-ending work stress. It never really changes.

And that’s the point, really. Examining a marriage involves examining the human condition, all our flaws and imperfections, at a close and constant range, and realizing that it’s about as likely that your partner will give up their annoying habits as it is that you will give up yours. Then throw all of life’s hardest challenges into the mix and see how you do: parenting, health, aging, lust and desire, financial pressures. It’s an impossible proposition.

At one level, Foreverland fulfills a basic and important function of telling the truth to many unsuspecting future customers of marriage. I wish someone had told me these things. (Okay, some people did, but I chose to ignore them, thinking their warnings would not apply to my perfect romance.)

But it also describes the complicated, contradictory experiences women face daily while navigating marriage and parenting in a sexist society with unreasonable expectations of us as people and moms. It pries open a space outside of sanitized and superficial romance stories, so that women and girls can express difficult, vulnerable, ambivalent emotions, without feeling like there is something wrong with us for feeling them.

Havrilesky’s portrayal of the gritty underside of marriage is honest and searing. Accepting it as it truly is allows her to find the real romance. By the end of her and Bill’s first jinxed trip to Europe, she notes:

All of us were there, our former selves and our current selves. We were excited and melancholy and needy and pissy and impatient and satisfied. And that was the most romantic moment of this very romantic story . . . Because we knew that it was possible to be disgusted and annoyed and bored and still feel love.

“We pretend that once you’re married, you’re either happy or unhappy, a binary system, on or off,” she writes. The truth is much more interesting.