Soon after my husband and I got engaged, instead of pledging our undying love each day, we started saying, "Thank you for tolerating me." It was a joke, but not. We saw marriage not as a harmonious union of two souls, but as a relationship that would require work, patience, and toleration. For example, I learned to tolerate things like the sound of him smacking his food, loudly, to the point that I would sometimes wonder if I'd made the right decision in my choice of life partner, simply based on this one flaw. Despite this issue, I know I love him because instead of throwing a plate at his head every time he chews, after nearly seven years I still summon all of my restraint and force myself to gently say, "You're smacking really loud." And he stops. Until the next meal, when we do it all again.
This may be why I instantly fell in love with Heather Havrilesky's new book Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. Early in the book, Havrilesky, longtime Ask Polly advice columnist and author of books like How To Be a Person in the World and Disaster Preparedness, calls marriage "the world's most impossible endurance challenge." To her, romance isn't about dual massages (gross) and meaningful stares, it's about the ugly stuff, the hard stuff. It's about loving someone enough to stay with them every day, possibly forever.
I tore through Foreverland, underlining passages like, "Marriage is designed to break you. You will forget everything you knew before. You will tremble under the weight of your own shortcomings." How inspiring! I deeply identified with her raw, real, and often hilarious take on motherhood, growing older, and the challenges of tethering yourself to another person. Because her words felt so true to me, I was surprised when a New York Times excerpt of the book, an essay titled "Marriage Requires Amnesia," spawned a slew of angry comments and tweets, many of them from men, accusing Havrilesky of hating her husband. Maybe they expected her to fawn all over him. But don't people know that you can hate your spouse and also love them deeply? I found the enraged takes comedic, because the commenters got her tone so very wrong. Plus, didn't they hate their spouses too?
The ensuing tweet storm led me to Austin-based Chelsea Rae Hopkins, who defended the essay in a since-deleted Twitter thread.
When I reached out to Hopkins, who lives in Austin with her infant daughter and her wife Marty, she told me, "Of course you hate your spouse sometimes."
Hopkins also saw the hate comments as a "fundamental misreading" of what Havrilesky is actually trying to express, which is a humorous take on what it truly is to be married. When I asked Hopkins if she talked to her wife about the essay, she said, "This is not the first time we've had intellectual conversations about what it is to be partnered, but I just hadn't seen marriage written about so humorously and frankly."
Havrilesky tweeted and wrote about the misreads of the excerpt, saying, "The idea that I'm miserable and I'm promoting resignation and contempt is a hilarious side effect of how moralistic and reductive our culture is about marriage and writing and personality and opinions and everything else under the sun."
I spoke to her on the phone shortly after the essay came out, and she said that early on, she told her husband of 15 years, Bill, to "brace himself," since the reactions to this book would likely be a mix of ecstatic camaraderie and misguided rage.
"People are angry at me for being angry at my husband," Havrilesky told me over the phone from North Carolina, where she'd recently moved. "They assume my husband is a persecuted individual. I'm not going to contradict the notion that he's persecuted by me, that's accurate. But he's also well aware of who I am."
The "capital D discourse about marriage," as Hopkins calls it, isn't confined to Havrilesky's essay. A recent Modern Love column discussed the benefits of bickering in marriage; in many ways, the pandemic has forced couples in close quarters to ditch the "happily ever after" fantasy and get real about what they need, and what's not working. And in a healthy, happy marriage, there can still be plenty that's not working.
Sarah Anderson, a teacher in Phoenix who has been married for almost 14 years, said that during the recent holiday break, she and her husband were at home together for two weeks straight. "I called my sister and told her I needed her to provide an alibi for me because I thought I was going to kill him," Anderson jokes of her husband, who she deeply loves, by the way. Her sister sent her Havrilesky's excerpt, and instead of making Anderson feel hopeless, it helped.
"I instantly felt better," she says.
Reema*, a product manager in San Francisco who has been married six years, agreed, telling me, "The more we talk about the bad moments, the more we don't feel like there is something wrong."
Not everyone can get behind the idea that "hating" your spouse at times can actually mean you truly love them. Shelley*, a Los Angeles-based financial consultant who has been married for 15 years, compared Havrilesky's essay to a woman who constantly posts on one of her local moms' groups about how annoying her husband is. "I don't know if you need to describe how phlegmy your husband is in the national newspaper," Shelley says of Havrilesky's essay. "It seemed like she was kind of being a jerk."
That's the thing about excerpts, though. You're only getting a sliver of a much bigger story.
"I wanted this book to feel like you are living inside this marriage for 15 years," Havrilesky told me. "I want you to understand how this marriage is and how I'm growing and evolving. The reader can dislike me, but mostly I want you to trust that I'm telling you the truth."
She takes any pushback as a "bellwether of how badly needed these types of conversations are."
“The idea that I’m miserable and I’m promoting resignation and contempt is a hilarious side effect of how moralistic and reductive our culture is about marriage and writing and personality and opinions and everything else under the sun.”
If you read Foreverland, it's clear that Havrilesky absolutely does not HATE her husband, phlegmy as he may be. She writes that she's the villain of her own story, and if more of us owned up to that, maybe our relationships would benefit.
"The point of the piece is to show what an asshole I am," she says. "It's about how it feels to disappoint yourself in marriage. You thought you were going to be a princess bride, not a naggy little bitch. You have to face yourself."
So yes, I hate it when my husband smacks his food. When he orders a long pull Americano at the McDonald's drive through instead of just asking for a damn coffee, I want to maim him. We fight. Our communication is sometimes horrific. We've endured rough patches, and I'm sure there will be more of them down the road. But as long as we remember to say, "Thank you for tolerating me," I think we have a chance. In Foreverland, that's considered the height of romance.
Foreverland is available February 8 everywhere books are sold.
*Names have been changed
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