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5 April 2022

The marriage delusion

A new memoir describes it as “a slowly unfolding apocalypse”. Why are we so reluctant to reimagine matrimony?

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

I’m dreaming of a book. It has the lightly worn wit of a Nora Ephron column combined with the empathy of Esther Perel. It combines the savage contrarianism of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath with the virtuoso noticing of Joan Didion, the force of numbers that powered Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women and the historical sweep of a Thomas Piketty treatise.

It examines the institution of marriage from the inside and out and answers, at last, why we continue to do this thing. Why – no one is forcing us any more! – do so many of us lash ourselves to another imperfect human being forever more and act surprised when this person fails to make us elated all the time? Why are people so outraged when presented with alternatives to a system rooted in the most regressive patriarchal property law? Why do we minimise freedom and maximise submission? Who would do that to the person they claim to love most? Besides half of the British adult population?

It is, of course, unfair to review a book in the light of its platonic ideal and – spoiler alert – Foreverland is not this book. But then again, this is how most romantic unions are judged, against an impossible fantasy. The American writer Heather Havrilesky aims to puncture our overblown expectations of marriage, which she likens to a “a slowly unfolding apocalypse”. “Your marriage will die or you will die. Which ending seems happier?” she asks, using her own 16-year-old marriage to Bill, the father of her two daughters, to illustrate how suffocating (heterosexual) coupledom can be:

Surviving a marriage requires turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying. You must do this not only so you don’t overdose on the same stultifying words and phrases within the first year, but also so your spouse’s various grunts and sneezes and snorts and throat clearings don’t serve as a magic flute that causes you to wander out the front door and into the wilderness, never to return.

Havrilesky is not a social scientist, nor a psychologist, but a former advice columnist for New York Magazine with a memoir and an essay collection behind her. Her schtick boils down to: we need to accept our flawed lives, suffering, mess, humiliation, “disappointing” husband and all. Marriage is designed to break you, she declares. If you decide to sign up to it, you should be aware that you will wake up some mornings wondering why you have promised “to drag this wretched, snoring heap of meat with you everywhere you go until the day you die”.

Poor Bill. Elsewhere, he is “this loud heap of nightmares”, “this cursed ghost”, “a haunted ice cream man”, “a phlegmy motherf***er”, “a charmless mountain of wincing leather”, “a pointy Lego brick underfoot”, “a chapter of Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”. And Bill, she stresses, is one of the good guys. He is “handsome” and “patient” and even “visionary” in his professional life as an academic working in education. However, in the context of their home, she experiences him “as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, useless, almost sentient but not quite”.

The pair met soon after Bill had separated from his first wife, with whom he had an eight-year-old child. When he read in Havrilesky’s column that she was newly single, it made him “swoon” and he emailed to praise her writing. She recounts their first cringeworthy exchanges as they sent photos of themselves back and forth. “Hubba hubba!” she said. “Wow!” he said. “Hoo doggie,” she ventured.

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At the time, Havrilesky writes, she was 34 years old, a “giant baby” who lived alone in Los Angeles with her dog. She longed for a husband to “banish the loneliness and darkness forever”, hoping – and this is a very modern hope – that Bill would play listener, daddy, best friend, housekeeper, life coach, boss, masseuse, drinking buddy and “flexible sidekick”. She fell deeply in love with this hope, even though she was acutely aware of Bill’s nerdiness, defensiveness, bad judgement, lack of financial acumen and “zero depth perception”. His marriage proposal left her horrified: “I hated Bill’s dumb face,” she thought in the moment, but she said yes, knowing he was the kindest, most handsome man she had ever met as well as the “most hideous” and “most exasperating”.

After an elaborate but sticky wedding in Palm Desert, she discovered how fast her heteronormative fantasies could curdle. The stress of parenting and full-time work led to neurotic outbursts (her) and defensiveness (him). The answer, they decided, was to move with their two girls and two dogs to the suburbs. She wanted to escape the “urban elitism” of LA’s hipster parents who drank home brew and read Zadie Smith. “Our kids deserved the comfort of mediocrity.”

But despite purchasing a huge house, she was soon ground down: “The irony of living among people who place peace and quiet at the top of their priority list is that they’re often very angry… you don’t know anger until you witness suburban anger up close.”

On a wretched family holiday in Australia, Havrilesky finally screamed to her husband and daughters: “I am fucking broken! YOU BROKE ME. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?” She fantasised about disappearing through the escape hatch of infidelity and by her late 40s she felt “ravenous” for adventure, with “the sex drive of a teenage boy”. She developed a crush on another writer after mistakenly thinking he touched her under the table, all of which she confided to poor Bill. Familiarity might have blunted passion but their marriage is – by contrast – honest, based on what she calls “radically open communication”.

Foreverland is sporadically very funny and at times, genuinely insightful on the ebb and flow of marital vexations, the agonies of in-laws, and the antipathy one apparently feels towards one’s life partner. “Do I hate my husband? For sure, yes, definitely. I don’t know anyone who’s been married more than seven years who flinches at this concept.”

However, Havrilesky is also prone to triteness (“Love and hate are intertwined”) and there are too many familiar moans about male hypochondria and thwarted holidays. These passages never deepen into anything more than one of those WhatsApp exchanges you have with friends that ends: “Grrr. Sorry to rant.”

The book is a bit of a Bill, ie not quite what I hoped it would be. But I found myself wondering: could any memoir do much better? To be truly honest involves being particular, but the more particular you are about your partner, the less universal and the more voyeuristic a book like this becomes. For any writer on the inside of a marriage, the sample size is going to be pretty small. One, perhaps two or three at most, unless you’re Joan Collins. Fiction – see the novels of Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Karl Ove Knausgaard – has the freedom to better capture the universal truths of marriage. In the end, it’s just hard to care that much about Bill’s golf shirts.

Heterosexual marriage rates in the UK are at an all-time low. There are innumerable other ways for men and women to seek security, raise children and find companionship, alone or together. But now (Western, non-religious) society no longer places a strong emphasis on the respectability of marriage, there is an ever greater – almost impossible – emphasis on the romantic/consumerist side of relations. Thanks to dating apps, there’s more choice of potential partners than ever before. The pressure is immense, the disappointments harder to endure, not least because we expect a spouse to excel in multiple roles. Our grandparents’ generation took a slightly more realistic view and perhaps had less buyers’ remorse as a result.

The benefits of coupledom are still many: split living costs and childcare, reassuring stability, plus, when it comes down to it, more sex. But most of all, companionship. To be known, to know someone else. Life can otherwise be lonely. Marriage is also, crudely, egalitarian. One person for every person. Imagine if the rich could hoard partners as they do money.

Perhaps this is why we have a hard time reimagining the sacred institution itself. Far from being radical, it is socially acceptable to the point of being banal for people to grumble about their spouses. But criticising marriage itself is a bit like criticising capitalism. It makes you an agitator, practically an anarchist.

A friend who recently celebrated a divorce and is now “solo polyamorous” says she was naive to allow “a big, bloody, binding-as-f*** legal document” to constrain her emotional life. The law will become a little less archaic and restrictive when “no-fault divorce” is introduced in England and Wales this month.

However, isn’t there something a bit alarming about our uniformity of opinion of love itself? As the cultural critic Laura Kipnis pointed out in her book Against Love: A Polemic (2003), even the most powerful organised religions produce the occasional heretic and every ideology has its apostates. But, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, you can’t disparage love and marriage.

Kipnis made the case for adultery as an act of cultural rebellion, which to some will sound invigorating and to others like a shagger’s excuse from a David Lodge novel. But could we not keep the companionship and be a little more fluid within it, a little less judgemental, a little more forgiving? Or are we loath to admit that’s just more freedom than most of us can bear?

Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage
Heather Havrilesky
Ecco, 304pp, £20

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special