Last week, Heather Havrilesky, the author of the Ask Polly advice column, published an excerpt from her new book Foreverland titled: “Marriage Requires Amnesia,” in which she wrote that marriage requires individuals to block out certain aspects of their spouses in order to maintain their happiness.
In the article, Havrilesky began by claiming that, “after 15 years of marriage, you start to see your mate clearly, free of your own projections and misperceptions,” before noting that that is “not necessarily a good thing”.
Havrilesky then went on to compare her husband Bill to a “tangled hill of dirty laundry,” which she said is not an “illusion” but rather “clarity,” as her partner “is exactly the same as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, almost sentient but not quite” until he has had his coffee each morning.
However, at other times, Havrilesky said she experiences her husband “as a very handsome professor” and “a leader among men” who “has big ideas about the future of science education in America,” which she said is also “clarity”.
After acknowledging the different ways she perceives her husband, many of which are in negative light, Havrilesky argued that that is why “surviving a marriage requires turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying”.
The declaration, which prefaced descriptions of the author’s husband’s loud sneezing and constant throat-clearing, was followed by Havrilesky’s claim that she can “almost get away with being this mean” about her spouse because he is the same as when they met.
“I can almost get away with being this mean about him because he has remained the same amount of smart and kind and extremely attractive that he was when I met him 17 years ago,” she wrote. “This is just how it feels to be doomed to live and eat and sleep next to the same person until you’re dead.”
In the article, Havrilesky also claimed that she “hates” her husband, and that she doesn’t know anyone who has been married longer than seven years “who flinches at this concept”.
“Do I hate my husband? Oh for sure, yes, definitely … A spouse is a blessing and a curse wrapped into one. How could it be otherwise? How is hatred not the natural outcome of sleeping so close to another human for years?” she continued, before questioning how, unless one spends most of their waking hours “daydreaming,” they tolerate “this meddling presence, rearranging stuff but never actually putting it away, opening bills but never actually paying them, shedding his tissues and his dirty socks all over your otherwise pristine habitat?”
The first-person piece also saw Havrilesky suggest that marriage can both solve problems and create problems, and that how one one feels about their marriage can change each week.
However, according to the author, marriage ultimately “requires amnesia, a mute button, a filter on the lens, a damper, some blinders, some bumpers, some ear plugs, [and] a nap,” and also requires “self-care, time alone, time away, meditation, escape, selfishness”.
After describing the many tactics she employs to remain happy in her marriage, Havrilesky concluded the piece recalling the moments where her husband looks “handsome to me again” and sounds like someone she’s “still in love with”.
“The feeling comes back. The camera zooms in, the focus sharpens, charming little details emerge. I remember why I chose him. In spite of everything, he’s still my favourite person,” she wrote. “I can see why we’re together. We might stay this way forever.”
On social media, the piece has sparked a range of reactions from readers, with some sympathising with the feelings described by Havrilesky, and acknowledging that marriage takes work, while others have found the description of her marriage and her husband “problematic”.
“This is so funny and true. It’s hard to live for decades with the same person and it’s probably better for people to be realistic about that like this author is. If you expect it to be romantic most of the time, you’ll probably get divorced,” one person tweeted.
However, the majority of responses to the piece were critical, with many suggesting that the article described an unhappy marriage.
“Wow, we’ve been doing it wrong for 51 years since our marriage has survived on respect, love, communication, some compromise, and a fair amount of silliness,” one reader wrote, while another said: “Many of you simply must hear about divorce.”
Someone else added: “Listen, after 10 years both my husband and I could rattle off a list of annoying things the other one does. But nothing drives us to hate, or to say things like this. Is this piece all just exaggeration for effect? If not, I urge the author to reflect on divorce, for all involved.”
The article also prompted concern for Havrilesky’s spouse, as numerous readers claimed that the author’s description of her husband would likely be hurtful to him.
“If I found out my spouse felt this way about me I would never feel okay again,” one reader wrote.
Someone else said that, while it is “extremely okay to be honest about marriage,” they couldn’t imagine being Havrilesky’s husband and reading the article.
“I can’t imagine being Bill and reading this and feeling anything other than abjectly awful and sad and like my spouse truly loathes me,” they wrote.
The piece also prompted another reader to claim that they are “SO tired of hearing how much people can’t stand their spouses and how annoying they are,” before adding: “I can’t even imagine having thoughts like this about my husband, let alone PUBLISHING them.”
Speaking to The Independent, Havrilesky said she expected “a negative reaction from some” as the chapter excerpt from her upcoming book is “about anger”.
“When I sold the book, I knew I needed to dedicate at least one chapter to the subject of anger within a marriage. Without reading the falling in love chapters, I knew it would sound harsh,” she explained. “And look, vacationing with your two teenagers and your husband of 15 years is just a very particular sort of challenge.
“That said, I love stories about failure - failing to connect, failing to have fun when you’re supposed to be having fun, failing to be as in love as you want to be. Feeling deeply disappointed with your own emotions is such a private, difficult thing - I think that’s why I’m so drawn to it as a subject.”
As for the reaction she received, Havrilesky said she’s been telling her husband that the response to her book was “bound to be interesting” because “so many people are just incredibly moralistic about marriage”.
“This is probably particularly true for Americans specifically,” she continued, adding: “On top of that, American culture is uncomfortable with nuance, strong emotions, women who express their strong emotions, women who make jokes about men, stories about marriage that aren’t sugarcoated, [and] extreme honesty in intimate relationships.”
Havrilesky also noted that, while the description of her relationship and marriage may have been negative, it was just a “snapshot of a moment”.
She said: “I find it baffling that so much writing today, whether it’s reporting, essays, or even fiction, is encountered as prescriptive rather than expressive. You can’t offer up a snapshot of a moment and then riff on it without giving readers the impression that you’re saying something negative about their lives. Everything has a moral now.”
According to Havrilesky, some of the critics fail to remember that “human beings are conflicted animals,” and that “getting along with other humans isn’t easy”.
“We should try to be compassionate with ourselves and each other about how challenging relationships - even very good relationships - can be,” she added.
In regards to her husband’s reaction to the excerpt, Havrilesky said that he’s read her book three times now, and has loved it. According to the author, her husband has also advised her against changing anything, and has been adamant that she should “be as brutally honest as I can, about his flaws and mine”.
“It’s hard to tell the whole story of a marriage without revealing two people’s weaknesses. And there are so many unrealistic, fantastical stories about love and marriage floating around in the world. I really wanted to write something that was funny but was also extremely unflinching about how difficult getting along with the same human for more than a decade can be, even when you’re sure that you’ve chosen the right person,” she continued, adding that “Bill has a great sense of humour about himself and he doesn’t lose sleep over what other people think”.
Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage will be released on 8 February 2022.
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