Ada Calhoun has attended many weddings – and like most married people, there’s a feeling of the uncanny in listening to the hopeful speeches given. There are variations, but most boil down to some style of blessing / mission statement that THIS couple is so perfect, all they need is love. Calhoun was moved to write a Modern Love column that gives a more realistic depiction of marriage – it’s love, sure, but staying married is also about addressing some real dark-night-of-the-soul style moments. In seven essays and a brief epilogue, Calhoun writes candidly about her own marriage, about a dozen years old at press time. She loves her husband Neal – this much is clear from the outset, and a given despite everything else discussed. Love isn’t really the issue – what she wants to talk about is everything from the boring aspects of marriage (how many times can you hear the same stories, how much of living with someone is moving their clothes from place to place) to the larger questions (what does it mean to be monogamous, how can you maintain personal and professional goals across two entire lives?). Calhoun and her husband have a son, Oliver, who is at the sweet spot of childhood (around age 9ish) and he’s present in a charming way throughout most of these essays. Parenting features in these essays, but the main thrust is the marriage relationship.
I found these essays to be refreshing and honest. While my marriage looks quite different from hers, I think there’s a common thread in almost all marriages, because while every two humans are profoundly different, most of the issues in relationships are mundanely similar. I loved this quote – “the main problem with marriage is that it’s not better than the rest of life” – YES, like most things, marriage is not an answer so much as a choice, one among many. It’s not a path to happiness, but in the context of a life that is always striving to be better – marriage can be better, even happy. She captures the moments of just sublime happiness that can occur in the context of ordinary life – those times when you consider the humans around you, maybe in the midst of a board game or on a vacation, and just feel unimaginable gratitude that life lead you here.
And also, there are moments where you want to play a version of House – you want to imagine another path, another life, another person by your side. Those wanderings are natural, as is the incandescent anger at a dish in the sink, AGAIN, as though the dish fairy hasn’t ALREADY visited the kitchen. There are moments in a partnership where it’s simply annoying and other moments where it’s nearly overwhelming, this desire to flee or to be without the burden of this other person, these other people. But that is maybe just another part of relationships – because, while those moments happen, there are also (hopefully many more) moments of beautiful light. I mean, it’s love, but it’s also the joy of caring for someone else (moving past the anger, through acceptance, and all the way into joy at the gift of being able to do the dishes, again) – and the gift of being cared FOR. Giving and receiving grace is a beautiful gift, and marriage is one way to exercise that muscle.
Anyway, Ada Calhoun is clever and funny, and these essays hit the spot for me – so I’ll recommend this book to you as if you’re my friend, and we’re chatting about the ways that life in our 40s surprises us, and we are looking for other ways to grapple with the way that our road is narrowing (because they all narrow, and that’s called finding your own path, and it’s a joy to stay on it, but also, it’s nice to have someone acknowledge what changes when that happens, what you lose). Enjoy before bed with wine, and then finish in the morning with coffee, then call me and tell me your favorite line over a cup of tea – we’ll do our own dishes for now.