In 2015, I joined many others in reading Ada Calhoun’s Modern Love piece: “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give.” It was about the challenges and difficulties in marriage, but it was also about why marriage was worthwhile. I loved every word.
Sometimes, well-meaning people hear that I’m single and that I’d like to be married and try to talk me out of it. “Marriage is really hard,” they say, or, “I wish I had your life.”
Like their lives, I imagine, my life isn’t glamorous or high-flying. I pay bills and prepare meals for myself and try to get enough sleep. I work and write birthday cards and get my oil changed. My life is lovely, but sometimes it’s boring or stressful. A relationship status might change some things, but it doesn’t change the nature of life.
Ada Calhoun’s new book offers an intimate look at her marriage, encouraging me that it’s something still worth wanting, and that I don’t need to be ashamed of hoping for it. It was a delight to read about the sort of marriage I might actually be comfortable inside: not a perfect love story, but a real one.
I caught up with Ada Calhoun to talk about marriage, singleness, and Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give.
Tell me a little about your book?
I did this Modern Love [piece] a couple of years ago. It was written when I was having an argument with my husband because he screwed up some plane tickets. It was in the same moment that we were going to all of these very starry-eyed weddings where people were promising to be each other’s best friend, every second, forever, and: ‘this is going to be so fun.’ We were sitting there glowering at each other.
So that essay was an attempt to think about what it meant to be married, what I would say if I was going to be incredibly honest with a couple getting married about how I had found marriage? The book is basically an extended version of that. The questions I’m trying to ask in the book are: why would you want to get married? And: how do you stay married?
One thing that came out while I was working on the book: people spend an awful lot of time trying to get married and not nearly as much time trying to figure out, once they have this person, what do you do with them?
Even with the difficult things about marriage, it’s what many of our readers are hoping for. What would you say to single people who are hoping to find someone to commit to?
I think that marriage is a really worthwhile endeavor but it’s a mistake to think that it solves any problems. It’s a new way of living, more than it’s the answer to some kind of quest.
In movies, it’s treated as this happy ending, and I think that does people a disservice because it makes it seem like once they get married everything will be great, or maybe they’ll have a few squabbles, but basically they will have this smooth ride and it won’t be lonely, and it won’t be the same struggle. It’s like life: it’s great sometimes, and it’s really rough sometimes, but marriage isn’t better than life, luckily, it’s not worse than life either. I think it has the same ups and downs.
I think that one thing that married people and single people have in common is that it’s very difficult to know what to expect of other people and how to be good to other people, how to get along. If there’s some consolation for both married people and single people, who look at the other side and think the grass is greener, it’s that we’re all in the same boat, we’re all really just trying to be good to each other, and to enjoy each other.
I quote JRR Tolkien in the book, who says that the soul mate ideal has really done a number on us, it’s really been quite toxic, because it makes people think of other people as guiding stars and not as we are. I really love the phrase he uses: ‘we are companions in shipwreck.’
I think that that whether you’re single, or whether you’re married, the people that you’re around: they are your companions in shipwreck, not your guiding stars. So it’s not about trying to find somebody who’s going to take you out of this state that you’re in right now, whether that’s unhappily single or lonely in your marriage, it’s about seeing other people as companions: you’re trying to help each other get through life.
You write briefly about how you met your husband. How did you know that he was the one you wanted to commit to?
I fell in love with him really intensely. I’d fallen in love before, and I talk about that in the book. One was a marriage that didn’t work out in my early twenties. And when I was a teenager I fell deeply in love with my cousin’s friend and would totally have married him and gone and lived in the woods. That would have been a bad thing. So I think it was being in love and the timing being right more than anything else.
What was the process like choosing to expand your Modern Love idea into this book?
When the Modern Love came out, the response was so much more than I anticipated when I wrote it. I did not think it was going to make any waves. I thought: here is just somebody who’s been married for a dozen years saying ‘you know what? It’s actually quite hard sometimes to stay married.’ But the response I got was so significant. I started talking to people about why they responded to it, and they said that it was because people don’t talk enough about how difficult and rewarding it is to be married. It’s treated as this final scene, not as an opening gambit.
I think a lot of people who are in long-term relationships like that acknowledgment that marriage is an ongoing process. I hope that’s reassuring and not depressing for single people.
In your book you share marriage stories besides your own, would you tell me a little bit about your research process?
I wound up up talking to basically everybody I encountered for most of the year. If I was at a party and somebody’s parents were there, I would start talking to them about how they stayed married 50 years. I was in a taxi to the airport and this taxi driver was complaining about her husband, so I wound up talking to her the whole trip. Once they get started, most people really like getting into it.
I was somebody that they didn’t know, in most cases, and I didn’t use names, so I think they felt fairly free to just talk about what it was about relationships that they found difficult. I also tried to ask everyone who’d been married a while: what have you been through? The lists I got were pretty amazing. They would say: ‘Well, there were these affairs, there was bankruptcy, there was unemployment.’ There were these litanies of horrors. For the most part they were quite glad that they had stuck it out. For me that was consoling because I think, and I’ve heard this from a lot of people, that they think that when they suffer in a marriage that it’s a sign of their own unique defect. In fact, marriages are remarkably similar, and they all involve different tragedies to different degrees, so there are bound to be struggles. That doesn’t mean that you’ve screwed up somehow.
In your opinion, what are some of the most difficult things about marriage, and what are some of the most satisfying?
One is, of course, you can still be attracted to other people. There can be a lot of temptation.
Another thing: it can feel boring, at times, to be in what feels like the same relationship.
The best things: you have somebody who’s on your team, who has your back. They’re your partner and you get to know them better than anybody else in the world, and they get to know you. Being known and knowing someone like that, I think it’s a really profound relationship that we don’t get in the rest of our life.
What are some of your hopes for this book as you send it into the world?
When I went back to talk to the person who married me and my husband, for the book, he said that he feels like it’s a cultural crisis that people think so hard about how they’re going to get married and not about how they’re going to stay married. I hope that just asking that question might be helpful to some people. How do you say with somebody in this day and age? How do you stay faithful, and how do you endure all the struggles to have this relationship? I think it’s worth asking, for people who are single, and want to find somebody to be with the rest of their life. I think it’s worth asking why. I think that question can be very productive.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook or at www.carastrickland.com.