Photos: Foreverland; car (H. Armstrong Roberts / Stringer); Havrilesky ( )
"Ask Polly" advice columnist Heather Havrilesky dissects "till death do us part" and finds worth in the tedium of marriage. / BY Rosemary Counter / February 18th, 2022
American author Heather Havrilesky, a.k.a the “Ask Polly” advice columnist, had the internet abuzz in December with her viral New York Times piece “Why Marriage Requires Amnesia.” (Just a tidbit: “Surviving a marriage requires turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying.”) But contrary to whatever you may have seen on Twitter, Havrilesky is very much in love with her husband of 15 years, the newly famous Bill. The proof’s in her new book Foreverland: On The Divine Tedium of Marriage, an homage to the ups, downs and ups of marriage. We called Havrilesky to ask why she’s saying what we’re all thinking, her favourite hate mail (so far) and why Bill’s loud sneezes maybe aren’t as bad as she thought.
Rosemary Counter: My husband sent me your New York Times piece and said, “If you ever wrote this, I’d have to divorce you!” But I think he only read the headline: “Do I hate my husband? Oh for sure, yes, definitely.”
Heather Havrilesky: Hah! I actually chose that headline, which was of course a little bit incendiary, because I knew it would get a response. Our culture is extremely moralistic about marriage and I’m saying a lot of stuff you’re not supposed to say. Of course I love my husband, and I wrote the line as a joke, but it’s true, too. I wrote this book to capture the natural ambivalence that comes with tying yourself to someone for your whole life.
RC: You write, “The assignment, after all, is to stay together till you die.” I’m trying to imagine any other situation where you win when you die.
HH: I’m really saying the experience of marriage is so much more interesting than that. Our society puts so much emphasis on stories about falling in love when really they’re all kinda the same. I found this out when writing that part of the book and really struggling to make it interesting. Watching someone fall in love is like watching them eat a really good submarine sandwich. Like, good for you, but I don’t need to watch it.
RC: Tell me about the moment when you go to your husband and say, “Hey babe, the book’s taking a new direction … towards the tedium of our marriage.”
HH: He’s not surprised by anything anymore. I promised him it was ultimately about how the hard times in a marriage are balanced with all the good stuff that makes it worth it. It surprises me that a marriage’s ups and downs aren’t more of a well-known fact we can talk about. I’m fascinated that, for all a person’s faults and annoying habits and weaknesses, we still choose them every day.
RC: That reminds me of your wonderfully awful engagement story. Tell it again to Zoomer?
HH: Oh, god. Sure. We were in Paris together and I had this feeling he was going to propose. But I felt sick the whole trip; I was queasy, possibly vertigo, I got a bee sting on my hand and really bad PMS. Everything was working against me, so I just said do not propose to me on this trip, and if he was going to propose, not to do it at a time when I looked or felt like shit. Seconds later, because he doesn’t remember anything I told him, he reaches into his pocket and whips out a little placeholder ring. I said, “What are you doing? I just said No.” He tried again on Christmas, and I knew he was going to because he kept asking me to go on a walk, and by the time I finally agreed, I was furious at him. Then he said, “As you know, we’ve known each other for a long time now.” My brain thought, who is this broken robot? I’m gonna marry this person? I’ve never disliked him more than I did in that moment.
RC: And yet, you said yes! Which I guess is the whole point.
HH: It is, yeah. I’m so fascinated by ambivalence, and I think lots of couples are feeling it like never before. As soon as the pandemic started, my first thought was it’s so good and I have someone and we’ll get through this together. At the same time, it’s like, how am I not going to bite this guy’s head off?
RC: I’m having this experience as I read the book thinking, hey, Bill’s not so bad! Loud sneezes? That’s not the worst. My husband can’t close a cupboard. Ever.
HH: Other people have said that too, actually. One woman said the book helped her rethink the small little annoyances that she paid way too much attention to. For me, it’s the yelling sneezes. And you know, the other day Bill sneezed and I honestly barely even heard it.
RC: Poor Bill, who the internet says looks like Don Draper, and has quite a group of growing online fans.
HH: He really does. A whole pile of ladies just waiting in the wings for him to leave me. He got a compliment for every bad comment I got, I think. I actually added a particularly funny one to my Instagram bio: “Poor old lady who wrote an entire novel about how much she hates her husband.” I just love it. Ironically, writing this book helped me see what’s so great about Bill. I actually feel much closer to him than before and I’m full of gratitude.
RC: What are you two lovebirds doing on Valentine’s Day?
HH: I ordered some flowers and chocolates, because I’m really picky about both, so I didn’t want him to mess up and I prefer to shop for myself anyhow. He was relieved, actually. He made a romantic dinner reservation for two, but then we ended up inviting two friends who we haven’t seen in a long time to come with us. Bill has this great up-for-anything attitude, so he was totally cool about it. As you might tell from my book, I’m not big on Valentine’s Day. You gotta find romance in the little stuff every day.