Heather Havrilesky, FOREVERLAND

Heather Havrilesky, FOREVERLAND

“When someone is standing in front of you loving you and saying, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ that’s when your avoidant self comes out and says, ‘Get me the hell out of here.'” Columnist and author Heather Havrilesky joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. The two discuss when Heather realized she was comfortable sharing intimate details about her marriage with the world, why certain reactions to the book have been particularly frustrating, and why she believes the sign of a successful marriage is death. Zibby also shares some of her favorite one-liners and how single people have been reacting to this project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Heather. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage.

Heather Havrilesky: Thanks, Zibby. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: This book had more amazing one-liners — I feel like I could’ve underlined every line. You could have a whole Twitter account. In fact, I went on your Twitter to see if maybe you were already doing that. You could just take all these one-liners. They should all be tweets because they’re so good.

Heather: I should do that.

Zibby: You should do that.

Heather: That’s the kind of thing that I don’t generally do and I should do.

Zibby: You should because I feel like they could all be on a T-shirt, seriously. I want to put this one — wait, which is the one I — “A baby is a marriage crisis.” That should be on a T-shirt. That’s hilarious. Happy new baby. Here’s your T-shirt and a copy of Heather’s book. For people who are not familiar with your book, could you please explain the whole premise behind it and what inspired you to share all of this private information?

Heather: I knew that I had a lot of stories from the last fifteen years of raising kids and maintaining a marriage with relative success. When I read books about marriage for other purposes — I reviewed a few books about marriage. I always felt like I wanted to know more. I would end up with theories about how well people got along because I couldn’t tell from reading the book, what the texture of the marriage was like. I figured that because my marriage is healthy and happy, that I should be the one to write a perfectly wonderful, honest, brutally clear picture, to write the book about marriage that didn’t exist to give you a feeling of how hard it can be, how you can have cold feet even though you know you’ve found the person you want to be with. In fact, when you’ve found the person you really want to be with and you know that they’re right for you and you know that they’re healthy for you and you’re attracted to them and you can’t talk yourself out of being with them because everything adds up, that’s when your commitment-phobic soul comes out.

That’s when your worst self shows up to mess things up because that’s when you’re really facing commitment for the first time. It’s easy to feel like you’re into commitment and into love when you’re chasing people and trying to get a commitment out of them and trying to make things work. He just won’t quite show up. He won’t quite answer my questions. When someone is standing in front of you loving you and saying, I’m not going anywhere, that’s when your avoidant self comes out and says, get me the hell out of here. I’m done. I can’t. You have to face yourself once that happens. That’s really what the book is about. That’s what I set out to write. Did I end up writing the great marriage guide to great marriages? Hello from on high. Welcome to my land of amazing marriages. No. I ended up challenging my own marriage, having a bunch of breakdowns. COVID set in. All of these chaotic elements came into my life, and so the book turned out a little differently than I expected in some ways.

Zibby: People have very strong feelings about airing the — what’s the expression? — dirty laundry or whatever else about what’s going on. I love that you did this. I am a huge fan. I feel like people don’t talk enough about what goes on. That makes people sometimes worry about their own marriages or feel like, how are we supposed to know what’s normal if we have nothing to compare it to? Am I happy enough? Is this what it’s supposed to be like? I actually really welcome this new crop of books about the reality of marriage. I watched the clip on The View. Did you watch that? You must have, or maybe you didn’t.

Heather: I did. I saw it. Someone sent it to me.

Zibby: People have very strong feelings. What do you make of that? Some people think that it’s really mean to your husband. I didn’t get that vibe at all. When I read it, I was like, okay, he’s laid-back enough that he’s cool with this. He just wants her to do what’s right for her book. That’s amazing. I actually give him lots of credit for being willing to have himself written about like this, and you for doing it. I felt like the end result was so awesome. If you’re comfortable with it, why should anybody else judge it? What did you think?

Heather: I think that, to be fair, everyone has their different comfort zones. To be compassionate about it, there are things that I wouldn’t dream of writing about that other people write about. I’m like, why did she go there? Why did he do that? I think that that’s normal. I think marriage is a big “don’t touch it” area for plenty of people, so I sort of anticipated that there would be some mixed feelings about this book and that people would — the problem with questions that involve women’s emotions and marriage and women and marriage and mothers and wives, people move into — their anger becomes moralistic in these areas. Suddenly, it’s not just, I wouldn’t do that, I don’t think that’s right, to, you know what, that’s a sin. That’s wrong. One of the hosts on The View said something like, yeah, that’s all true, but she wrote it down. I think they had two blurbs from the book. One was “snoring heap of meat,” which is how I describe my husband at one point. Another was “smelly heap of laundry.” That seemed to be the extent of what they’d read from the book. She was saying, I hate this. She was just looking at those words saying, I hate this.

Zibby: I know. I saw that.

Heather: It’s so passionate. It’s like, this woman, she’s sinning against her husband and the world by calling him these insults, these names. The thing is, within a book — the book is written. I’m a writer. I’ve been writing for twenty-six years. Within the book, that’s an image I use to explain — smelly heap of laundry, it’s an image I use to explain the feeling of waking up in your house, and there’s someone there in the way. It’s not that you don’t want to say, here’s my husband, and I love him. I wanted to capture the feeling of, you wake up some mornings, and there’s an obstacle. What is the obstacle made of? Is it made of dirty laundry? For a mother and a parent, that’s the most obvious thing that it could be made of. Oh, it’s made of man that hasn’t had his coffee yet. It also smells like dirty laundry. Get it out of my way so I can go about my day. I set out, when I wrote that, to capture the feeling of one part of a marriage. My goal with the book was, how do I get all of the textures of living with someone and tolerating them and knowing that you really don’t want to leave them, ever, knowing that you need them? How does it feel to realize that you’ll never escape and you shouldn’t escape, but part of you wants to escape sometimes? How do you confront that? It’s not a conversation that we have very often in our culture. I was attracted to it for that reason, not just to make people mad. That’s one benefit. I think it’s kind of fun that people are getting mad at it. It’s also, though, frustrating because it’s a good book. It’s a funny book. I feel like it’s strange that it’s been reduced to, wife is a bitch, hates her husband. That’s frustrating.

Zibby: I could see that being frustrating because that’s not at all what this book is. Not to mention, again, how you write about it is so funny and incisive and just awesome. I have to read a few more examples if you don’t mind. Here, hold on. I dogeared a hundred pages. One sec. Let’s see. “I want every romantic comedy to open on a couple’s first detailed discussion of past dental work, and I want it to end with a two-hour-long game of Monopoly in which our dashing hero is forced to mortgage Boardwalk. Then he has a spectacular meltdown and quits the game in a blizzard of fake money and flying red plastic hotels.” “Whether we know it consciously or only subconsciously, we have some shared murky awareness that hatred and love are the same thing. You love what you hate and hate what you love. Your hatred has power because it points back to your weaknesses. Your hatred makes you feel small and helpless. Your hatred gives you a motive, an attraction, a reason to try. Your hatred fuels you. Your hatred turns you on, in other words. You have to bring every tool and every strength at your disposal when you do battle against something you hate. See how we’re talking about sex now? Nothing is hotter than hating someone and then joining forces with them or trying to join them and failing. Envy is in the mix too.”

That goes on and on. It’s so great. “I see Bill with a scorching clarity that pains me. This is why 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. When Bill sneezes, it’s like a blast from an airhorn aimed at your face. No matter where he is in the house, his sneezes are excruciatingly loud.” Then that whole chapter was genius, by the way. Even at the end of the next page, “Bill is drying his hands quietly. He hasn’t made a sound for a while. Bill just blew his nose, then gas, then cleared his throat again.” Oh, my god, you’re so funny. One more.

Heather: I took a few of those out for the excerpt too. Everyone complained about the phlegmy sounds, but I actually deleted a few phlegmy sounds in order to be sensitive.

Zibby: Now I’m disappointed that I picked whatever was excerpted. This is just what appealed to me. Then the last one for now, this was about your funny author crush, which I loved. We can talk about that. Bill said, “Why do you care about this so much?” You said, “‘I don’t know.’ The question alone made me feel pathetic. ‘Because I’m old,’ I said, bursting into tears. ‘I’m old, and you’re old, and nothing new is ever going to happen to us. We’re going to die soon, and we’ll never do anything exciting or weird or crazy before then. We’re just getting older and older, and everything will stay exactly the same until we’re dead.’ I was right that death was closer than we thought, but I was wrong that nothing would ever change. Everything was about to go haywire.” You did speak early in the book about how the sign of a successful marriage is death, which is crazy. To really succeed, you have to die.

Heather: Among many things, when I sat down to write the book — you know, I’m a writer. I thought about, what is a marriage? Why do we do it? I challenged myself to pick marriage apart, think about it as a construct. I went into it with this idea that I was going to expose how it can be difficult, but how, ultimately, marriage is amazing and great. Of course, we love it. Then when I started to think about what marriage actually is, it was like, god, it’s funny how many ways we can fail at marriage. It’s so easy to fail. If one of you doesn’t die, you’ve failed by definition. That’s just sick and crazy. By the same token, it’s interesting because I sort of learned the benefit of sticking with a commitment along the way. Because I held myself to writing a real view of my marriage and because I wanted to be completely honest about the weaknesses of my marriage, I also had to address the weaknesses. There were points when I thought, why am I talking about marriage? We don’t have a perfect marriage. Is our marriage really passionate enough? I would question, are we really communicating on the level that I want to communicate? Are we communing as much as I romanticize inside my mind? The crush was definitely a piece of that. It was like, why am I able to create this imaginary world around this fictional character I’ve created out of this person I don’t know when I’m not creating an imaginary world around my husband as much? How does that work? Why am I doing that?

By looking at some of these things, I ended up strengthening my connection to my husband, but it took kind of crawling on our hands and knees and also feeling a little threatened by the book itself, not because people were going to — oh, it would be humiliating if people knew this stuff. There were certainly times when I thought, Jesus, I don’t want to tell anyone any of these things, where I was just hiding from the book. Once the book felt like a thing and felt whole and once I had edited it enough and the process was working and it was getting more entertaining and more — the thing is, you can’t — I’m interrupting myself. Basically, once something becomes good, you don’t feel humiliated by it as long as you are comfortable with the disclosures that you chose to make. I think that I became comfortable with the disclosure about the crush partially because I became comfortable with the idea that it was just very much human nature to have a crush fifteen years into a marriage and that the crush doesn’t have to be humiliating. It doesn’t have to be upsetting or dumb. It doesn’t have to make you feel stupid. It just is. It’s just part of being alive. You feel something. The idea, though — where did we start? I’m kind of picking different tributaries and following them until they end.

Zibby: I cohost a podcast called “SexTok with Zibby and Tracey.” We talk about all these anonymous questions that come on. One person this week had a question about a crush. I actually talked about your book on that show. I was like, let me give you an example of a crush, and how you went home, at least at first, when you thought that somebody was playing footsie with you under the table, and you came back and told your husband about it. You were like, this is amazing. He kind of got into it. He was like, are you going to see him? Are you going to talk to him? How’s it going? He became almost like this co-conspirator in this thing. It was almost happening to both of you. I said that on the show. Tracey, who’s been an expert for seventeen years, she’s like, “That is the sign of a happy marriage. That is a very healthy relationship.” She’s British.

Heather: That’s good to hear.

Zibby: In case you care. I’ll send you the episode when it comes out just so you can hear us talking about your life.

Heather: That’s funny. Yeah, I want to hear that.

Zibby: Being able to take a crush into your relationship and own it and talk about it — crushes happen. It’s okay. It’s normal. It’s how you deal with it with your spouse, your partner that makes all the difference.

Heather: It was an adventure. Straight out of the gate, it was just obvious that I would tell him. I didn’t have a crush yet.

Zibby: Right, that was just the beginning.

Heather: I was just reporting on something that happened. I was like, oh, my god, this thing happened. Can you believe that people have affairs? It’s so weird. Does this guy just go around screwing people all the time? How does that happen? Then Bill left town. I was like, oh, my god, people go around — what’s that like? Hmm. How does that look? I wonder why he wanted to hit on me. What does he like about me? I’d just like to hear. Maybe I could just have a drink with him, and he could tell me all about the things that he thinks are exciting about me that made him take an action. It becomes this ridiculous fantasy vanity project, which is kind of awful and pathetic, but it’s also just being a woman who’s alive and in the world. I write about this in the book. It motivated me to make my life a little bigger because if this small thing could make me feel, ooh — for a long time, it was just so embarrassing that something so small could matter so much to me. It said something about the fact that, wow, maybe you need to get out more. You find it so incredible that someone could be attracted to you and take action. Why are you living that way? You should be out in the world more if this is how you’re thinking about yourself. That was one good thing. It was definitely not all, we have a great relationship, and we’ll just keep talking about this. When Bill called me from out of town and I said, “Oh, my god, I’ve been thinking about the crush –” I didn’t say “the crush,” obviously. I said, “I’ve been thinking about that guy who kicked me. It’s so weird. I’m sorry.” He was like, “Whatever. No big deal. People do this sometimes. They fantasize. It’s fine.” Then it went on and on. Not to spoil the end of that chapter because it’s a really good story —

Zibby: — It’s a great story.

Heather: I didn’t want to dig for information, but I wanted to know why. I wanted some acknowledgment that, okay, you know you hit on me, right? We remember that. I never got it. Months went on. We were very casually in touch about nothing. I was like, when is he going to say, hey, by the way…? Nothing. Just not knowing something set the fire, which was also absurd. In some ways, our marriages are these little planets that we live on. Then when a meteor comes, and it’s just a bunch of rocks, but you’re like, oh, my god, I saw something. I think that isolation and alienation from the outside world that a marriage can sometimes create, I think it’s generative and interesting to look at that and explore it and ask yourself, what am I missing that I care so much about something so small? What do we need? We found a bunch of things that we actually felt like we needed just from that experience. It was great for the book. I don’t linger on it that much because there’s all of this little kids’ era, beginning of the relationship. There’s a second book to be written about even just the last three chapters of the book. Everything goes haywire. I didn’t want it to be about the pandemic or about, I get diagnosed with cancer. I don’t think it’s clear in the book that I really got diagnosed with cancer because there was a false alarm at first. You can’t take your book and then you drive it off a cliff at the end. All this stuff happened. Oh, well.

One of the challenges of writing the book was going in and saying, how do I make this a coherent narrative based on what actually is happening? Where’s the stopping point where it makes sense to say, okay, these things have happened, and where are we now? Jesus, luckily, we were kind of in this really good place by the end, but I also wanted to build into the end of the book, a little bit of, things change. You’re in a different place almost every day, if not every year, within your marriage. That’s normal. You can repeat what you believe in, but you’re really just talking about beliefs. You can have a real commitment. That’s real. I feel very committed to my marriage, but it’s also true that people change. Things change. It’s helpful to have a compassionate stance about that because that’s the energy you want to bring to your marriage in the first place. You’re dealing with a living, breathing human being who has new needs and new desires and new dreams all the time.

Zibby: Here’s my question. We have friends getting married this weekend. Do I bring this book to them or not? Do we want people who are setting out on a marriage to know all the nitty-gritty of what happens years and years in? Is it better to not know and to go in blind? Do we think that it helps to know at the outset?

Heather: I think it would be really good for them. I even know single people who are saying, I feel like I could maybe be married, and I never thought that I could be married before, after reading this book. There are dramatic ways of talking about and also just acknowledging the drama that exists within human relationships. It can be kind of harrowing to say love is also hate. There’s a reason why romantic comedies usually have two people who get on each other’s nerves, and then they kiss. Those words — some people are just afraid of words. They’re afraid of the depth of feeling and also the darkness that hides behind all lightness and the inseparable nature of the gray areas in anything. A lot of people want to just know there are happy marriages and unhappy marriages. You figure out which one you have. If you’re in a bad one, you quit it. If you’re in a good one, you stick with it. I think that acknowledging how complicated and also how simple a marriage can be and acknowledging the fact that the one thing that’s going to get you through the messy times is just a forgiveness of yourself and a forgiveness of the other person — once you can forgive each other for just being the filthy animals that you are, you create this space where you feel more alive because you’re welcoming in your emotions.

It’s strange to get hit on and then enjoy the fact that you got hit on within a marriage with someone else. If you didn’t do that, if you just said, I don’t know, something happened, and you buried it and then ten years later, had an affair, that’s a less joyful way of living. It’s good to live inside reality with another person and to acknowledge your emotional reality. Knowing that you’re going to fail within a marriage a lot, I think that would’ve helped me. I didn’t know that I would feel — especially in the early days of my marriage, I kind of felt like, wow, we’re just really hitting this out of the park. We belong together. This is great. When you have little kids, you’re like, look at our beautiful children and us. This is the dream. We’re doing so well. Even when the wheels are coming off, it’s still sort of like, yeah, yeah, it’s cool. This is chaos. We’ve been warned about this. It’s almost like when you settle in for the long haul and you start to say, oh, my god, I’m just not as good as I thought I was, you have this time in your life where you’re like, wow. The gloss kind of comes off. I don’t know. I think that it’s a gift to people to be able to say —

Zibby: — I think I’m going to give it, is the answer. I’m going to give it them. We’ll see if they ever call me again. I know we’re almost out of time. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Heather: Find a way to protect your strange impulses from the outside world until you develop a faith in your weird — I have a songwriter friend who calls it your homeland. You treasure and encourage your native voice. People call it finding your voice, but that sounds like a journey somewhere else. I would say it’s more like, figure out what your homeland is. Figure out what you really believe in and love and what you enjoy on the page from yourself. Then find a way to keep out, not constructive criticism and feedback, but when it comes to your key things that make you who you are, find a way to really nurture and encourage and fertilize those things.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. I am now a huge, huge fan of yours. I will read whatever you write next. I am so excited. No, I’m serious. I love your voice. I really do. I’m glad that that was your advice. It’s funny. Again, I’m telling you, go through and pick out some of these little lines. There were at least fifty that I was like, I should put this on my bulletin board.

Heather: Whoa, okay. All right, that’s my next assignment, Zibby.

Zibby: That’s your next assignment. You can tag me quietly or forward it to me after. I’ll retweet it or something.

Heather: I’ll tag you. You’re going to get tired of the —

Zibby: — No, I’m not. People are going to think I’m miserable in my marriage or something. Why is she tagging Zibby? What does this mean?

Heather: #InstructionsForZibby.

Zibby: Exactly. Thank you so much. It was great to be in touch.

Heather: It was so fun. Thank you.

Heather Havrilesky, FOREVERLAND

FOREVERLAND by Heather Havrilesky

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