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Marriage Requires Amnesia

After 15 years of marriage, you start to see your mate clearly, free of your own projections and misperceptions. This is not necessarily a good thing.

When encountering my husband, Bill, in our shared habitat, I sometimes experience him as a tangled hill of dirty laundry. “Who left this here?” I ask myself, and then the laundry gets up to fetch itself a cup of coffee.

This is not an illusion; it’s clarity. Until Bill has enough coffee, he lies in a jumble on the couch, listening to the coffee maker, waiting for it to usher him from the land of the undead. He is exactly the same as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, almost sentient but not quite.

Other times I experience Bill as a very handsome professor, a leader among men, a visionary who has big ideas about the future of science education in America. This is clarity.

And then our dashing hero begins to hold forth on “the learning sciences” — how I hate that term! — and he quickly wilts before my eyes into a cursed academic, a cross between a lonely nerd speaking some archaic language only five other people on earth understand and a haunted ice cream man, circling his truck through the neighborhood in the dead of winter, searching for children. 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, no matter how far away he is, it’s like a blast from an air horn aimed at your face. Somehow there are two notes involved, a screechy high one and a shouty low one. Every sneeze is an emergency. I don’t think I’ve ever not said “Jesus Christ” out loud upon hearing one.

Bill also clears his throat constantly. He’s just a phlegmy guy in general. 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. This is just how it feels to be doomed to live and eat and sleep next to the same person until you’re dead. Because the resolution on your spouse becomes clearer and clearer by the year, you must find compensatory ways to blur and pixelate them back into a soft, muted, faintly fantastical fog.

It’s not easy, though. Because when Bill clears his throat, it’s like the fussiest butler in the mansion is about to make a very important announcement and he needs to get the attention of all of the children and wives and animals within earshot. But when you look up from your work, there is no butler there. There is only Bill, staring dumbly at his laptop, with no crucial proclamation forthcoming.

Do I hate my husband? Oh for sure, yes, definitely. I don’t know anyone who’s been married more than seven years who flinches at this concept. 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?

Unless you plug a propofol drip into your arm every single night, how do you encounter those unwelcome grunts and gravelly snores as anything but oppressive? Unless you spend most of your waking hours daydreaming, how do you 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?

“Well, speak for yourself. I don’t hate my husband,” one of you holier-than-thou marrieds might announce, folding your hands primly in your lap. Do you think I can’t see your left eye twitching ever so slightly, as you resolve to never let each little irritation add up and move into your conscious mind like a plastic bag floating out to sea and then joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

I admire your restraint. But you can’t spend 17 years with someone as noisy as my husband and never let it get under your skin. Yes, of course I also love him. And for years, I couldn’t remotely imagine a suitable replacement for all of those bad noises.

But then I started to use my imagination a lot more.

***

Who needs to be cheerful when the plane to Sydney is delayed by eight hours at midnight? Who speaks calmly when one kid starts sobbing uncontrollably? Who pretends that Doritos and almonds make a fun late-night dinner at the airport newsstand? Who manages all of the reservations and the money and the plans through a jet-lagged haze once we finally arrive in Australia? Who books the flights and the ferries and researches the eco-friendly island retreat on the Great Barrier Reef?

Who talks cheerfully through each unpredictable tour through each Australian town full of unpredictable Australian relatives her husband hasn’t seen for decades? Who engages in the 105th hour of an ongoing discussion about Bill’s Bad Knee, which includes speculation, revised imaginary diagnoses, and in-depth analysis of a level of pain that she herself would file under Not Worth Mentioning at All, Ever, Not Even for a Second?

And when we arrive at that island in the Great Barrier Reef, the one populated at this time of year by thousands of birds, birds squawking and cawing and clucking and screeching, birds every two feet, bird droppings covering literally every inch of ground, who makes up a game where the first person to get hit by flying bird poop wins an ice cream cone?

Who says it’s OK for one kid not to snorkel? Who says it’s OK for both kids to snorkel without her, since she gets seasick? Who goes snorkeling anyway because both kids want Mommy there, since Daddy will ignore them because he’s super-jacked to snorkel the hell out of the Great Barrier Reef? Who asks the snorkeling guide if she’d be better off in the boat if she’s starting to feel queasy?

Who smiles when the snorkeling guide says, in his cavalier Australian-tough-guy accent, that he’s not sure because he’s never met anyone who got seasick from snorkeling before? Who bites her tongue instead of asking the snorkeling dude if he has eyes in his thick skull since obviously plenty of mortal humans over the age of 40 feel ill when they bob on massive swells while looking down fifty feet into a murky shark-filled abyss?

And then who gets sick, as predicted, but doesn’t say a single word about it, even as a wave of colorful fish swarms the scene and everyone marvels and wonders why they suddenly appeared, like magic?

But none of these maneuvers help. One daughter says, “I hate this place,” the second she sets her feet on the sand. The other daughter says, “Why would you do that?” in response to every action taken by another family member. But the man is the worst of all. He says, “Stop it, stop it, stop it, just stop it!” on a constant loop, morning and night.

I am reaching my limit. I have been outperforming, trying to make everything better, but I am stuck in an overheated tropical hut with three angry birds that repeat the same words over and over while a sea of angrier birds outside surrounds us and mocks us. The silver gull cries, I hate this. The shearwater snipes, Why would you do that? The buff-sided rail says, Stop it stop it stop it just stop it!

I’ve been feeling ill since we arrived on the ferry. There is no air-conditioning and there are no screens on the windows because we are now honorable eco-warrior vacationers. I have a cut on my finger that I’m pretty sure is infected. I’ve been battling insomnia for over a year. But I don’t say a word about how bad I feel. You don’t believe me, but it’s true! Thanks to writing an advice column for years. I have evolved, unlike my spouse. I am so good, so thoughtful, so generous.

Tiny ants are in my drinking cup. A rash guard cannot be located. Someone refuses to shower off, even though it will help with the heat. Someone else announces that she won’t snorkel or swim or go anywhere today. I rearrange the beds. I drink my tea. The chaotic repeating chorus of kids and parents and birds continues. Everyone in the room is yelling now. The bed sways gently like a raft at sea.

Finally, I break.

“You ALL need to make less noise!” I announce. “And you,” I say to the big one, “you’re the worst of all. You can’t hear a noise without making another noise!”

At first they all start making noises at once. So I raise my voice. “No,” I tell them. “I can’t fix this anymore! I am broken!”

“It’s true, but …”

“I’m sorry, Mommy.”

But I can’t stop. “Who could stand this? I need a break! Go have breakfast without me!”

My family exits guiltily.

***

Love and hate are birds of a feather. I need you, therefore I hate you. I can never leave you, therefore you are my bunkmate in this prison we freely chose, back when we were younger and even stupider than we are now. No sooner are you saved than you start to resent your savior.

Marriage is a solution to several problems that creates infinite additional problems. Marriage can cure your loneliness or exacerbate it. Marriage can make you feel a lot stronger than you really are and a lot weaker than you really are. Marriage can feel like a soothing meditation retreat or a dirty tryst or a very long lunch with the most head-splittingly repetitive human who ever walked the face of the earth. Each week is a little different than the last.

After my breakdown, I tell Bill I’m going to need some time to myself. I can’t keep everyone glued together anymore. Bill apologizes. He says traveling has been stressful. He mentions that we’ve been walking a lot, which is hard on his bad knee. He reminds me how he broke his tooth on a piece of hard bread in Melbourne, a story he’s told to every single person we’ve encountered since Melbourne.

“I remember,” I reply, wishing I didn’t.

Marriage requires amnesia, a mute button, a filter on the lens, a damper, some blinders, some bumpers, some ear plugs, a nap. You need to erase these stories, misplace this tape, zoom out, slowly dissolve to black. I start to spend more time in my head. I start to daydream more.

Surviving a marriage requires self-care, time alone, time away, meditation, escape, selfishness. I can’t blame him for being high strung, I tell myself on a walk around the island alone, headphones on, bird poop raining down every few feet. I can’t get mad just because he’s a regular mortal with flaws. When I blame him, I just feel guilty, and then I start to blame myself. But I’m just a regular mortal with flaws, too.

After several nights on the island, Bill and I start to tell the kids to walk back to the hotel room after dinner and use their phones for as long as they want. Then we have a drink and stare at the ocean without them. We talk about each kid’s breakdown of the day: What did the older one hate today? Which decision did the younger one question?

During these talks, I encourage Bill to be more like me: Give up control. Relax. Let these birds make their noises, and they’ll quiet down quickly. When you treat them like they’re doing it wrong, it only gets worse.

But Bill doesn’t learn new lessons that quickly. He studies the learning sciences, but he is not a good learner.

So I resolve to let everyone squawk and caw until they get bored, or become distracted, or fall asleep, or cheer up.

And when Bill says the wrong thing, I think, Forgive him, forgive yourself, let it go.

It’s harder than it sounds. But during these conversations, Bill looks handsome to me again. He sounds like someone I’m 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 favorite person. I can see why we’re together. We might stay this way forever.


Heather Havrilesky has written the “Ask Polly” advice column, formerly for New York magazine and now on Substack, for nine years. This essay is adapted from her book “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage,” which will be published on Feb. 8, 2022, by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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