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'Foreverland' explores the mundane, infuriating and hilarious moments of marriage


Marriage, in the words of Heather Havrilesky, is the world's most impossible endurance challenge, and her new book "Foreverland" is an attempt to understand why she signed up for it. That may sound a bit dark, but Havrilesky does not see it that way. She says what she's here to do is to defend flinty personalities and bad days and marriages that aren't music videos and ultimately promote acceptance of your own flaws and those of the people you love. Heather Havrilesky, who is also the longtime Ask Polly advice columnist, joins us now from Chapel Hill, N.C., to talk about her book. Hey. Thanks for being here.

HEATHER HAVRILESKY: Hi, Juana. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: You have essentially written a book that gives people the opportunity to take a flashlight and shine it into every nook and cranny of your marriage, or at least your perspective on your marriage. What made you decide to write this book?

HAVRILESKY: Well, you know, in our culture, we love to tell stories about falling in love. There are a lot less stories and books and movies about actually making a relationship work over the long haul. So when I looked at books about marriage that existed, I sort of kept coming up against the same thing where I would just find this sort of tone that felt sugarcoated to me, where everyone was happy with their spouses and madly in love. And very few authors seemed to be comfortable with expressing frustration or anger or, you know, some of the emotions that I felt were kind of part of the texture and feeling of being married.

SUMMERS: You know, in this book, you examine your marriage very closely, but you also really examine yourself. You share with us your internal monologues about what you were thinking or feeling or motivated by at any given point in your life with your husband, including at one point, when you develop an extramarital attraction. Were you at all worried about being so open, especially in these moments where, on their face, it didn't necessarily always make you look good?

HAVRILESKY: Yeah. When I was writing the book, I really wanted - I was committed to offering up a few scenes where it's very clear that a kind of breakthrough has happened. But for something to be a turning point in your marriage, typically, it's a really vulnerable, low moment between the two of you, or it's a confusing moment when you just don't know how to integrate your new self into your existing relationship.

This thing happened where someone hit on me, and it was confusing. And I went home and told Bill about it, and we laughed it off. And then it kind of didn't move out of my brain. You know, I struggled with whether or not to write about that experience because it's an embarrassing, humiliating experience. I was raised Catholic. I have all kinds of guilt about longing within a marriage.

And what was interesting about that experience, though, was when I talked to Bill about it, he was sort of like, you've never fantasized about anyone? Like, this is just normal stuff, actually. It's not the end of the world. It ended up being this good thing for our marriage. It was so important to include it, a lot of the things that I was really - it was hard to keep them in the book. I didn't feel right taking them out because I really did want to give a full, rich picture of how it feels to navigate years and different eras together with another human being that you're committed to.

SUMMERS: Now, an excerpt of this book sort of broke the internet back in December when it was published in The New York Times. It was the section about how your husband's flaws have become clearer and clearer to you over the years and how even though he is still your favorite person, with all of these wonderful things about him, marriage also requires amnesia, a sort of intentional forgetting of all of those flaws. And I wonder if I could ask you to read a little bit from the section of your book that the piece in The Times was excerpted from. It starts with a question. Do I hate my husband?

HAVRILESKY: (Reading) Do I hate my husband? For sure. Yes, definitely. I don't know anyone who's been married more than seven years who flinches at this concept. Before you're married, it's easy to imagine that hating your spouse must mean that you're headed for divorce. Hating your spouse is as natural as disliking an unexpected bout of the flu. A spouse is a blessing and a curse wrapped into one. How could it be otherwise?

SUMMERS: Heather, some people had incredibly strong reactions to that piece, some of them incredibly strong negative reactions.

HAVRILESKY: Yes. I mean, I heard from a lot of men who were angry at me for mocking my husband. My opinion is that a woman who is angry or disappointed or a little bit arrogant or superior is treated like a malfunctioning appliance in our culture. And, you know, part of the reason I wrote this book was to make some space for ambivalence within the structure of marriage. I think it's natural for us to have obviously the full range of emotions within a marriage. And emotions are part of what makes life worth living. So when you start to try to block yourself from experiencing emotions because you feel guilty or embarrassed by them or the world shames you the second that you express that emotion, what you're doing is you're muting your ability to feel good. You're blocking your path toward joy, in my opinion.

SUMMERS: Heather, in addition to writing books, you also write the advice column Ask Polly. And at times as I was reading this book, and particularly in the early chapters, I kept wondering what advice you, Heather, would give yourself. The Heather before she got married and before she became a mom, do you ever think about what you might say to her?

HAVRILESKY: Oh, God (laughter). When we bought our house in 2010 in the suburbs, there was this sign on the street right before you got to our house that said, bumps ahead (laughter). I remember thinking, what kind of bumps are ahead, I wonder? You know, like, is this a warning? The things that rattle a marriage the most, at least in my experience, are these ineffable moments in a life where you grow or you retreat or you withdraw or you come closer or you need something that you didn't need before. And the ability to navigate that with someone you trust is just such a beautiful thing.

But you just don't know who you're going to become, you know? You don't know what the bumps will do to you. And when you go through experiences like that a bunch of times in a row, that feeling of trust that you have a good partner and a good parent and a good - someone to help you through, there's really nothing like that. For all of the roughness that I capture in this book, that, I feel like, is the guiding emotion of the book, is just gratitude.

So what would I tell, you know, the young me who's about to get married? You know, it's sort of like welcome the unknown, you know? Welcome uncertainty, and embrace it because you'll never escape it. You can't plot out a clean path forward. You have to kind of lean into the chaos and enjoy it.

SUMMERS: Heather Havrilesky is the author of "Foreverland." Heather, thank you so much for sharing your story with us all.

HAVRILESKY: Thank you so much, Juana. It was really nice talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.