#VeryMarried Book Review :: Marriage + Semi-Fidelity
I don’t know how to write a book review. I don’t know if I have ever actually written one. All I want to do is give a bunch of opinions and responses and then share what the author does so well and what I feel was missing for me.
I guess that might qualify as a book review, right?
I’ve certainly read enough book reviews that I have a handle on the expectations. I’ve also read book reviews that so hooked me into the novel or memoir that I was sure I couldn’t live through a whole day if I didn’t buy the book immediately…and then when I got my book from Amazon Prime and settled in my IKEA chairs with the book and discovered it was actually a terrible book…well, that is understandably disappointing. I couldn’t believe how bad one of the books was that I raced to purchase due to a review. And then when I was halfway through the book I thought: “That reviewer for sure did NOT read this book because had they actually read it they couldn’t, in good conscience, write the glowing review that spilled from their keyboard.”
Bait and switch at its finest!
So this will be an honest book review because I actually read the book…almost in one sitting! My review, will, in the end, prompt you to buy this book because it is worth it. Your marriage is worth this book. Your commitment to a life of partnership is worth this book.
Here’s the deal: I was asked to be on a launch team for Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity by Katherine Willis Pershey (it came out just this week!). When I received the invitation to be on the team my first thought was: “Oh nonononono, they’ve made a terrible mistake—I should NOT be associated with a book about being very married!”
And yet, I am married.
So maybe it fits. But my married life is sordid and juicy and dark and rad and has all the feels and is awesome and ugh. When I say my married life has all the feels…it has ALL the feels: terror, shame, incredulousness, angst, stupidity, elation, anger, joy, loneliness, love. You see…I have been married.
Twice in 17 years I’ve been lawfully wed to a man. Twice I’ve worn a white dress (gasp!) and walked down an aisle with my dad at the end standing there playing dual roll of father-of-the-bride and officiant. Twice in 17 years I’ve pondered wedding vows and special music and how I’d do my hair and what kind of wedding cake I wanted and the order of a marriage ceremony.
But weddings are one thing and marriages are very much different things, my friends. But of course you know this. Both my weddings were sweet and lovely. And both my marriages can be described as good and hard. My marriage therapist looked at me and my husband last week and said, “So, you’re like most couples…you’ve known each other for about 7 years. You’ve been married 5 years and you woke up one morning thinking, ‘Oh! Well! Hello there…I married you!?’” She was saying, essentially, that the person you exchange vows with on whatever special day of your choosing, is not the same person year over year. And thank goodness for that. And darn! It is good to have a partner who is not the same one you married and it is hard to reconcile that truth.
I found Katherine’s book both good and hard to read, in fact. Make no mistake that it is well written and thoughtful. She is an adept writer with distinct ways of telling a story. She has a clever way she turns a phrase and casts a sentiment. I felt good knowing she was keeping pace with where she started a story and that she’d deliver a beautiful notice I could pin to my heart.
She takes readers on a catalog journey through her early relationships with men, meeting her husband, having second thoughts about whether the sprint to the alter was the best option, a seemingly benign attraction to another man during her marriage and the conclusion that marriage is worth it and hard and good and all the feels. She discusses sex and divorce and same-sex couples and stories from the Hebrew Bible about wild marriages and gets downright microscopic when studying her own marriage. It is a wonderful ride, Very Married.
Here’s why the read was good for me: it was good for me to examine my own marriage while I got a peek at Katherine’s marriage—or her opinion of it.
So let me stop here for a second.
It is perennially difficult for me to reconcile the stories of another’s life as absolute truth. I believe there is fiction in the retelling of stories and mis-memory in the experience of events. I often remind my loved ones that our memories are poor sources of information. The converse is probably true, then, too: that our memories are excellent sources of fantasy.
I bring this up only because I didn’t always believe the author. And no, I don’t think she is a liar, I just held her stories as that: stories that spilled out after events, after time and space could create a different kind of meaning than what they might have offered up initially. We all do it—we’re Meaning Making Machines. I love that about humanity! I’m annoyed by it, too. Even in myself. (Especially now as I am writing my memoir.)
I felt there were times when Katherine might have opted out of being authentic in order to make herself look good. I can’t blame her. Being really authentic is not always super fun or popular and often makes us look bad. As humans we work really really hard to not look bad. I think it takes special skill to attempt to bare all and be authentic while at the same time looking good. It’s a brilliant approach, right? The subtle justifications, the eliminated information. Too many times I found myself writing in the margins of Very Married, “Really?” or “Just tell the truth plainly.”
Ugh, I can be so judgmental.
It can be untenable at times to quiet my eye-rolling inner self. And I know exactly why it is annoying in this case: because I know what it is like to have had an affair and I don’t feel Katherine was as honest as she could have been about hers. I’ve had an extramarital affair. I’ve committed adultery. I was a cheater and devious and deceptive in my first marriage. And I’m renewed and totally different now…15 years later. To be clear what I did isn’t who I am.
I got to see how low I could go and now I get to see myself reach a higher idea of commitment in my second marriage. When you can really be honest about your darkness, there is power waiting for you on the other side. Tell the truth and the truth will set you free. But I felt Katherine’s access to her power diminishing as she wrote about her affair.* And yes, I’m calling it like it is even though above I presented it as benign. Watch out, though, because this writer is pretty amazing…with real truth under her belt Katherine will be unstoppable.
(*And note that this is my opinion that Katherine had an affair. She didn’t. She was tempted but didn’t succumb to an actual affair at all. She wonderfully and beautiful stayed #VeryMarried to her husband which should be the focus.)
I remember when I finally untangled from my lover back when I was 22 years-old. I shirk at using the word, but I actually had to repent. I learned that to repent means, most literally, to “go beyond feeling to express distinct purposes of turning from sin…” Turning. Repentance is a physical act and if you’re not actively doing that…then what are you actively doing? I can’t answer that for anyone but myself.
Maybe it is the intended Christian audience that has Katherine writing, “Benjamin was not my first. Not my first love and not my first…first.” It is kind of cute for a second but then my note in the margin is: “Just say it!” It felt she was so repressed that she couldn’t just say, “lover” or “partner” or “the first man I had sex with.” There is enough shame and repression around sex in the culture of Christianity that I almost stopped reading at this point (and this was only 50 pages in).
I love that Katherine gets real about the pitfalls of modern marriage, though. She is excellent at bringing in the details of important research around marriages, divorces, couple communication, and different spiritual leaders’ view of the covenant of marriage. I needed these insights. I needed them 17 years ago before I got married the first time! But I think what I really needed at that time and what I want for my daughter now is some really honest conversations about sex.
Yum! Love sex.
When my first husband and I exchanged our V-cards we did not have any idea what we were doing as sexual partners. All I knew was that I wasn’t giving him a piece of chewed gum, so he should have been happy. (Gum story to come.) Katherine’s teenage youth group story that illustrated how important it was to “save yourself” for marriage was so similar to my chewed gum story that I started to tear up. You should read her version in Very Married because it will never leave you—it is that bewildering.
Mine is this: I sat in a circle with all the girls in my youth group. Our youth leader gave us each a piece of gum and had us nibble off pieces of the gum according to what we thought was okay to do with a boy before we got married. Eventually everyone was chewing their whole piece. Then, she asked if, when we met our future husbands, we wanted him to have an already chewed piece of gum, or a new, intact piece from the pack?
THEN, she asked us (we were all sullen and sad at this point) to spit out our chewed piece of gum into her hand. One-by-one she popped our chewed gum into her own mouth. She had a huge gob of all of our gum in her mouth and could barely get out the punchline: “Jesus will take your sins away and bear the burden of them—your sins are these pieces of already chewed gum.”
Ew. I don’t even know if that illustration was a) correct or b) worth it. But moving on from that super weird approach to instilling in girls the importance of abstinence (if you think that’s important before marriage).
Katherine is so great, though, and very forgiving of the lessons she learned that hurt her along the way. She goes on to say that her premarital sexual activities with other men lacked intimacy and while the sex was great, it wasn’t good. My opinion is I think she feels like she has to say this. I feel like moments like this in the book binds Katherine into a corner where she needs to shun and shame that pre-marriage girl and her sexual activity as “bad” and certainly not “good” like sex and intimacy in marriage is (or is supposed to be or she and we and everyone wants and hopes for it to be). I just wish she didn’t write what I expect from a Christian writer on sex—that the early experiences of love and sex were not wholesome because they weren’t bookended with gold bands on each lovers’ left ring finger.
But back to why I think this was a very very good and important book for me to read in lieu of my current marriage. It is because I am burdened by marriage in the best way possible. I am crazy about being married. I question if I can do this marriage thang. I wonder whether I’m cut out for marriage. I love having someone. I love having my Darren. I feel trapped. I feel free. Marriage is such a wicked mixed bag, it’s a wonder people still choose it.
I remember in the spring when I was in a bad place in my marriage and my sweet husband said, “You know, being single is easier—you don’t have to ask permission, you don’t have to be beholden to anyone. But you also don’t get to be beholden to someone which is a different kind of awesome part of life. You don’t get to struggle and experience the abundance of a life beside someone.” Oh! He’s so great.
I love love love how Katherine drew me in to every chapter with experiences that had her struggle and think and wonder about what it means to be in partnership with another being. I especially appreciated her in-depth look at wedding vows. I learned what forsake really means. In her wedding vows, she vowed on her wedding day, to be faithful to her husband and forsake all others.
“Forsaking is a fierce, uncompromising word. To be forsaken is to be abandoned, deserted…It seems quietly radical to ask brides and grooms, as they stand together before God and grandmother, to swear to forsake all others. It is an altogether different thing than to ask them to ‘be careful about boundaries’ or other such polite language. Those vows to forsake all others are not messing around—and neither should one who has constructed his or her life within the sacred covenant they fashion. The subtext of that phrase is this: Your marriage comes first. Don’t plunge your hand into the adder’s den. Flee from anything—or anyone—that might cause cracks in the foundation of your marriage. To be faithful to the one who is your husband is to forsake the one who is not.”
BOOM! Straight to the heart, this passage. (Emphasized words are of my own doing and as my own personal reminder.)
Reading this book came during the swirl of my own deep look at my marriage and my attitude towards it as a thing, and my husband as a solitary, amazing being, and me as the powerful, passionate person I am. In the last 6 months I’ve been conducting an unofficial survey of my friends and family asking:
Why do you stay married? Here are the responses I’ve received:
- Well, I love him.
- I made a commitment, and I’m sticking to it.
- I like having him as a partner to parent our kids.
- I made a vow and I don’t break vows.
- I’m not in love with him, but I think he’s a good man.
- I don’t think I’ll actually stay married.
- It would be financially devastating to leave him.
- I like the security.
- I choose him every day. Every day is a choice to be his wife.
- I want to have someone next to me when I’m on my deathbed, and he’ll be wonderful in old age as he is now.
- I don’t often like her, but I do love her.
- I don’t think I have an alternative.
- I don’t want another woman mothering my children.
- Dating makes me tired, I’ll make do with the one I have.
- For the kids.
- Because the best is yet to come.
- I don’t know, honestly.
The night I finished Very Married I texted my husband who had been away in San Antonio for the week on a business trip.
So he called and let me know he wanted to revisit our wedding vows. He had read the news about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce. We pore over the occasional People magazine when we fly, but otherwise we don’t stay up on celebrity news. But on the phone Darren said something that gave me pause, “What is it about marriage vows? Divorce wouldn’t exist without marriage. So why get married?” He wants to re-read our vows and maybe revise them, maybe undo some and add others.
When I brought this exchange to my Al-Anon sponsor she offered this view, “Well, when the institution of marriage started taking off people didn’t live very long…maybe into their 40’s or 50’s so the ‘’til death do us part,’ section of a wedding vow maybe didn’t seem so bad. But now people are living TWICE as long in their marriages…until they are 70, 80, 90, 100. ‘’Til death do us part’ now seems like an eternity instead of a dream come true. ‘You mean I have to live with this person for 70 YEARS!?’”
Okay, okay, okay, you’re right, I did need to read Very Married.
It is a God thing that it landed in my life at this time when the real work of marriage has begun for me. The real fun. The real juicy good stuff. The part where I’m sitting in a room blackened with my own darkness where I get to spin up the light I know is available inside me and offer it as a gift to my marriage.
So I feel grateful for Katherine and her commitment to telling the stories of her life and her love and her marriage. Her commitment means we all get to try on a new way of breathing into our relationships. So read it. This is what Very Married is: a guidebook for how a marriage covenant can inhale and exhale and inhale and exhale and inhale and exhale and…