A Story We Tell Ourselves and Others

Finding inspiration in marriage memoirs

Here is one story I tell about marriage: for a long time, I thought I’d never get married. In high school, I made snarky plans for a joke wedding. I picked the most hideous prom dresses from Seventeen for my bridesmaids and decided my reception dinner would be a pile of Happy Meals, topped off with a Carvel Fudgie the Whale cake. In college, I wanted to be Frida Kahlo to a (more faithful) Diego Rivera, Edna St. Vincent Millay to a Eugen Boissevain; I imagined a separate-but-together union—two houses connected with a bridge or one house divided into two wings. I could embrace the idea of intense attachment. But marriage? Ha.

Here’s another story: the man I would marry and I had our first conversation about marriage in a car, late at night, driving on a dark highway through West Virginia, looking out only at what the headlights showed, not meeting each other’s eyes, as if we were suspended from our own reality. The next day, we stopped at a letterpress stationery store, and our eyes met over a table of wedding invitations. Our expressions didn’t change, but a flicker of understanding passed between us. A year later, he proposed during a spring snowstorm in the Bishop’s Garden of the National Cathedral, and I said yes.

There are multitudes of stories in this sentence: we’ve been married for ten years.

It’s often said that no one really knows what goes on inside a marriage except for the people who are in it—and I would argue that sometimes they don’t know, either. It takes a certain kind of honesty—and bravery—to talk (let alone write) about the inner workings of one’s own marriage. Perhaps for this reason, most of the stories we hear and read about marriage are told by outsiders, writers of fiction or biography who stand removed from its core.

Illustration by Anna Hall

But I suspect nonfiction can get us closer to the fascinating questions at the heart of any marriage—why two people come together, why one might stray, why one might stay, and why, in some cases, the couple splits.

Six recent books of creative nonfiction meet these challenges full on. They tell courtship stories, marriage stories, stories of affairs and divorces. But what I found most interesting about these books is that they also tell stories about storytelling itself, thinking hard about the way we think, talk, and write about marriage—to ourselves, to each other, and to others.

Clancy Martin’s Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love explores the way we lie in our closest relationships: as children, as parents, as lovers, as spouses, and even to ourselves. Martin describes his book as “part memoir, part self-psychoanalytic analysis, part philosophical argument, and, because many of the most fascinating lovers are in literature, part literary criticism”—all marshaled “in defense of lies in the service of the truth.” He claims that “this fact about love—that from one moment to the next the lover experiences so many different degrees and even kinds of certainty, uncertainty, self-awareness, and self-doubt—is what makes speaking about ‘truth’ and ‘transparency’ . . . in love so dubious.” Instead of sticking to the cold, hard truth, Martin suggests, we should think about marriage as “a terrific novel a couple is writing together,” and he points out that we often turn to fiction to help us make sense of the facts of our own lives (although he reminds us that the fiction he quotes—Turgenev’s First Love, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Joyce’s “Araby,” and Proust’s story of Marcel and Albertine—is loosely autobiographical).

But Martin is not advocating for hurtful lies. Instead, he quotes Adrienne Rich, who claims that “an honorable human relationship . . . is a process . . . of refining the truths they can tell each other.” Martin elaborates: “It is not an out-and-out lie, but it is a kind of creative approach to the truth that recognizes the frailty of love—and of the human psyche, of what we can bear to hear, especially from someone we love—and embraces the idea that what we are really saying is different from the actual words we are speaking.” There is still a connection—a shared language—that bonds the couple, even if the words are not always strictly true.

But sometimes that language—and with it, the bond—fractures. Benjamin Anastas’s memoir Too Good to Be True is about his many failures: financial, authorial, and matrimonial. The first line of the chapter “The Real Life of an Author,” which focuses on his marriage, sets the stage: “I lost my wife in a glass elevator at the Hilton in Frankfurt, Germany.” The loss actually happens before he is married, when he falls in love with another woman and enters the elevator that will take them to his hotel room, where they will consummate their affair. He writes: “The story I told myself was simple: that love operates without reason. That it was foolish to try to understand it, or to pretend that I could control how it arrives or the hour it escapes.” He could love his fiancée, and he could love this other woman, too, “with a different fervor, in the time we had together.” But he cannot quite believe his own story.

At first, he decides to lie to his fiancée, and his lover agrees: it would be cruel to tell her. But his resolve quickly falters: “Tell her, I’d admonished myself every night for weeks. Just tell her. Until I did.” And this is the beginning of the end for a marriage that hasn’t even started yet. The story he told himself can’t be sustained—but the secret can’t either; one story eclipses the other. They marry, but then the couple separates, and the wife begins an affair of her own. Against his wishes, she ends the marriage, and he struggles to understand his actions, how he was at fault, but she was, too.

Later, Anastas wonders, “How much of our lives do we write, and how much of them are written for us?” This is a question that many writers—especially those writing about marriage—grapple with. In his essay collection My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married, Joey Franklin agrees with his wife: he is happily married. No affairs have shadowed their union; no outright lies have weakened it. But even he acknowledges that the truth in marriage isn’t absolute: “[T]hese stories we tell each other, no matter how close to the ‘truth,’ still rely on selective and often unreliable memory; they’re still just snapshots that can never tell the whole experience. They’re fish stories without witnesses.” He goes on to tell a “fish story” about his own marriage:

It was love at first sight. . . . I say, “I knew it the moment I saw her.” This is all true, of course, and yet I wonder how our story has been shaped by its outcome. . . . How different would my version of this story have been if we’d broken up after only a few weeks? Would it have been a story at all?

Franklin recognizes that the truth of the story depends on the context that surrounds it, as well as what is left unsaid. He goes on to confess that much is often left unsaid; we curate our stories about marriage for our families, the other parents at our children’s schools, the person we joke with in the check-out line, our real-life friends, and those more tenuously connected online. Franklin admits:

Any public retelling of our story usually fails to include doubts Melissa and I both felt just a few months after our wedding, that hollow fear that we’d made a mistake, as if the rightness of our decision needed more validation than the fact that we’d made it, wide-eyed and hopeful. But doubt we did, and sometimes still do, based, I think, on an unhealthy assumption that out in the universe there lies some right path for us to walk, a story already written instead of one that is ours to create every time we rise with the sun.

Instead of passively giving in to the stories that surround us, he insists it “takes courage to suggest that we are more than just storytellers and that we have a responsibility to the truth.” And part of the truth of marriage is doubt.

Even in an essay called “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” from Ann Patchett’s collection of the same name, there is doubt. When a young friend tells Patchett, “Write down how it is you have a happy marriage,” Patchett begins in an unlikely place: “[D]ivorce . . . every single thing about it starts there. Divorce is the history lesson, that thing that must be remembered in order not to be repeated. Divorce is the rock upon which this church is built.” After describing her grandparents’ and parents’ divorces, she tells the story of her own first marriage, how when her fiancé pulled out an engagement ring it was as if he had “pulled a knife,” how “every week, every day that [she] stayed with him, [she] compounded [her] mistake.” Finally, a friend asked a question that changed Patchett’s thinking: “Does your husband make you a better person?” Within days she left him, taking that essential question with her.

And it is that question that brings her, years later, to the happy marriage of the essay’s title. Even after spending eleven years with a man she considers her mate, she is reluctant to marry again. She doesn’t doubt her partner as much as she doubts the institution of marriage; she feels divorce is inevitable. But when a health scare makes it look as if he will leave her not by choice but through death, “everything stops, and that is the moment of change.” They marry quietly, and she discovers “he actually loved me more than he had previously led me to believe. . . . It was simply a bigger love than I had imagined.” It is this love that makes her answer the question Does he make you a better person? with a resounding yes: “And that is what I aspire to be, better, and no, it really isn’t any more complicated than that.”

But sometimes it is more complicated than that. Love and marriage don’t always make one a better person—sometimes love and solitude do. On the very first page of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick lays out a truth to be universally acknowledged: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence. . . . [They] govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.” It seems as if Bolick’s answers will be “nobody and never.” Using the life stories of five women she calls her “awakeners” (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), Bolick rejects what she sees as the “confinement of matrimony, a promise that life will work out just the way we want it,” in favor of a more honest and authentic life. Reading through her own diaries, she sees a pattern—a “spinster wish” (her “private shorthand for the novel pleasures of being alone”) expressed over and over again, which makes her wonder if, in spite of the happy and frequently fulfilling relationships she’s had, she would be better off alone. Invoking Vivian Gornick on independence—“The idea of love seemed an invasion. I had thoughts to think, a craft to learn, a self to discover. Solitude was a gift. A world was waiting to welcome me if I was willing to enter it alone”—Bolick sees a single life as being deeply connected with a creative one: “Being single is like being an artist . . . because it requires the same close attention to one’s singular needs, as well as the will and focus to fulfill them.” Her awakeners “were showing me how to think beyond the marriage plot” and into a different way of living, where, as Carolyn G. Heilbrun describes in Writing a Woman’s Life, a “woman may write her own life in advance of living it.” Indeed, through reading others’ stories and writing her own, Bolick explores and fulfills her spinster wish.

Jay Ponteri, author of Wedlocked: A Memoir, has similarly ambivalent feelings about marriage but writes about them with a rare and raw honesty: “To write close to my private life, to speak openly about my feelings, and to do so uncloaked, as an essayist, as one who attempts (but fails with dignity) to understand is to tear through the fabric of this very real silence.” Part of what this silence hides is

a marriage’s daily mechanics, its habits and rituals, its meaningful and deleterious expressions, its omissions, its caverns, its rooftop views, how it reaches up to the light and lies in dreamy shadow at night, all [of which] remains hidden from view and what others do see is an illusion of a surface (a not-surface) made of their own distorted projections of what their marriage should or shouldn’t be.

Ponteri is trying to see what marriage—specifically, his marriage—actually is, without distortion or projection or any of the comforting falsehoods that Clancy Martin describes in Love and Lies. Instead, he tells the stark truth about his struggles with intimacy, with commitment, and with his own fantasized adultery—“its red rise of emotion and its coital current, its identity recalibration and shared secrecy.” But he sees adultery as something more than an animal transgression; instead, he thinks “the adulterous act is a characteristic (rather than a symptom) of a larger identity recalibration, enacting a person’s complicated desire to be known differently than he or she feels known inside of his or her marriage.” And that is a desire that fuels his writing, first contained within a manuscript kept hidden in his garage and then let loose on the world in the form of this book. But more than a book, Wedlocked feels like an ongoing quest for answers that may never be found. Ponteri writes:

Even though I write a combination of memoir and essay, the truth is I fabricate brief instances, exaggerate dramatic encounters, and amplify (thus distort) discussions with my various selves, digging for what I do not know, like I do not know how two people can sustain a marriage over a lifetime or how and why we give up erotic love for companionship or why, just as I’ve created something meaningful and, dare I say it, healthy, I punch the self-destruct button or why erotic love, once consummated, begins to vanish or why the best sex I’ve ever had is in my head.

Whatever their stories, I suspect all of these writers—from the most cynical to the most naïve, whether settled or struggling or struggling to settle—would agree with Franklin when he concludes:

I think it’s possible that the story of every good marriage is built on [a] kind of hyperbole, a series of well-spun yarns that remind us why we’re together, that help us reaffirm we’ve made the right choice—that the person we wake up to each morning is really the person we want to wake up to.

Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

Poets call it being in love.


About the Author

Randon Billings Noble author photo
Randon Billings Noble

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019, and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, is forthcoming from Nebraska in 2021.

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