What would you tell newlywed or engaged couples about marriage if you could be as honest as you wanted? What advice would you offer them about how to stay married in a world that seems to work so hard against “happily ever after”? Journalist Ada Calhoun would say that marriage is often boring, change is inevitable, and the vow we make on our wedding day to reject all others for only each other is really hard to keep. But she’d also say that marriage is a gift and monogamy, though difficult, is indeed the better way. She says all of this and more in her frank and humorous new book, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, which provides a much-needed dose of reality about the ups and downs of married life, along with wisdom from experts and long-married couples on what it takes to make a marriage last.
In the first of many intimate stories she shares about her marriage, Calhoun describes a visit she and her husband made to see the priest who married them, hoping that he would “remind us, again, why [getting married] had been a good idea.” He answered with a question he described as “vital” for every married couple: “Do you know why you’re here?” He added that while most couples today are focused on how to get married, “no one’s spending any time on how do you stay married.”
Calhoun spends her book attempting to answer that question in a series of seven “toasts” that include quotes from priests, marriage therapists, and her own mother, who told her the secret to staying married is simply “don’t get divorced.” Calhoun’s advice on how to stay married is a bit more comprehensive, including the following noteworthy insights.
Stay together through the boring times. In of my favorite toasts, Calhoun acknowledges a reality of marriage most of us who’ve been married a few years have experienced but may be ashamed to admit: marriage is really boring sometimes.
She has no qualms admitting that her marriage has been through weeks and even months of boredom. “Dating is poetry. Marriage is a novel,” she writes. “There are times, maybe years, that are all exposition.”
During the boring times, we may be tempted to stray from our spouse, give up on marriage completely, or on occasion, “run screaming from the house,” as Calhoun puts it. However, she assures us that the boring parts are temporary and could be the prelude to something richer. “Exposition establishes the plot,” she explains. “The boring parts don’t last forever. In retrospect, they aren’t even boring.”
Stay together during the seasons of change. Calhoun also stresses the necessity of change in marriage, pointing out that too often, couples who are faced with changes in their spouse or themselves look outside their marriage or contemplate a divorce. “What I see happening with many of my divorcing friends is that they feel betrayed by change,” she laments. “They fall in love with one person, and when that person doesn’t seem familiar anymore, they feel he or she has violated the marriage contract.”
But just our bodies change with time, change in marriage is inevitable. Instead of looking elsewhere, she suggests that “being happy with the same person forever requires finding ways to be happy with different versions of that person, and avoiding panic when the person you’re with becomes someone you dislike.”
And sometimes, our feelings about our spouse change—only to change again for the better. Calhoun recalls a miserable family road trip to a Civil War museum, where she spent most of the drive resenting her husband. But it turned out to be one of their best trips ever, with their son declaring it “the best day of his life,” and Calhoun falling more in love with her husband as they toured a cemetery and later shared French fries and wine over dinner. She writes that this is “part of what marriage means: sometimes hating the other person but staying together because you promised you would. And then, days or weeks later, waking up and loving him again, loving him still.”
According to Calhoun, the key to dealing with change in marriage is to stay. "[W]e stay in it long enough to see things change, for good and for ill and for good again," she writes. "As married people, we dwell on a spectrum between happy and unhappy, in love and out of love, and we move back and forth on that line decade by decade, year by year, week by week, even hour by hour."
Stay together by resisting the temptation to stray. When her husband admitted he had feelings for another woman that he wasn’t sure what to do with, she responded, “Kill them with fire.” Another time, he suggested it might make him feel less guilty if she “occasionally fooled around with other people,” an idea she initially rejected. But the idea sounded a bit more promising when, on tour for her first book, she found herself making out with an attractive colleague in his apartment. She left before things went further because she just couldn’t forget she was married. “I don’t belong to this man in this other town,” she reflects later. “My husband is my husband and other men are not.”
Although Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give is not exclusively about monogamy, it’s an issue Calhoun addresses in two essays. What’s most striking about her take on monogamy is that it comes from a woman in an unconventional marriage—one who admits to struggling with “lust” and to kissing other men. While, at times, it seems like she is debating with herself about the merits of marital fidelity, she clearly respects and desires it.
She shares stories of friends in open marriages, but describes herself as “nowhere near this evolved,” adding that the idea of kissing other men gives her a “thrill,” but the thought of her husband kissing someone else makes her “want to start throwing things off tables.”
Calhoun also compares extra-marital activity to Russian roulette, warning that “for every five times an extramarital flirtation makes you feel extra alive, there’s one crush that kills you.” Likewise, she uses terms like “lust” and greed” to describe her desire for other men, noting that she doesn’t want to be “selfish, confused, greedy. I want to be better than that.”
Ultimately, Calhoun concludes that while she enjoys fooling around, she loves her husband and marriage more. She writes:
When we choose someone to marry, part of what we promise is that we will not forget that at some point, in the glow of a parking lot far from home, someone else is sure to look like a god or goddess. Maybe I need to remember that when it comes to monogamy, opening the door a crack makes it hard to keep the wind from blowing it all the way ajar, letting in more bad metaphors about doors and windows.
Stay together to give others hope. In a powerful analogy, Calhoun compares a monogamous marriage to an oak. "Perhaps avoiding affairs is a little like pruning back a tree to help it grow," she muses. "If you’re fooling around too much, your marriage might make a pretty hedge, but it will never be an oak. Friends and colleagues can’t make a refuge beneath a shrub."
That image of a marriage like an oak reminded me of an older couple that my husband and I met through a marriage group we attend. Celebrating 50 years of marriage this June, they have raised two children with mental or physical challenges, taught countless classes on marriage for engaged couples, and even co-authored a marriage enrichment book. Through their five decades of faithfulness, they have provided wisdom, safety, and hope to others.
How do we build a marriage that’s strong enough to withstand change, boredom, and temptation? We build it by choosing one another over all others during the boring times and seasons of change, by forgiving each other when we fail, and by deciding to love even when we dislike our spouse.
And in doing so, we encourage other couples that lasting love is still possible. “By staying married, we give something to ourselves and to others: hope,” Calhoun reminds us. “Hope that in steadfastly loving someone, we ourselves, for all our faults, will be loved; that the broken world will be made whole. To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being—what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift."
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.