- Key departs from cultural norms, takes on the task required to crawl and claw his way back out of a failed marriage, showing us how. Tweet This
- He challenges couples standing at the altar to imagine the possibility of divorce...And while they’re at it, to imagine staying married because they promised to. Tweet This
- "Maybe you think me a fool for believing in a God that helped me stay married to a woman who gave me every good reason to let her go," writes Harrison Scott Key. Tweet This
When I first learned that Harrison Scott Key, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, had written his third memoir, How to Stay Married, I wasn’t sure I could stomach a humor-filled romp through a marriage that Key describes as his “wild-*** ride through heaven and hell and back.” I’d already been there. Key’s wife had an affair with the next-door neighbor and moved out; 20 years ago, my ex-husband hooked up with a woman at his new job and sued me for divorce. I tried to save my marriage, too. But I failed.
After a long haul, I recovered—and wrote a memoir about how to heal when you fail to stay married. Still, Key’s book about saving a troubled marriage reopened old wounds. My ex and I had also bonded over humor. Like Key’s wife, my ex was abandoned when his parents died. Key wanted a food fix from Wendy’s while his wife was in labor; my ex wanted a Pepsi and yucked it up with Jackie Mason in the elevator while I held off pushing out our baby.
Which brings me to the memoir’s key strength: it rings true. And the wisdom Key gleans during his journey is backed up by academic research about marriage and divorce.
There’s a reason why Dante consigns betrayal to the ninth circle of hell. It’s indeed a bomb dropped on a marriage that detonates everything in its path. Betrayal, which is both a cause and a symptom here, exposes the warts that had been bubbling beneath the surface in Key’s marriage, just waiting for the right catalyst to unearth them. As Key discovers, betrayal instantly recalibrates time, with life now measured in reference to before and after the bomb.
How does Key cope when his wife leaves? He fantasizes about other women, only to break down in tears on his first date and go home alone. He compares himself to Job, constantly asking God “why.” And he simply goes through the motions of trying to stay alive. He epitomizes the quintessential left-behind spouse—dutifully packing school lunches for his children, washing endless sinkfuls of dishes, and keeping the family dog from destroying everything in the house. All while dealing with his own wild grief as he manages to avoid killing himself, his spouse, and his wife’s lover. Humor throughout provides a healthy dose of levity to the unrelenting horror.
It’s no mystery why the divorce rate has hovered between 40 to 50% for more than five decades, while the marriage rate continues to plummet. As Key writes, we don’t take our promises seriously enough. Repairing a flailing marriage is hard, gut-wrenching work that requires courage to sort through the wreckage and sign on to a lifelong course in Kintsugi. So many in our culture take the easy way out and simply walk away, having the chutzpah to claim that choosing divorce makes them brave.
Key proves how wrong they are. He departs from cultural norms, takes on the task required to crawl and claw his way back out, showing us how. Instead of making a list of all the ways his wife has done him wrong, Key makes an alphabetic list of his own shortcomings. He listens and tries to be a more attentive husband, even when it goes against the grain of his own predilections. When things go from bad to better to worse again, he stays the course, learning to extend mercy and forgiveness while aided by grace.
Key challenges couples standing at the altar to imagine the possibility of divorce so that they won’t be surprised. And while they’re at it, to imagine staying married because they promised to.
Early in the ordeal, he falls on his knees in prayer, which makes How to Stay Married as much a memoir about placing faith in God and believing that miracles can ensue from suffering, as it is about saving a marriage. Key makes this clear at the outset when he declares that his “weirdo religious faith shapes everything in this story.” In case you missed it, he reiterates this at the end: “Maybe you think me a fool for believing in a God that helped me stay married to a woman who gave me every good reason to let her go.” If you do think him a fool, Key doesn’t care. Neither did I, during six grueling years in court only to be called a fool by friends, strangers, and the press. I’d do it all again, even if I failed a second time, and I’m sure Key would, too.
He points out that it’s essential to surround yourself with wise, compassionate friends who support your quest. Research conducted by professor and family therapist Bill Doherty shows that three-quarters of adults with marital problems confide in friends before divorce. Doherty calls these confidantes “marital first responders” and developed a training program for them. Key’s intuition to avoid those who urge vengeance, claim you deserve better, and spout false platitudes about the resiliency of children is spot on.
Speaking of his three children, Key confirms they’re not okay when the family splits. Decades of research supports his experience, but Key puts flesh on the bone by describing the turmoil that ensues when a parent walks out. The children wail and throw things. Their grades tank. They come home from school only to find that mom has absconded with more furniture and pictures from the walls.
“They say the youth are resilient, can bounce back from just about anything, toss them into a volcano, it’s fine, and yet I know plenty of children from broken homes who never got over it,” he writes. Maybe some children turn out okay after years of therapy, he posits, but maybe “they become college students with a documented need for a mental wellness ferret.”
He refuses to pass on that legacy—if he can help it. He concludes that children: "thrive best with two parents in the same house, we know this: two people bound together by law and covenants. Be offended at this simple truth if you like."
The obvious elephant in the room throughout the book is, of course, Key’s wife, Lauren, who writes the next to last chapter to explain the feelings of despair and numbness that drove her to run, as well as acknowledge her own culpability. She admits she didn’t want to stay married merely for the sake of the children but is nonetheless grateful that her leaving will not define their lives, the way her father’s departure defined hers.
In the end, the couple attend therapy to reckon with their dark pasts and manage to find love again. They’re lucky. But in the absence of abuse, ongoing infidelity, or toxic displays of loathing in front of the kids, I wonder if staying married purely for the sake of children isn’t a sufficiently good reason by itself. Sometimes, love takes longer to rekindle than it does for Key and his wife. Sometimes it takes a daily choice to love—and just keep going for years as many spouses I know continue to do—even when you don’t feel it. I think of Mother Teresa and her feeling of abandonment by God during the latter part of her life. Despite her prolonged “dark night of the soul,” she chose to continue honoring her vows anyway, serving the least among us while walking in the darkness by faith alone.
Key warns couples in the concluding chapter: “Don’t assume your partner is cheating. Assume your partner will, eventually. Assume you will, too.” He challenges couples standing at the altar to imagine the possibility of divorce so that they won’t be surprised. And while they’re at it, to imagine staying married because they promised to. In the last 50 years, this has become harder because our country’s no-fault divorce laws render all marriage contracts unenforceable. Couples must therefore become even stronger self-guardians of the promises they make at the altar, which makes this book even more necessary and important.
Will his prescription work for everyone? No, nor does Key claim that it will. Success obviously requires the willingness of both spouses to rebuild. There’s a brief mention of speaking with lawyers, but then no further talk of them. I assume the legal machinations never went beyond that. Those, like me, who have been through the trenches know that when lawyers and family courts become involved, it’s nearly impossible for marriages to survive. Finally, when betrayal is an issue, your chances are probably better if you’re fighting a dragon like “Chad”—Lauren’s affair partner who becomes homeless and unemployed—rather than “Maleficent” or “Cruella de Vil,” especially if they have control of the money, too.
If you’re still raw from divorce, leave the book on your bedside table until you’re sufficiently fortified. Key spares no detail and no one—not himself, his wife, or his former pastor. “My highest virtue has always been radical transparency to a fault,” he writes. “This, I believe, is how you heal.” I think that’s right. It’s also the mechanism by which you can help heal others. Key’s willingness to bare the truth and torture himself in the process—because that’s what it takes to dig this deep—is our good fortune.
One final point. Lauren’s chapter spans the period from 1994 to 2022, which means the book was published just six months or so later. Therefore, we don’t have the long view from the point at which their marriage began anew. However, what we realize from the book is that marriage can be fragile whether it’s newly born or 20 years in. So, if publishing this book now saves even one marriage, to me that seems reason enough. As Lauren fittingly points out, "No one really talks about marriage struggles…You’d think they would. Christians love to talk about sin and struggle, but we look past the many nightmares of marriage like an army of the blind."
Key acknowledges the pressures of his first two book launches. Because of its subject matter, this memoir may trigger a different sort of strain, demanding even greater resilience from the marriage. As I learned when I first wrote about trying to save my own marriage 13 years ago, the world is not always kind to those with countercultural messages about the value of marriage and family. Unfortunately, polarization has become worse.
The Key family has my prayers, and I hope they will have yours. Whether you’ve been able to save your own marriage or not, ensuring a healthier culture requires that we all celebrate this family having been able to save theirs.