Love and marriage go together like a horse and ... carnage
'Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give' author Ada Calhoun reveals some of the reasons why marriages don't work
It was peak wedding season, and Ada Calhoun was mad. “So, so mad.” Friend after friend was standing before their nearest and dearest, proclaiming that their marriage would be the most magical of all time.
“I think it was something to do with the contrast between what I was hearing at all these weddings and what I was feeling,” says the native New Yorker.
So Calhoun, a freelance journalist, fired off an essay about her own, then 11-year experience of marriage to The New York Times.
“I do not contradict my beaming newlywed friends when they talk about how they will gracefully succeed where nearly everyone in human history has floundered,” she wrote. “I only wish I could tell them ... that while it’s good to aim high, it’s quite probable they will let each other down many times in ways both petty and profound that in this blissful moment they can’t even fathom.”
That was 2015, and caused a sensation that had publishers hounding her to write a book.
The result, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give is a funny and poignant marriage myth-buster, peppered with insights from religious leaders, friends and long-married matriarchs.Remarkably it also details both her and her husband Neal’s infidelities. Even more remarkably, she says, they only served to strengthen their relationship – a view that chimes with a recent poll of 43,000 women by dating website Next Love, which revealed that cheating often isn’t a reason for ending a relationship.
Calhoun, now 42, describes Wedding Toasts as being “about the in between” (indeed, a chapter is entitled “The boring parts”) of a marriage, amid its highs and lows.
“The rhetoric around marriage is so extreme – either you get divorced, or it’s beautiful, magical soul-mate land.”
Instead, she intimately details the blurred lines betwixt which both she and Neal, a musician, strayed – then reconciled.
“I began to think the line I was drawing was academic, that maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I slept with this man,” she writes of “a colleague” whom she met up with while on a book tour in the midwest.
“I hadn’t had sex with anyone but my husband in 15 years. That’s a long time ... My body encouraged this train of thought. But then my brain started flashing through potential consequences.”
She arrives home and tells Neal: “I made out with someone. I didn’t have sex with him. I really hope you’re not upset.”
He forgives her, but when he then confesses his feelings for another woman, she is devastated – crying uncontrollably.
“I was furious. Then I was upset with myself. By doing what I’d done, I’d abandoned the right to be offended,” she writes.
The raw honesty was very deliberate, she says now, adding that most books about marriage either gloss over the bad times or else, written post-divorce or death, are unbearably dark. The truth was, neither of them ever thought about walking away.“As horrible as some days are,” she says, “overall it’s a really special thing to have a husband.”
Neal actually encouraged her to write the book, knowing how much it would mean to her and joking that it would pay for a house in the country – which it has.
Was he not concerned about exposing their private life to such scrutiny?
“He actually is a good person to be married to if you are a memoirist because he is very open,” she says. “He’s a performance artist, and he’s a lunatic. He is very open in his own work and wants that freedom for himself, so he very much wanted me to have that freedom too.”
An instant hit, named one of the 10 best memoirs of last year by W magazine, it even receiving a glowing endorsement from Tom Hanks: “Last book that made [me] laugh? Ada Calhoun’s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give,” he told the New York Times. “I mean, underlining and yellow marker bust-out laughs.”
Calhoun was delighted. Why does she think she hit a nerve?
“When all this stuff happened with me and Neal, and the infidelity and fighting, I felt really lonely,” she said. “I felt like a bad wife. I thought we were doomed.
“I thought when I wrote the book it was for anyone who has ever been in that situation. Generally I write to make people feel less alone.
“And I think the book has done that for people – it’s made them feel less ashamed. Or less lonely in their failures to be perfect at marriage.”And people, she feels, need permission to fail.
“I have seen enough friends really suffering to know that there are definitely marriages you get out of.
“But I think that, maybe because of the so-called self help world, when they do find themselves falling down in some way, they think it is a sign they should get divorced. There is such a stigma around infidelity ... And I think that what winds up happening sometimes is that people think it’s a more noble thing to do, to divorce. If you kiss somebody else, it’s like: ‘Oh, I must fall on my sword’.”
She is currently working on her next book, which emerged from another essay, for Oprah Winfrey’s site, Oprah.com, exploring the idea of a mid-life crisis among Generation X. When Calhoun rang a friend to ask if she knew any women experiencing such feelings, they paused and said: “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”
The article, published in October, hit another nerve – going viral almost overnight.
For the book, which will be published next year, Calhoun is speaking to women across the US and from all walks of life.
It is a US-centric take, where healthcare costs, crumbling communities and lack of maternity leave – where the US lags behind the rest of the industrialised world – all loom large, but many of the themes are universal, she insists.
“Almost everyone I met feels like they are not doing enough,” she said. “When they are doing so much! Much more than I feel like humans have EVER done!
“I go from one interview to another and hear very different things from women in very different situations. One woman has been taking care of her ageing parents and her small children and working part-time and trying to keep her marriage together and her friendships and she has her PTA and all these different things, and she is like: ‘Oh, it’s not enough.’
“Another woman who doesn’t have kids, who is working a ton, who is running a company, has all these people working for her, and says it is not enough – ‘I don’t have children.’
“So what I hope I can address is that feeling.”
She continues: “I think that a lot of people feel that it’s all their own fault. They had made really bad choices. That’s why they didn’t have savings, that’s why their job wasn’t stable, that’s why they were having fertility problems. It was just … all on them. And they felt ashamed, and responsible for their own happiness.“And one of the things I looked at was how there are just all these forces at work. You didn’t have children because you didn’t have maternity leave and were trying to make do in the gig economy and you were trying to do all these things. And then you get to 40. It’s not 100% that you were given the world and just said ‘No, thank you.’”
Calhoun laughs when asked whether people come to her for advice. But she does feel that these are discussions that need to be had: “They make [people] feel less alone, and not ashamed about being human beings who don’t have perfect lives,” she says.
“Failure is part of being human. It’s definitely part of being married. And I don’t hear that message enough, personally. And I find it reassuring, so I want to say it.”
Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun is available at Exclusive Books for R272.