In July, my parents celebrated their 53rd anniversary. This seems a miracle of sorts to me, not because their marriage was especially contentious but because they spent very little time together before exchanging vows, their two-year courtship having taken place entirely through the postal service. Yet the enduring quality of their relationship, despite the many struggles that accompany any marriage, have been a model to me, bearing witness to the beauty and the challenges of promising lifelong fidelity.
Katherine Willis Pershey’s Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity honors the intricate dance that marriage can be, exploring the many ways being wed is both a blessing and a burden. Very Married offers a nuanced look at what it means to say “I do,” using Pershey’s own 14-year marriage to her husband, Benjamin, as the narrative framework through which to examine an institution still honored by a culture that also boasts a significant divorce rate.
Pershey begins Very Married with an important admission: Marriage is hard work, and living with a difficult person (that is, any person) is rarely easy. Not only that, she says, but contemporary portrayals of marriage in cinema and in books are bleak, as are statistics suggesting 50 percent of marriages end in divorce (a rate Pershey debunks).
With so much stacked against couples who set out to wed, why do people even bother to marry? Because, Pershey — a self-avowed “apologist for marriage” — writes, “I believe that the practice of two people entering into a lifelong monogamous relationship is worthwhile. Good, even. I ardently hope marriages can be saved and that marriage as an institution can be redeemed.”
From there, Pershey goes about the work of redeeming marriage. She begins at the beginning of her own life with her husband, tracing their courtship, engagement and then premarital counseling. Alongside this narrative, Pershey explores the cultural and religious history of marriage, providing context for our contemporary understanding of marriage and the many traditions that attend a ceremony in which two people become one.
For Pershey and her husband, marital bliss lasted a weekend. An unexpected illness days after the wedding, misunderstandings, a death in the family: all these stressors made for a complicated first few weeks of marriage, which Pershey said was “a microcosm for the first few years of marriage. In a word: difficult.”
Here and elsewhere, Pershey honestly examines her marriage, using her experiences as a frame through which to consider what makes married life so difficult and also to affirm the great potential for joy that comes from sharing life with another.
Pershey’s vulnerability is a strength. She admits her flaws, including the crush she had on another man that might have ruined her marriage, save that she pulled herself back from the brink.
Rather than withholding this potentially shameful part of her life history, Pershey uses her experience to explore the idea of fidelity, the challenges that accompany “long obedience” to another and the reasons why so many of us are “highly susceptible to infidelity.” She also asserts that through this trial in her own marriage, she and her husband developed an even deeper bond because, she writes, “fidelity can be sexy. Very sexy.”
Because Pershey’s story is so deeply intertwined with her husband’s, Benjamin Pershey read the book in manuscript form, and gave his wife full permission to write their story. This very act reflects an ideal Pershey explores: Healthy marriage requires mutual submission of the kind Paul writes about in Ephesians.
An explication of Ephesians 5 and its complicated message about submission reflects Pershey’s theological training, which informs all that Pershey writes. She provides an insightful theology of marriage, one that considers what the Bible and church tradition have said about fidelity, sexuality, monogamy and more.
Pershey convincingly grapples with the difficult scriptural passages dealing with marriage. She sees the value and beauty of marriage extending to LGBT people who vow lifelong fidelity, stating that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell case “was not an assault on the sanctity of marriage but a just and rightful expansion of it.” Her defense for those who have been denied legal access to marriage is an important and necessary piece of her book, one that makes Very Married even more comprehensive than most theological treatises on marriage have been.
Very Married is not a paean to the idea of marriage, and Pershey refuses to glamorize wedded life. Instead, she shows that vowing lifelong fidelity to another is complex and that sometimes our best efforts will not be enough to save us from divorce. Yet it is this resistance to idealizing marriage that makes her book one of the best I’ve read on the topic. Pershey’s words challenge me to look to my own 19-year commitment to marriage and to the ways my husband and I, like Pershey, can continue to make a “beautiful and resilient marriage together.”
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.