In contemporary pop culture, celebrations of marriage are hard to find. The opposite, though, is everywhere: devastating indie films about marriages collapsing (see Marriage Story), tabloid buzz about Britney Spears’s latest divorce, viral TikTok posts about the perks of the unmarried life, defiant post-divorce pop anthems celebrating unmarried self-love.
Rare are works that viscerally capture the gift and goodness of marriage. But that’s what makes Harrison Scott Key’s How to Stay Married so refreshing. In a culture that holds matrimony in ever lower esteem, Key’s book makes a case for marriage in perhaps the unlikeliest of ways. He sketches the pain and struggles of being married with unflinching detail and yet celebrates it anyway as good and commendable.
I don’t think I’ve read (or rather, listened to) a more engaging book this year. It’s the first audiobook I’ve experienced that felt more powerful than reading a physical book. There’s one moment in particular—and I won’t spoil it—when the narration takes a turn that took my breath away.
In whatever format it’s accessed, Key’s book is quite the experience: hilariously tragic, tragically hilarious, deeply personal, widely resonant, irreverently reverent. It’s a book that one day might be a time capsule of sorts, part of a tide-turning moment when the institution of marriage—battered, bruised, and left for dead by the sexual revolution—began to stage an unlikely comeback in the post-Christian West.
How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told
Harrison Scott Key
One gorgeous autumn day, Harrison discovers that his wife—the sweet, funny, loving mother of their three daughters, a woman “who’s spent just about every Sunday of her life in a church”—is having an affair with a family friend. This revelation propels the hysterical, heartbreaking events in How to Stay Married, casting our narrator onto “the factory floor of hell,” where his wife was now in love with a man who “wears cargo shorts, on purpose.” What will he do?
Most Insane Love Story
Key was the 2016 winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor (for The World’s Largest Man), and he’s as skillful a humorist as anyone else writing today. And so the first thing to say about How to Stay Married is that it’s funny (reader warning: the humor is sometimes crass). It’s all the funnier for the audacity of its ambition: a comedic but theologically insightful page-turner about the harrowing marital drama that unfolds between the author and his wife, Lauren.
I don’t think I’ve read (or rather, listened to) a more engaging book this year.
Befitting its subtitle (The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told), the book’s story really is insane. It includes plenty of plot twists and made-for-TV melodrama, involving an aloof writer husband, a desperate housewife of Savannah, and a cargo-shorts-wearing, normcore neighbor named Chad. But the “insane love story” also works on a theological level, because another “insane” love on display in the book is the love of a church community that comes alongside the couple when they need it most. Above all, the book shows the relentless love of God, whose endless mercy in pursuit of his unfaithful bride truly looks crazy to our mortal minds.
Though written by a Christian and never shying away from talking about God and faith, How to Stay Married is nevertheless a mainstream memoir that will be read by plenty of non-Christians. I hope the book does for others what it did for me: increase my appreciation of the beauty of “for better or worse” covenantal love, both in the context of a marriage and in the context of God’s pursuing love for his chronically unfaithful people.
Robust Theology of Sin
Speaking of chronically unfaithful people, this is one of the most vivid and refreshing themes in How to Stay Married: the inarguable truth of total depravity.
Key doesn’t want his readers to gawk at his personal marriage spectacle. He wants them to know this could happen to them too. He bluntly writes, “Don’t assume your partner is cheating. Assume your partner will, eventually. Assume you will, too” (295). This sort of sober, humble self-assessment—an unflinching awareness of our naturally wayward hearts—is a key ingredient in what ultimately saves Harrison and Lauren Key’s marriage.
Far from portraying himself as the victim in an unjust tale of contemporary cuckoldry, Key acknowledges his sin throughout. He devotes an entire (hilarious) chapter to an A-to-Z catalog of his faults. He never positions himself or his wife as exemplary of anything—only as the fortunate recipients of a supernatural grace that empowers their radical reconciliation.
Occasionally, however, Key’s realism about sin veers into a sort of fetishizing of “brokenness” (a word that often functions as a softer, more therapeutic term for sin). This linguistic move psychologizes certain bad behaviors as largely the result of trauma and father wounds. One byproduct is an expectation that guilty parties will be met with gentle, “handle with care” responses as opposed to tough talk and direct calls to repentance.
We see this in chapter 13 (“Exile from the Magic Kingdom”), when Key ridicules church discipline and likens the prospect of excommunicating unrepentant sinners to something archaic that “might have worked a thousand years ago.” In what feels like a tired caricature, he describes a church he left as being a “Disney park” of inauthentic fakery, where “brokenness must be banished” (110).
Near the end of the book, Key writes, “Our brokenness, it turns out, and our confession of that brokenness, and the love we experienced from those around us, despite the brokenness, or perhaps because of it, is what saved us” (298). To ascribe salvific power to “brokenness” feels off to me. Yet it’s in keeping with our therapeutic age, where we often forget that raw, honest, “authentic” self-awareness is a starting point for growth, not an end unto itself.
The cover design—which foregrounds “How to Stay Married” in white while almost hiding the subtitle in black—probably conveys what the Keys hope for this book. Though at times the story might feel awkwardly voyeuristic and a bit too at ease with turning private pain into a page-turning drama, in the end the “most insane” prose isn’t the point of the book. The point is how the Keys’s story speaks bigger truths about marriage and God in ways that might help others.
The final chapter (“How to Stay Married”) proffers a scattered array of proverbial wisdom about marriage. Some of it is comically wise (“Parents are like arms. You can swing it with one but two works best and three would be weird,” 290). Some of it is sociologically perceptive (“Everybody likes to talk about how money can end a marriage. Nobody talks about how money can help save one,” 292). Some of it comes from wise others, like this countercultural gem from Alain de Botton: “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition” (297).
But the part that stood out to me, and which ties into the book’s aforementioned emphasis on human depravity, is when Key talks about the sanctifying power of marriage as opposed to its self-actualizing potential:
The prophets of this present age would have us believe marriage should exist solely for the benefit of the people in it, for their emotional, psychological, and carnal empowerment, as though matrimony is merely an extended couple’s spa experience featuring orgies and explosive self-actualizations that you can exit whensoever your heart desires. What if the prophets are wrong? Are we not freer than ever in human history, and sadder, and more anxious, more wretched? What if marriage, at its very best, exists to remake us into beautiful new creatures we scarcely recognize? What if, in some cosmically weird way, escaping a hard marriage is not how you change? What if staying married is? (296)
This is wise and helpful. Marriage isn’t meant primarily to serve you. It’s meant to shape you—and serve others: your spouse, your kids, your community, and the broader society.
Centrality of the Church
The Keys’s Presbyterian church—Christ the King Savannah—figures into their story in a beautiful way. “What did our church do for us, exactly?” Key writes. “They came when I called. Handed children to their spouses and got in the car” (298).
Marriage isn’t meant primarily to serve you. It’s meant to shape you—and serve others.
Christ the King’s vested interest in the Keys’s marriage speaks to the fact that no marriage is ever just about the husband and wife. A marriage is a foundation that holds up the structure of a family and is intertwined with the health of the larger community. It’s a building block on which stable societies thrive.
This realization is vital for how, and why, we stay married. It’s not just about us. It never was. A traditional wedding’s bridesmaids and groomsmen, flanking the couple at the altar, convey this visually: every marriage is part of a bigger community and broader story.
In that way, maybe it’s not so weird that Harrison and Lauren Key would turn their personal marriage story into a cautionary-tale comedy memoir for the masses. Maybe they’re remembering something too many of us forget: that a marriage bears witness to something and has a purpose beyond itself.