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Anna Dostoyevskaya on the Secret to a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from One of History’s Truest and Most Beautiful Loves

How to nurture a love that “would stand as a firm wall,” that “won’t let you fall, and it gives warmth.”

Anna Dostoyevskaya on the Secret to a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from One of History’s Truest and Most Beautiful Loves

In the summer of 1865, just after he began writing Crime and Punishment, the greatest novelist of all time hit rock bottom. Recently widowed and bedeviled by epilepsy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) had cornered himself into an impossible situation. After his elder brother died, Dostoyevsky, already deeply in debt on account of his gambling addiction, had taken upon himself the debts of his brother’s magazine. Creditors soon came knocking on his door, threatening to send him to debtors’ prison. (A decade earlier, he had narrowly escaped the death penalty for reading banned books and was instead exiled, sentenced to four years at a Siberian labor camp — so the prospect of being imprisoned was unbearably terrifying to him.) In a fit of despair, he agreed to sell the rights to an edition of his collected works to his publisher, a man named Fyodor Stellovsky, for the sum of his debt — 3,000 rubles, or around $80,000 in today’s money. As part of the deal, he would also have to produce a new novel of at least 175 pages by November 13 of the following year. If he failed to meet the deadline, he would lose all rights to his work, which would be transferred to Stellovsky for perpetuity.

Only after signing the contract did Dostoyevsky find out that it was his publisher, a cunning exploiter who often took advantage of artists down on their luck, who had purchased the promissory notes of his brother’s debt for next to nothing, using two intermediaries to bully Dostoyevsky into paying the full amount. Enraged but without recourse, he set out to fulfill his contract. But he was so consumed with finishing Crime and Punishment that he spent most of 1866 working on it instead of writing The Gambler, the novel he had promised Stellovsky. When October rolled around, Dostoyevsky languished at the prospect of writing an entire novel in four weeks.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

His friends, concerned for his well-being, proposed a sort of crowdsourcing scheme — Dostoyevsky would come up with a plot, they would each write a portion of the story, and he would then only have to smooth over the final product. But, a resolute idealist even at his lowest low, Dostoyevsky thought it dishonorable to put his name on someone else’s work and refused.

There was only one thing to do — write the novel, and write it fast.

On October 15, he called up a friend who taught stenography, seeking to hire his best pupil. Without hesitation, the professor recommended a young woman named Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. (Stenography, in that era, was a radical innovation and its mastery was so technically demanding that of the 150 students who had enrolled in Anna’s program, 125 had dropped out within a month.)

Twenty-year-old Anna, who had taken up stenography shortly after graduating from high school hoping to become financially independent by her own labor, was thrilled by the offer — Dostoyevsky was her recently deceased father’s favorite author, and she had grown up reading his tales. The thought of not only meeting him but helping him with his work filled her with joy.

The following day, she presented herself at Dostoyevsky’s house at eleven-thirty, “no earlier and no later,” as Dostoyevsky had instructed — a favorite expression of his, bespeaking his stringency. Distracted and irritable, he asked her a series of questions about her training. Although she answered each of them seriously and almost dryly, so as to appear maximally businesslike, he somehow softened over the course of the conversation. By the early afternoon, they had begun their collaboration on the novel — he, dictating; she, writing in stenographic shorthand, then transcribing at home at night.

For the next twenty-five days, Anna came to Dostoyevsky’s house at noon and stayed until four. Their dictating sessions were punctuated by short breaks for tea and conversation. With each day, he grew kinder and warmer toward her, and eventually came to address her by his favorite term of endearment, “golubchik” — Russian for “little dove.” He cherished her seriousness, her extraordinary powers of sympathy, how her luminous spirit dissipated even his darkest moods and lifted him out of his obsessive thoughts. She was touched by his kindness, his respect for her, how he took a genuine interest in her opinions and treated her like a collaborator rather than hired help. But neither of them was aware that this deep mutual affection and appreciation was the seed of a legendary love.

In her altogether spectacular memoir of marriage, Dostoevsky Reminiscences (public library), Anna recounts a prescient exchange that took place during one of their tea breaks:

Each day, chatting with me like a friend, he would lay bare some unhappy scene from his past. I could not help being deeply touched at his accounts of the difficulties from which he had never extricated himself, and indeed could not.


Fyodor Mikhailovich always spoke about his financial straits with great good nature. His stories, however, were so mournful that on one occasion I couldn’t restrain myself from asking, “Why is it, Fyodor Mikhailovich, that you remember only the unhappy times? Tell me instead about how you were happy.”

“Happy? But I haven’t had any happiness yet. At least, not the kind of happiness I always dreamed of. I am still waiting for it.”

Little did either of them know that he was in the presence of that happiness at that very moment. In fact, Anna, in her characteristic impulse for dispelling the darkness with light, advised him to marry again and seek happiness in family. She recounts the conversation:

“So you think I can marry again?” he asked. “That someone might consent to become my wife? What kind of wife shall I choose then — an intelligent one or a kind one?”

“An intelligent one, of course.”

“Well, no… if I have the choice, I’ll pick a kind one, so that she’ll take pity on me and love me.”

While we were on the theme of marriage, he asked me why I didn’t marry myself. I answered that I had two suitors, both splendid people and that I respected them both very much but did not love them — and that I wanted to marry for love.

“For love, without fail,” he seconded me heartily. “Respect alone isn’t enough for a happy marriage!”


Their last dictation took place on November 10. With Anna’s instrumental help, Dostoyevsky had accomplished the miraculous — he had finished an entire novel in twenty-six days. He shook her hand, paid her the 50 rubles they had agreed on — about $1,500 in today’s money — and thanked her warmly.

The following day, Dostoyevsky’s forty-fifth birthday, he decided to mark the dual occasion by giving a celebratory dinner at a restaurant. He invited Anna. She had never dined at a restaurant and was so nervous that she almost didn’t go — but she did, and Dostoyevsky spent the evening showering her with kindnesses.

But when the elation of the accomplishment wore off, he suddenly realized that his collaboration with Anna had become the light of his life and was devastated by the prospect of never seeing her again. Anna, too, found herself sullen and joyless, her typical buoyancy weighed down by an acute absence. She recounts:

I had grown so accustomed to that merry rush to work, the joyful meetings and the lively conversations with Dostoyevsky, that they had become a necessity to me. All my old activities had lost their interest and seemed empty and futile.

Unable to imagine his life without her, Dostoyevsky asked Anna if she would help him finish Crime and Punishment. On November 20, exactly ten days after the end of their first project, he invited her to his house and greeted her in an unusually excited state. They walked to his study, where he proceeded to propose marriage in the most wonderful and touching way.

Dostoyevsky told Anna that he would like her opinion on a new novel he was writing. But as soon as he began telling her the plot, it became apparent that his protagonist was a very thinly veiled version of himself, or rather of him as he saw himself — a troubled artist of the same age as he, having survived a harsh childhood and many losses, plagued by an incurable disease, a man “gloomy, suspicious; possessed of a tender heart … but incapable of expressing his feelings; an artist and a talented one, perhaps, but a failure who had not once in his life succeeded in embodying his ideas in the forms he dreamed of, and who never ceased to torment himself over that fact.” But the protagonist’s greatest torment was that he had fallen desperately in love with a young woman — a character named Anya, removed from reality by a single letter — of whom he felt unworthy; a gentle, gracious, wise, and vivacious girl whom he feared he had nothing to offer.

Only then did it dawn on Anna that Dostoyevsky had fallen in love with her and that he was so terrified of her rejection that he had to feel out her receptivity from behind the guise of fiction.

Is it plausible, Dostoyevsky asked her, that the alleged novel’s heroine would fall in love with its flawed hero? She recounts the words of literature’s greatest psychological writer:

“What could this elderly, sick, debt-ridden man give a young, alive, exuberant girl? Wouldn’t her love for him involve a terrible sacrifice on her part? And afterwards, wouldn’t she bitterly regret uniting her life with his? And in general, would it be possible for a young girl so different in age and personality to fall in love with my artist? Wouldn’t that be psychologically false? That is what I wanted to ask your opinion about, Anna Grigoryevna.”

“But why would it be impossible? For if, as you say, your Anya isn’t merely an empty flirt and has a kind, responsive heart, why couldn’t she fall in love with your artist? What if he is poor and sick? Where’s the sacrifice on her part, anyway? If she really loves him, she’ll be happy, too, and she’ll never have to regret anything!”

I spoke with some heat. Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at me in excitement. “And you seriously believe she could love him genuinely, and for the rest of her life?”

He fell silent, as if hesitating. “Put yourself in her place for a moment,” he said in a trembling voice. “Imagine that this artist — is me; that I have confessed my love to you and asked you to be my wife. Tell me, what would you answer?”

His face revealed such deep embarrassment, such inner torment, that I understood at long last that this was not a conversation about literature; that if I gave him an evasive answer I would deal a deathblow to his self-esteem and pride. I looked at his troubled face, which had become so dear to me, and said, “I would answer that I love you and will love you all my life.”

I won’t try to convey the words full of tenderness and love that he said to me then; they are sacred to me. I was stunned, almost crushed by the immensity of my happiness and for a long time I couldn’t believe it.

Fyodor and Anna were married on February 15, 1867, and remained besotted with one another until Dostoyevsky’s death fourteen years later. Although they suffered financial hardship and tremendous tragedy, including the death of two of their children, they buoyed each other with love. Anna took it upon herself to lift the family out of debt by making her husband Russia’s first self-published author. She studied the book market meticulously, researched vendors, masterminded distribution plans, and turned Dostoyevsky into a national brand. Today, many consider her Russia’s first true businesswoman. But beneath her business acumen was the same tender, enormous heart that had made loving room within itself for a brilliant man with all of his demons.

Anna Dostoyevskaya by Laura Callaghan from The Who, the What, and the When

In the afterword to her memoir, Anna reflects on the secret to their deep and true marriage — one of the greatest loves in the history of creative culture:

Throughout my life it has always seemed a kind of mystery to me that my good husband not only loved and respected me as many husbands love and respect their wives, but almost worshipped me, as though I were some special being created just for him. And this was true not only at the beginning of our marriage but through all the remaining years of it, up to his very death. Whereas in reality I was not distinguished for my good looks, nor did I possess talent nor any special intellectual cultivation, and I had no more than a secondary education. And yet, despite all that, I earned the profound respect, almost the adoration of a man so creative and brilliant.

This enigma was cleared up for me somewhat when I read V.V. Rozanov’s note to a letter of Strakhov dated January 5, 1890, in his book Literary Exiles. Let me quote:

“No one, not even a ‘friend,’ can make us better. But it is a great happiness in life to meet a person of quite different construction, different bent, completely dissimilar views who, while always remaining himself and in no wise echoing us nor currying favor with us (as sometimes happens) and not trying to insinuate his soul (and an insincere soul at that!) into our psyche, into our muddle, into our tangle, would stand as a firm wall, as a check to our follies and our irrationalities, which every human being has. Friendship lies in contradiction and not in agreement! Verily, God granted me Strakhov as a teacher and my friendship with him, my feelings for him were ever a kind of firm wall on which I felt I could always lean, or rather rest. And it won’t let you fall, and it gives warmth.”

In truth, my husband and I were persons of “quite different construction, different bent, completely dissimilar views.” But we always remained ourselves, in no way echoing nor currying favor with one another, neither of us trying to meddle with the other’s soul, neither I with his psyche nor he with mine. And in this way my good husband and I, both of us, felt ourselves free in spirit.

Fyodor Mikhailovich, who reflected so much in so much solitude on the deepest problems of the human heart, doubtless prized my non-interference in his spiritual and intellectual life. And therefore he would sometimes say to me, “You are the only woman who ever understood me!” (That was what he valued above all.) He looked on me as a rock on which he felt he could lean, or rather rest. “And it won’t let you fall, and it gives warmth.”

It is this, I believe, which explains the astonishing trust my husband had in me and in all my acts, although nothing I ever did transcended the limits of the ordinary. It was these mutual attitudes which enabled both of us to live in the fourteen years of our married life in the greatest happiness possible for human beings on earth.

Complement the wholly enchanting Dostoevsky Reminiscences with Frida Kahlo’s touching remembrance of Diego Rivera, Jane Austen’s advice on love and marriage, and philosopher Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and the day he discovered the meaning of life in a dream.


Margaret Atwood on Marriage

“Marriage is not a house or even a tent…”

Margaret Atwood on Marriage

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote in his meditation on freedom, togetherness, and the secret to a good marriage. But how do two people protect this sacred necessity of the bond from the daily proximity of cohabitation, which now presses their closely neighboring solitudes into inevitable frictions, now pushes them apart into neighboring lonelinesses?

That is what Margaret Atwood explores in a short, stunning poem originally published in her 1970 collection Procedures for Underground, later included in her altogether wondrous Selected Poems: 1965–1975 (public library), and read here by musician, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer to the serendipitous sound of church bells in the winter-quieted streets of Portugal.

by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not

a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge

of the desert

                the unpainted stairs

at the back where we squat

outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder

at having survived even

this far
we are learning to make fire

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, then revisit other soulful and stirring readings by Amanda (who supports her music and life-poetry, like I do my writing and life-poetry, via donations): “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska.


The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

“Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls,” the great Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Kahlil Gibran counseled in what remains the finest advice on the secret to a loving and lasting relationship.

Our paradoxical longing for intimacy and independence is a diamagnetic force — it pulls us toward togetherness and simultaneously repels us from it with a mighty magnet that, if unskillfully handled, can rupture a relationship and break a heart. Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over.

Two decades before Gibran, at the dawn of the twentieth century, another great poet of abiding insight into the turbulences of the human heart contemplated this predicament. In a letter to the trailblazing German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) offered some spectacular advice on managing the bipolar pull of autonomy and togetherness in a way that assures the longevity of any close bond and protects love from self-destruction. The passages appear in the wonderful poetry and prose anthology Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: Translations and Considerations (public library), selected and translated by the scholar and philosopher John Mood.

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law

Rilke writes:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

A century before psychologist Esther Perel asserted in her landmark book on the central paradox of relationships that “love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy” because “our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness,” Rilke considers how our cultural constructs around what it means to be coupled obstruct happiness in union:

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

This principle, Rilke points out, holds true not only in marriage but in any close relationship and any bond desired to last a lifetime:

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling… Once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer… They who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient. They hurry to a conclusion; to come, as they believe, to a final decision, they try once and for all to establish their relationship, whose surprising changes have frightened them, in order to remain the same now and forever (as they say).

Two millennia after Epictetus offered the Stoic cure for heartbreak in the recognition of the temporality and flux of all things, Rilke adds:

Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another.

The outliers impervious to this supreme challenge of love are rare, Rilke notes; for the rest of us, there is only the hard, necessary work of love:

There are such relationships which must be a very great, almost unbearable happiness, but they can occur only between very rich natures and between those who, each for himself, are richly ordered and composed; they can unite only two wide, deep, individual worlds.


For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Complement this particular portion of the altogether beautiful and healing Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, and Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, then revisit Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, what it takes to be an artist, why we read, and how hardship enlarges us.


The Difficult Balance of Intimacy and Independence: Beloved Philosopher and Poet Kahlil Gibran on the Secret to a Loving and Lasting Relationship

“Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

The Difficult Balance of Intimacy and Independence: Beloved Philosopher and Poet Kahlil Gibran on the Secret to a Loving and Lasting Relationship

“What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?” Mary McCarthy asked her friend Hannah Arendt in their correspondence about love. The question resonates because it speaks to a central necessity of love — at its truest and most potent, love invariably does change us, deconditioning our painful pathologies and elevating us toward our highest human potential. It allows us, as Barack Obama so eloquently wrote in his reflections on what his mother taught him about love, “to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, [be] finally transformed into something firmer.”

But in the romantic ideal upon which our modern mythos of love is built, the solidity of that togetherness is taken to such an extreme as to render love fragile. When lovers are expected to fuse together so closely and completely, mutuality mutates into a paralyzing codependence — a calcified and rigid firmness that becomes brittle to the possibility of growth. In the most nourishing kind of love, the communion of togetherness coexists with an integrity of individuality, the two aspects always in dynamic and fluid dialogue. The philosopher Martin Heidegger captured this beautifully in his love letters to Hannah Arendt: “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.”

This difficult balance of intimacy and independence is what the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) explores with uncommon insight and poetic precision in a passage from his 1923 masterwork The Prophet (public library).

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

By way of advice on the secret to a loving and lasting marriage, Gibran offers:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly enchanting The Prophet with Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love, Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Mary Oliver on how differences bring couples closer together, and Joseph Campbell on the single most important factor in sustaining romantic relationships, then revisit Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the absurdity of our self-righteousness.


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