Review of Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert
Reviewed by: Estée Klar
I’m a separated single mother. Last night, having dinner à la Sex in the City with my three long-time girlfriends, I realized that I am the only truly single lady at the table. My girlfriends may have had the recipe for relationship success right all along — they never, ever got married. They may be single, but they are all in long-term committed relationships.
This is not to say that I’m against marriage now just because I am separated, but since I feel I have not yet been successful, and in fact — let me borrow Gilbert’s own words — “gutted” by the entire process, her new book may have come to me in the nick of time. Perhaps not just for me. Judging by the hot topics of discussion out there — like “All Kinds of Families” upcoming on television with Rosie O’Donnell,and the hit HBO series, Big Love, and Desperate Housewives, well, Gilbert definitely knows what is on our minds. So long Ozzie and Harriett, Little House on the Prairie and Leave it to Beaver; these times…they have changed!
Gilbert acknowledges that she is no scholar of Western marriage, but her research makes us rethink our beliefs. Woven in between her own personal journey — falling in love with Felipe at the end of her Eat Pray Love journey, living with him on his three-month visas into the U.S. and vowing never to marry each other — we learn a little bit more about her and how and why we think such things about finding soul-mates and marriage partners. “Sentenced to marriage,” because her partner Felipe will finally be deported out of the United States if they do not marry (no more three-month visas allowed), Gilbert decides to research almost out of terror. She has already been divorced. She has no children. She writes, she travels. She seems to covet her freedoms. But she has also fallen deeply in love with Felipe.
So she embarks on her next quest which manifests in this newly released book. Expecting the world from our partners to “make us eternally happy,” she cites an important, maybe crippling, contemporary theme — that the only quest worthy in life is to find happiness. “It’s the emblem of our times,” she says. “I have been allowed to expect great things in life. I have been permitted to expect far more out of the experience of love and living than most other women in history were ever permitted to ask. When it comes to questions of intimacy, I want many things from my man, and I want them all simultaneously….We Americans often say that marriage is ‘hard work…’ but how does marriage become hard work? Here’s how: Marriage becomes hard work once you have poured the entirety of your life’s expectations for happiness into the hands of one mere person. Keeping that going is hard work.” (p.48).
Of course, Gilbert can’t be excluding the same expectations of men who stake their happiness on a woman. Honestly, if I were to wager an un-researched guess, men have more difficulty in our culture being without a woman than women do without a man. If it’s a popular topic of discussion of our times, it does not belong exclusively to women-kind. But she does note that her father seemed to have fewer expectations of his 1950’s marriage than her mother: “…while it’s true that my mother has given up more of her personal ambitions in marriage than my father ever did, she demands far more out of marriage than he ever will. He is far more accepting of her than she is of him.” (p.197). So while Gilbert seems to identify in part the “shackles” that women find themselves in when they enter marriage, she also acknowledges that it can also be a repressive tool against men. “It’s an ancient truism across countless different cultures that there is no better accountability-forging tool for an irresponsible young man than a good, solid wife.” (p.198.) She cites Robert Frost who says, “in traditional societies single young men have a global reputation for squandering their money on whores and drinking and games and laziness: They contribute nothing.” (p. 198). But ask a thirty-something year-old single man, and I’m not so sure he would or wouldn’t agree. As woman have changed, I am hopeful that, since Robert Frost’s time at least, men have too.
Among the Hmong people she sets out to interview, where marriages are arranged, the women she attempts to probe about love don’t seem to have any expectations of their men. It is set up more for civil function and child-bearing, and the woman remain with the women during their days, and the men — well they are off doing God knows what. When Gilbert asks the Hmong women about how they felt about the subject of marriage, she was greeted with laughter and confusion. Of the Hmong grandmother she said, “Neither the grandmother of any other women in that room was placing her marriage at the center of her emotional biography in any way that was remotely familiar to me. In the modern Western world, where I come from, the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality. Your spouse becomes the most gleaming possible mirror through which your emotional individualism is reflected back to the world.” (p.35). In Canada, where the person we link arms with is an important choice that reflects who we “are,” whether I like the idea or not, I would have to agree.
Gilbert’s chapters are separated to many aspects of marriage: Marriage and Surprises; Marriage and Expectation; Marriage and History; Marriage and Infatuation; Marriage and Women; Marriage and Autonomy; Marriage and Subversion and finally Marriage and Ceremony where she ultimately makes peace with her “life sentence;” albeit with a lot of soul searching and research! It seems to me that she finds her success in being “separate” while also devoted to and a part of Felipe. It makes me realize how utterly lucky I am to have time to myself, to be alone at this point in my life before launching into something too fast and too soon. Maybe I can call it my Eat Pray Love kind of year — the eating and praying part for sure and the love I am gaining for myself as well as a recognition of an enduring love for my son. Maybe we all need at least one of those years in our lifetimes. It seems to be our fear of being alone and that stigma prompting the fear that may be the saboteur of a peaceful path to coexistence.
That stigma of being single looms. Just a quick look at the amount of on and offline dating services that exist out there, and we can see it. We are yearning for connection — looking for that lost half of ourselves. It’s not unfamiliar that concept — our “other half,” our “soul mate.” But is there such a thing? With Hollywood romance pounding the message into our brains that there must be one soul mate out there for each of us, we’ve certainly come to believe it, and all things Hollywood must be rigorously questioned. Yet instead we go out into the world and look for our mates as if it is our life quest. Gilbert says “our choice-rich lives have the potential to breed their own brand of trouble.” (p.45). Apparently, as soon as we abandoned arranged marriages and began to choose for ourselves, divorce rates sky-rocketed. As I read her book thinking of our freedom to create different “kinds of families” that we either inherit by default because of circumstances, or choose, I consider that the reader will be left with the question: so which is better; to be able to be free to choose, to remain single or to go back to arranged marriages? Gilbert would opt for freedom, but not of the escapist kind.
When women began to have equal rights and opportunities, they no longer had to remain in bad marriages. Then came the myriad of choices, for better or for worse. While Western marriage is comforting in the sense that it eliminates all choice, it has, as I’ve hoped to illustrate via Gilbert’s book, its own set of issues. Religion imposes a civil and “moral order” (religion assumes we are sheep that need guiding — another power schematic) — a role that today our lawyers deal with when we get divorced: how property and children are divided. After all, the State doesn’t care about our broken hearts. Gilbert discusses how women gave up everything to be in marriage in history – and let’s face it, to a large extent still do in modern times. In Europe’s history, cites Gilbert, “the legal notion of coverture — that is, the belief that a woman’s individual civil existence is erased the moment she marries…a wife effectively becomes ‘covered’ by her husband and no longer has any legal rights of her own, nor can she hold any personal property…Coverture was a French legal notion that spread to England as late as the nineteenth century. British judge Lord William Blackstone was still defending the essence of coverture in his courtroom, insisting that married women did not really exist as a legal entity. ‘The very being of the woman,’ he wrote, ‘is suspended during marriage.'” (pp.65-66). Woman eradicated as humans? This is not something I enjoy reading about, but I believe it still exists in the deepest caverns of our collective minds. It plays out in marriages, in court rooms and infects the behaviour of many men and woman today — that our worth is hinged on marriage and men alone.
Just going out with many women, and seeing more middle aged women going out on the town with each other, I’m not altogether happy with what I see. Not only do women just want to go out — and now they can without the man which is of course, great and something we now take for granted — many of us womankind are still fiercely hunting. “MILFS,” (a sexist, unfortunate term meaning “Mothers I’d Like to _ _ _ _”) we in a certain age-group have now earned such derogatory terms — “Cougar” being another one of them. You can see it in the eyes — checking out the men who walk into the room, trying to look coy with that red-coloured martini in their hands (wait..I like red-coloured martinis), probably hoping with bated breath that some guy will approach her. While many women might say they have earned the right to employ on the goose what was done to the gander, I have to wonder if women are out really enjoying themselves, or if they are seriously hunting for a man for the sake of increasing her self-worth. I’m not suggesting that woman are solely to blame here, as She has been the object of sexual oppression for generations. Yet why perpetuate the cycle?
Without the pressure of man-hunting, the best possible relationship and the ones I really value are those of my girlfriends — married, unmarried, gay, and yes, even yearning. None of us are alone with the very same questions Gilbert raises — “sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes life is too good to be alone.” (p.81). Doesn’t that just say it all? Now single, I am even aware I may now be a threat, possibly, to some of my married friends. It even shocks me to encounter married women who think it is so wonderful to be single, so easy — as if I can party all night long. It’s all very ironic because none of it is easy. I may represent what perhaps some married women fear they may become and representing that comes with a price that has saddened me to pay. A single gal can’t always win with the married type. It seems married or not, we all want to believe the grass is either greener on the other side, or that it’s as scary as hell. And believe me, it really is hard the first year of transition from married to single life! Don’t let my going on and on about being single fool you for a moment. I cried for six months straight!! Nothing can spare us from the heartbreak following the break-up or a loss of a long-term partnership or marriage.
What I starkly realized whilst becoming single (it’s a process), is the stigma — that I am less valuable if I am not attached to a man (one of woman’s greatest fears). I have also learned that this idea is farthest from the truth. As I grow and spend about as much time thinking about this topic as Gilbert has, being alone for a long stretch in one’s life without jumping into other people’s beds in order to escape loneliness is probably the most important thing we can do at least once in our lifetimes. And we all will — our spouses will die, our partnerships will break up. We simply have to learn to live well with and happily with ourselves. As a single person and a person who may enter any future relationship, it is most important to learn to value oneself first in order to be valued. One way to value oneself is to spend time alone…and not fear it. Elizabeth Gilbert protects her freedom, it seems for similar reasons. Like me, she enjoys traveling on her own. Like most women today, we try to find that safe place where we can have a partnership while also maintaining our need to pursue our own dreams. Ironically, even with all our hard-earned freedoms, it still can seem like an extreme sport.
Gilbert can get us really thinking with the amount of thought she and Felipe pour into their oncoming nuptials. For me the finest chapter was on Marriage and Infatuation. “History teaches us that just about anybody is capable of just about anything when it comes to the realm of love and desire.” She puts new words to the harsher adage “all’s fair in love and war.” It seems to me Gilbert, despite all the research, came up with the answer mid-way through her book about what makes partnerships last or not, and as I read this I considered by parent’s marriage of forty-six years. I witnessed them building their marriage like maintaining a beloved house. Walls had to be repainted, dying trees cut down and replanted, and some rooms eventually completely renovated. It was constant work and in between they lived out their frustrations and their joys. They are products of this historic belief system as much as my generation is, and future generations will be. Something in them and maybe even about them, I don’t know — they just stuck it out. Who knows what those factors were as they traversed life’s trials that bonded them together or nearly tore them apart. These are the intimacies I will never know. But, it does make me realize that to be in a partnership is to enter a contract that is tacitly renewed every single day. And yes, maybe that is supposed to be at times, “hard work.” Expectations or no expectations, it just can’t always be easy.
Gilbert uses the work of Shirley P. Glass, a psychologist “who spent much of her career studying marital infidelity…[whose] question was ‘How did it happen?’” So as I read the following paragraphs, I thought of the “house” with the strong foundation my parents built:
“The answer, as Dr. Glass explained, is that nothing is wrong with a married person launching a friendship outside matrimony – so long as the ‘walls and windows’ of the relationship remain in the correct places. It was Glass’s theory that every healthy marriage is composed of walls and windows. The windows are the aspects of your relationship that are open to the world – that is, the necessary gaps through which you interact with family and friends; the walls are the barrier of trust behind which you guard the most intimate secrets of your marriage.
What often happens, though, during so-called harmless friendships, is that you begin sharing intimacies with your new friend that belong hidden within your marriage. You reveal secrets about yourself – your deepest yearnings and frustrations – and it feels good to be so exposed. You throw open a window where there really ought to be a solid, weight-bearing wall, and soon you find yourself spilling your secret heart with this new person. Not wanting your spouse to feel jealous, you keep the details of your new friendship hidden. In so doing, you have now created a problem: You have just built a wall between you and your spouse where there really ought to be free circulation of air and light. The entire architecture of your matrimonial intimacy has therefore been rearranged. Every old wall is now a giant picture window; every old window is now boarded up like a crack house. You have just established the perfect blueprint for infidelity without even noticing.
So be the time your new friend comes into your office one day in tears over some piece of bad news, you wrap your arms around each other (only meaning to be comforting!) and then your lips brush and you realize in a dizzying rush that you love this person—that you have always loved this person! – it’s too late. Because now the fuse has been lit. And you really run the risk of someday (probably very soon) standing amid the wreckage of your life, facing a betrayed and shattered spouse (whom you still care about immensely, by the way), trying to explain through your ragged sobs how you never meant to hurt anybody, and how you never saw it coming.
And it’s true. You didn’t see it coming. But you did build it, and you could have stopped it if you’d acted faster. The moment you found yourself sharing secrets with a new friend that really ought to have belonged to your spouse, there was, according to Dr. Glass, a much smarter and more honest path to be taken. Her suggestion would be that you come home and tell your husband or your wife about it. The script goes along these lines: ‘I have something worrying to share with you…” pp.109-110.
While this piece of information hit me like a brick from that shattered house on my head and comes in the middle of her book, the rest of her book is worth reading too. I thoroughly enjoyed (obviously) reading about wo/man’s journey with marriage and where our beliefs may have derived. Most of us, even if we are good at being single, want friends and partners in life. We are, I believe, built to share. While “love based unions make for fragile tethers…maybe divorce is the tax we collectively pay as a culture for daring to believe in love.” (p. 83). I have learned while we need to have choice and freedoms, with them come many responsibilities — for nourishing ourselves and others and treating each other with respect and kindness. And this also grows and changes, like the institution of marriage in our culture, with that tacit contract. Maybe the contract, like people, get better with age. Maybe we come to understand the fragility. Maybe some of us learn, in this age of free expression and openness, that there are some things in life that should be left between two people. Gilbert certainly reminds us of the nature and importance of privacy and the need for a couple to really discuss and think about things, instead of expecting them.
Gilbert, after soul-searching this serious marriage business, finally marries Felipe in the house she buys in New Jersey (which ironically happens to be a converted church) when Felipe’s visa is finally approved. As they utter their vows, a dog suddenly lies auspiciously between them (which just happens to symbolize fidelity). I envision all the people out there writing their long list of pros and cons about relationships. I might be one of them one day. Yet very much like Elizabeth, I still believe in love.
I do, I do, I DO!