Committed (To Skepticism about Marriage)
Let me explain. It’s not necessarily that I’m afraid to jump into a committed relationship. It’s that once I’m in, I flail about like I’m drowning or like something might emerge out of the murkiness, swallow me up, and suffocate my screams.
Ok, that might be extreme but it’s something along those lines. And in fact, it’s less about commitment and more about marriage. As I wrote in a previous post, the institution of marriage and I have longstanding issues.
I take slight comfort in knowing that I’m not alone. Despite all the recent hype about breadwinning wives, most women I know are instinctively skeptical of marriage.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a friend and I recently established an impromptu, and temporary, book club for the sole purpose of reading one book: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of bestselling book, Eat, Pray, Love).
If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love you’ll remember Felipe—the Brazilian-born Australian who author Elizabeth Gilbert met and fell in love with in Indonesia (only after she had eaten her way through Italy and prayed from dawn to dusk at an ashram in India). Fast-forward a few years and Elizabeth and Felipe are living together in the United States and have vowed both eternal fidelity and to never get married. That is, until they are effectively “sentenced to wed” by U.S. Homeland Security. Elizabeth Gilbert subsequently attempts to tackle her fear of matrimony by delving into a historical, cultural, and personal investigation of the subject.
Do I sound like I’m trying to talk myself into something here?
People, I am trying to talk myself into something here.
This entire book—every single page of it—has been an effort to search through the complex history of Western marriage until I could find some small place of comfort in there for myself . . .
The leap into marriage has not come easily for me, but perhaps it shouldn’t be easy. Perhaps it’s fitting that I needed to be persuaded into marriage—even vigorously persuaded—especially because I am a woman, and because matrimony has not always treated women kindly.
Did you know that for the first thousand or so years of Christian history, the church regarded monogamous marriage as marginally less wicked than whoredom? The way modern-day religious conservatives talk about the sanctity of marriage you’d never guess.
Gilbert’s discussion of the historical underpinnings of Western marriage—its long-standing status as a tool for wealth management and social order, the 13th century edicts that solidified an institution that erased women’s individual civil existence, the racism that, until recently, was encoded in marriage law, and the fact that divorce is the tax we collectively pay for linking choice to marriage—is the book at its best. Gilbert weaves historical trends together with personal anecdotes—her own, her parent’s, her grandparent’s, and everyone’s whose path she crosses—to vividly illustrate marriage in all its “befuddling, vexing, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring” glory. She paints a picture of marriage as a living, breathing tradition comfortably nestled within reinforcing social systems and power dynamics.
Gilbert shows how, especially for women, marriage isn’t as simple as a life-long commitment between two loving individuals.
As she is investigating marriage, Gilbert is haphazardly wandering through Southeast Asia waiting for permission from the U.S. government to re-enter. She uses the opportunity to investigate perceptions of marriage among Hmong women in Vietnam and a monk in Laos, among others. Her descriptions of these interactions are equal-parts revealing and discomforting.
Throughout the book, Gilbert acknowledges that although her circumstances are temporarily taxing, ultimately she is an educated, American woman with a great deal of privilege. This notwithstanding, several of her trite, flippant descriptions of the cultures she encounters made me cringe. Personally I’ve found that, particularly when traveling overseas, privilege can at times feel as much like over-sized clown shoes as an invisible, weightless backpack. Trying to understand and describe “difference” without conveying “other” requires walking a fine line between romanticizing and degrading that is not easy. I’m certainly not an expert at doing this successfully, and after reading Committed I’m convinced that neither is Gilbert.
Back to the matter at hand: marriage. When all is said and done, the conclusion Gilbert arrives at is that marriage does not control us but instead we shape it.
Suddenly, legal matrimony starts to look less like an institution (a strict, immovable, hidebound, and dehumanizing system imposed by powerful authorities on helpless individuals) and starts to look more like a rather desperate concession (a scramble by helpless authorities to monitor the unmanageable behavior of two awfully powerful individuals).
It is not we as individuals, then, who must bend uncomfortably around the institution of marriage; rather, it is the institution of marriage that has to bend uncomfortably around us. Because “they” (the powers-that-be) have never been entirely able to stop “us” (two people) from connecting our lives together and creating a secret world of our own. . . The government hops along behind its people, struggling to keep up, desperately and belatedly (and often ineffectually and even comically) creating rules and mores around something we were always going to do anyhow, like it or not.
To a certain extent, it’s true. Same-sex partners (and plenty of opposite-sex couples) are testament to this—choosing to live together, have families together, and grow old together outside of a government’s legal bounds. As Gilbert says, despite its best efforts the government has been unable to entirely “stop ‘us’ (two people) from connecting our lives together and creating a secret world of our own.”
However, there is also something about the conclusion Gilbert comes to that strikes me as a desperate attempt to rationalize an uncomfortable reality. It reminds me of the argument that says that although men wield power in society, it is in fact women who reign supreme because they run the household and raise the children. Does shifting the frame through which we see and describe something actually re-align reality?
In the end, I’m not convinced Committed got me any closer to answers in my personal journey to come to terms with marriage. However, it is comforting to be reminded that plenty of other women—now and since the beginning of civilization—have struggled to make marriage work for them.