broadsideblog

Elizabeth Gilbert's New Book Tackles The A-Word — Ambivalence

In women on December 11, 2009 at 8:09 am
Cover of "Eat, Pray, Love"

Cover of Eat, Pray, Love

Best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Committed” is starting its publicity rounds, with features — so far — in the January issues of Elle and “O”, which I get by subscription. In Elle, Cathi Hanauaer — editor of the essay anthology Bitch In The House – writes; we lament “with Gilbert, the stark conflicts faced by virtually every ambitious working woman: for one, how to take care of business and maintain a sense of self while also doing the myriad tasks required of mothers and wives.”

“O” offers a long excerpt from the book, in which Gilbert tackles her ambivalence about signing up for marriage again, an issue forced by her sweetie’s Brazilian passport and his desire to live in the U.S. So, ready or not, marriage it was.

The excerpt didn’t do a lot for me. Pretty standard women’s magazine stuff. I’m much more interested in reading, if she talks about this, about the challenges of marrying someone 17 years older (she’s 40, he’s 57), of becoming a step-mother when she never wanted kids and, most intriguing to me, the challenge of marrying someone born and raised in another culture, language and way of thinking. She shares some of his linguistic quirks — like “smoothfully” — and she writes of his “natural Brazilianness” that makes him overprotective of her.

She protests, a little too much for my taste, that Felipe won’t go with her to yoga or on spiritual retreats; she’s preaching to her choir here, her readers who think this must be essential (?) to a successful union. One of the things I find most interesting about any thriving marriage is how much independence it tolerates, like a piece of metal with a stress load. There are couples, I’ve read, who have never sent a night apart from one another. That’s my definition of hell.

My sweetie is packing today for a weekend work trip to the Caribbean and in January will be gone for two weeks. Silence! A whole bed to myself! I’ll miss him, but he’ll be back. I don’t need to be attached at the hip to know that; we also don’t have kids, so it’s not as though his absence doubles the childcare load.

It’s the differences between partners, and the ambivalence about heading back to the altar, that fascinate me about marriage. I was married briefly and unhappily. I got engaged to my fiance, who is also culturally doubly different from me, being Hispanic and American — we were trying to remember when it’s been so long — six years ago. We think it’s six years ago. Everyone assumes it’s he who is foot-dragging, when it’s me.

If you’re a woman with a ferociously independent spirit who also craves intimacy and a deep, lasting connection to your partner, marriage is as alluring in its promise of security as terrifying in its certainty of closure. Women don’t talk much, certainly not in the media where Married-With-Babies is the default option, about our ambivalence. I’m glad she did.

I also like the double entendre of her title, Committed. Many of us commit to marriage, one institution. You are, sometimes against your will, committed to another, a psychiatric ward. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

  1. I must confess that it doesn’t bother me when my Significant Other is off to visit her children, twice a year, every year. It does bother me, though, that it doesn’t bother me. I think too many of us live with or marry someone based on a compromise of our values, our needs, and our expectations. In othere words, we settle for less than we had hoped to find. Perhaps that’s why divorce is such a commonplace. There seems to be no happy middle ground: either our Other is gone frequently or clinging constantly to us. It’s almost like trying to decide whether to be a republican or a democrat.

  2. Or as a friend of mine once put it: “What’s marriage without ambivalence?”

  3. Caitlin — I’m foot-dragging, too…on reading “Eat, Pray, Love.” It’s that contrarian streak that keeps me from reading huge blockbusters (it must be BAD if so many people liked it, right??). But I admire Elizabeth Gilbert in the way every other female writer of her age bracket does: with deep, green envy.

  4. palavering, thanks for weighing in. I disagree with you on this…I do think we all compromise in some ways, as no one us perfect, including us! If we’re really honest with ourselves, we know and understand that our spouse has also compromised to some degree. But, and it’s a big but, so what if you’re happy? I think it’s crazy to think there will be no compromises at all, but if they’re small enough or minor enough – i.e not basic values or fidelity — seems it comes with the territory,no?

    I think the high divorce rate is due as much to 1) too-high expectations 2) not getting how hard life can be(come) and having a partner equally unrealistic.

    My partner and I like a lot of air in the room, so to speak. We spend as much time apart as together, probably, but we so totally enjoy one another’s company that we know we return to one another with lots of fresh material.

    delia, so true!

    Lisa, I actually really enjoyed her first book, even though I thought I wouldn’t. I loved her honesty and sense of adventure. And wouldn’t we all love to have a best-seller — and Julia Roberts playing us in the movie?!

  5. My husband and I married quite young, and both come from divorced homes. As a result, I know the odds are stacked against me and I have some untraditional views on marriage. First off, I think it’s a myth that people get married because they’re in love. Love is more of a necessary condition for a healthy marriage than a sufficient condition. Getting married is less about the relationship between me and my spouse and more about our relationship to a larger community. It’s our way of saying “we would like to be treated as an entity now, and in return we promise to be the first line of care-taking for each other”. Six years of engagement suggest to me that you have families and a community that are more comfortable with complexity than most. I, on the other hand, was ready to deck the next person who opined on my “trying” to have a long-distance relationship. Second, regarding the issue of “settling”, I think it’s complete BS. The modern formula seems to be: look really hard for a long time, find the “right” person, get married, live happily ever after popping out munchkins and playing catch with the retriever inside your picket fence. Looking for a reason for the commonplace nature of divorce? Well, if you looked really hard for a long time and got married, and you haven’t gotten your happily ever after, you must not have found the right person and your only solution is to scrap it and start over. BS. Being married is an active process that I wake up every morning and undertake again. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s awesome. Most of the time it’s some of both.

  6. datajunkie, lots to think about in your reply. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

    I think people marry for many reasons: peer pressure, parental pressure, they want to have kids, they got pregnant unexpectedly, financial security — love, one hopes, is a part of this decision.

    Six years of engagement has also shown me the differences in how people receive the need to be married; his professional colleagues ask him fairly often when we’ll get around to it, finding the notion we’re not somehow unsettling. My mom is fine with it and my Dad asks a few times a year, but as long as we’re happy and solvent, it’s not a reason to fuss. I grew up in Canada and the laws there are better for unmarried women; there is much less religious/political drama over whether you’re married ,(and gays can marry, no big deal), and everyone has health care – which is one reason I know some Americans marry so they can get their spouse’s medical benefits.

    People have plenty of opinions about who, when, how or how not to date and marry. None of their business, really. In the Episcopal church, where we will likely marry, anyone divorced is required to have counseling if they are to re-marry there. It forces, not a bad thing if somewhat intrusive, you to look hard at your reasons and your relationship.

    I agree that being married is indeed — legally or not — an active process. We recently were paid what I considered a compliment; someone thought we’d just started dating, because we treat each other with that level of interest and attention, not 10 years in. I think it takes deliberate humility to realize where your neuroses start and theirs end, and who’s “wrong.” Often both!

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