On Marriage and Convention and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed

Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 2010, pp. 280

This isn’t your regular Bella’s Bookshelves post, it’s true. It’s not a review of Committed, because reading the book was such a personal experience that I feel less inclined to critique it and more inspired to reflect on some of its points as they pertain to me in particular and us in general.

I’ve read all of Elizabeth Gilbert‘s books except The Last American Man. Pilgrims, her collection of short stories, is so good it made me Rumpelstiltskin-mad with jealousy. Stern Men, her first novel (her second, “The Signature of All Things,” is in first draft stage), is humorous and smart and excellent. Eat, Pray, Love made me feel as though I was reading myself, but not—as though I’d found my twin, but my more articulate, talented, brave twin, and I loved her so deeply it astounded me.

It’s possibly 100 percent truthful for me to say I’ve never read anyone else, in the entire lengthy history of my reading life, who has caused such questioning, such stimulating thought, such deep emotion—or such range of emotions in quick succession. Apparently, that’s one of the signs of an excellent writer—plus, it takes a very talented writer to make me read non-fiction—and you would be hard-pressed to make me say Gilbert is not one, regardless of what evidence you might think to drum up. (You’d be hard-pressed to find it, I dare say, though that opens up the subjectivity of such a discussion: what makes a good writer, or even a writer in the first place, and what constitutes good writing. Reading is, after all, ultimately a personal experience, in which enters taste, life experience, how we perceive things, etc. I do know people, much to my consternation, who do not love and could not finish Eat, Pray, Love or Committed, and some who have stated the reason I love EPL is that I don’t have children and thus can’t understand how selfish and whiny the book is. My answer to that is a dropped jaw at the ludicrousness of such an ignorant statement. They have clearly missed the point.)

Anyway.

Of Love and Other Demons (Like Marriage?)

To sum it up more concisely than it deserves, Committed is a book about marriage. For the purpose of coming to terms with her obligatory and impending (and I mean that in the imminent rather than menacing sense) marriage—her beloved was not allowed to live in her native United States unless they were married—Gilbert documented the history of matrimony and its sociological implications as well as explored the concepts and purposes of marriage in different societies around the world. She interspersed this with her and Jose’s (aka Felipe) own story of exile, years of trying to get the necessary papers and dealing with policies and other legal obstacles, and their traumatic marital pasts that made them reluctant to get remarried in the first place. Committed, then, is a memoir of sorts besides a sociological, anthropological study, an experiment in placing herself and her partner within the societal constructs and constraints surrounding us, and thus we see the process of her development in “making peace with marriage.” It’s a fascinating read, easy because of Gilbert’s knack for writing engaging non-fiction, challenging because the studies on matrimony and committed relationships apply not only to foreign societies but also to our own North American tendencies.

My own story was one reason I decided to read Committed, and it was while reading a particular chapter called “Marriage and Women” that I began to take notes and even feel agitated. But this was not the kind of agitation that makes you want to throw the book you’re reading—unless it’s at convention regarding traditional marriage and child-bearing, and at annoyingly persistent perceptions surrounding these societal norms. It was the kind of agitation that stimulated deeper thinking, that caused questions. And as I read about women giving up so much when they get married, and then about women who are expected to be a certain way or to do certain things when they are married, it became the sort of agitation that is caused by a sense of indignation and injustice. To be fair, Gilbert discussed what men give up as well in traditional marriage. Astonishingly, that didn’t raise my hackles quite as much.

It’s true that marriage in North America is a choice. It’s also true that compromise is crucial in a marriage and mostly inevitable, and if one gives up anything, be it career or personal space or whatever, it is ultimately a matter of choice rather than force. Yet when those decisions seemingly must be made based on what is expected by others, or based on the unwillingness of others to compromise, I start to have a problem. Even if those choices are ultimately made out of love.

This chapter of the book got me thinking about what I’ve given up in both my marriages (very different things) and why I even got married for the second time. The answer, it might surprise you (it might also surprise my husband), is not love. Love does not require a legal ceremony to be valid or true, just as the lack of an engagement ring does not invalidate a couple’s betrothal, as some seem(ed) to think. I had already got married for love, and by an unfortunate turn of events, also got quite painfully divorced. I did fall in love again, but my idea of marriage was much changed by then; I came to believe that the business of being human overrides any promises and sacredness or legal signature.

Interestingly, my situation is different from Gilbert’s in that she left her first marriage, while I was left, yet our questions about what marriage means with regard to being remarried are similar. When people ostracised me for dating my husband before I was officially divorced from my ex (a process which took a year and which we hadn’t started immediately after he left), when they brought legalities into the equation, I began to question why the legal system (and religion, for that matter) had anything to do with marriage, my marriage, in the first place. At this point, what purpose did they serve but to judge me, or keep me tied to the person who was no longer around?

As ignorant as it sounds, it didn’t make any sense to me that I couldn’t date before my divorce was final. My ex had left with as much finality as he could muster. He did not occasionally visit and we did not occasionally try to talk it over, because he insisted no words would change his mind. He acted as though he wanted (indeed needed) me, at least, to disappear so that proof he had ever been married and that he had left would not haunt him. He needed me to smoke a cigarette and stop crying so we could move on and be friends. As quickly as the couple of afternoons it took to take what he wanted, we no longer lived in the same city, let alone under the same roof.

But my point is not in fact to “monsterize” anyone. It’s good that he left, that we had no kids, that he was brave enough to leave when I wouldn’t have been. We had grown apart from each other, had made each other feel claustrophobic—because love does that to a couple. It’s binding, just like marriage. It can mean less independence and freedom. We are no longer able to make decisions without having to consider the other. And when that reality doesn’t also come with the realization and implementation of how to counter the squeezing, grasping, clutching feeling, or the desire any longer to compromise or find a solution or change how one thinks about it, a marriage disintegrates. And people panic and flee. I get it.

My point is, after my ex went, what part of what was left constituted a marriage? For us, with an apartment and no children, splitting was relatively simple. I can see why law may have to enter a situation when people are uwilling to be cooperative in a split and there are houses and children and vehicles and valuable possessions involved. But to me, with him gone, I had no marriage, not by my definition or even by dictionary definition of the word. In my eyes, I should be free to conduct myself as I wanted. Suddenly, that single piece of paper that everyone insisted on referring to meant nothing to me at all. Nevertheless, it bound me to the man who had now become a complete stranger, until we were able to divorce.

It seemed grossly unfair. Love, after all, does not warn you of its coming. It does not ask you if its arrival is timely in terms of legalities or morals or life’s events, or even if you’re emotionally ready. It simply comes, in various forms, unbidden, and often, as people say, when you least expect it. Love does not answer to pieces of paper. Why, then, did I even need the piece of paper? Why could I not be free to love whomever I wanted, whenever I wanted? Why, later, could I not commit myself to whomever I wanted, and have that count as marriage? (Gilbert struggled with these very questions when family members and friends insisted on a “real wedding.”)

Social convention, that’s why. And religious convention as well.

The reason people were so concerned about my dating before I was divorced was not that they were afraid I might be rebounding or doomed to repeat a mistake. Instead, they feared I wasn’t following the rules—religious rules, that is—and would later suffer the consequences. Which brings me to my answer of why I did get married for the second time.

I didn’t want to remarry. After my divorce, I wasn’t keen on the idea of my 28-year-old self making promises for the person I was going to be at 40, 65, 80. Or going through the words that made me swear and him swear while I knew that no amount of swearing could keep it together if it went off the rails. Marriage is a daily choice, and one I can make without legal binding.

But I married for the second time because my husband had not married before and still believed in the institution of it. And because according to our Christian families it was not morally right or acceptable to simply commit to each other and live with each other, without going through the ceremony of marriage before a minister or priest and witnesses.

I distinctly remember the conversation C and I had in the living room of my apartment one afternoon over ten years ago. He was on the couch and I was on the floor facing him. Both of us were discussing getting on with our lives, trying also to find better-paying jobs so that we could pay our ridiculous student loans and have the kind of life we wanted. “We have to move to Ottawa,” I said. “There’s more opportunity there than there will ever be here.”

But the decision could not be made autonomously. As always (because this is true of almost every decision you have to make, whether it be regarding your wedding ceremony, where you buy your house, and even, in our case, sometimes what we buy for ourselves), there were the families to consider, particularly his, which lives twenty minutes away and is very close-knit. Both of us knew our families and their religious values were looming in that living room with us. Both of us knew our families would never approve of us going to Ottawa and living together without first being properly—that is, legally and religiously—married.

That’s why C and I don’t have a sweet proposal story. It was a matter of consensus. “We’ll have to get married, then,” we eventually agreed that afternoon. This wasn’t some on-the-fly decision, of course. We’d known for some time already that we wanted to exclusively commit ourselves to one another. It’s just that for me, well, as I said, I was fine with just that knowing. I had different views of marriage at that point. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to ever go through another legal divorce (though I don’t) but, rather, that I didn’t see why I had to make anything legal to make our relationship and our commitment valid. And getting married again, and a mere two years after my divorce,  seemed somewhat akin to making a joke of the whole affair.

Just as Gilbert had the law and families and friends requiring her to remarry, I had religious law and families and friends, and that in addition to my husband. If I wanted to be with him, and if I wanted to be enveloped in a happy group of friends and families, there were some sacrifices I was going to have to make.

And so it came to pass that we got married on a rainy day in June 2002. In trying to make at least the wedding our own, and to make me feel better about cementing our decision to be together this way, plus save me the embarrassment of getting married in public for the second time (because when you’ve been married once and it’s failed, it is really, really weird to invite all those same people for a second wedding. I would have felt like a fraud), and to save money, we risked pissing off many in both families and our friends and held the wedding in his parents’ backyard, not in a church, and with immediate family only, all twenty or so of us crammed under a blue and white striped canopy.

I rented my dress—a real wedding dress because it was, as it was pointed out to me, C’s first marriage and that was only fair. (I promptly changed out of it as soon as the casual, mosquitoey ceremony and the photos were over and cared not whether I ever saw it again.) I emerged from the garage into the rain with my mom and dad, one to each arm, my veil caught under my dad’s elbow, but before I reached the tent, my sister-in-law shouted she wasn’t ready with her camera and I was quickly sent back to start over. My sister thought she lost our rings and ran into the house during the ceremony to check for them under couch cushions (they were on her hands the whole time). Blasts from nearby trains interrupted the minister as he tried to proceed. Cheap cameras the kids owned clicked like paparazzi (and later we found they’d taken off to Wal-Mart before dinner to develop and frame a photo of us kissing, which they gave us before eating.) There was much laughter. We posed with beer bottles and cigarettes hanging from our lips, like Mafioso. We barbecued shishkebobs, and a friend showed up with a surprise cake, and we ate buffet-style in the garage, a canoe precariously hanging overhead. My sister wore a Roots sweatshirt over her pretty skirt and blouse ensemble after all had been sworn and the families dug in. In short, as little semblance of pomp and circumstance, law and religion, as possible, but still legit enough to placate the families.

I wouldn’t change a thing of that day. We have a shaky homemade video and unprofessional photos that capture the occasion. It was a lovely day, and I’ve since learned to accept the fact that some things you can’t fight against if you want to be together and happy—which includes allowing family and friends to share in that happiness, and accepting that some people need convention as much as you may not—like that piece of paper that binds you together, which happens to be very important to my traditional husband, along with that dreaded joint account. I’ve learned to pick my battles, even though I will always struggle with convention.

It is a gross overarching summary of all the valuable and interesting information in Committed, and an unfair glossing over of her long, sometimes humorous, sometimes painful transformation with Jose to say this, but this is more or less the kind of acceptance that Gilbert comes to when she and Jose finally get married in an even more casual but no less joyful or special ceremony in their new house and by a Republican mayor. In other words, she, a skeptic, made peace with marriage.

Committed is a thorough and highly readable (sometimes even funny, as is her way) history and exploration of matrimony. Gilbert talks about expectations, variations of love, autonomy, subversion, ceremony. Her experiences in different villages and cities talking with the natives about marriage are intriguing and wise. While her personal experience and questions colour the book, she presents the facts as objectively as possible; the point is not to sway you against or for marriage but rather to stimulate questions about convention and human behaviour. This is a different species of book, a different kind of journey, than Eat, Pray, Love.

For me, reading Committed has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned of other cultures’ views, I’ve learned the whys and wherefores, the multiple purposes of husbands and wives. And I’ve made my own kind of peace with that piece of paper, that commitment in the eyes of God and in front of family. Within the convention, we decide on our own rules, what’s acceptable between the two of us.

Luckily, for example, there is no part of our marriage certificate that makes us promise we’ll have kids now that we’re married. I have absolutely no desire to have children. But that’s enough shocking anarchy for one day. My defence for not having kids is another post (but if you want, Gilbert covers this decision to great effect in the “Marriage and Women” chapter).

Besides, the breadmaker is beeping and it’s time to move from my office to the kitchen, from intelligent autonomy to joined domesticity. In a marriage one must balance these things, after all.

12 Responses

  1. Therese 20 September, 2012 / 2:16 pm

    You are brave, and incredibly articulate. Thank you for this – I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Steph 21 September, 2012 / 9:36 am

      By the time I posted it I hated it but couldn’t read it one more time. To me it sounded all over the place, and not saying what I wanted, exactly, but it was so long already and I wondered if it was a proper sort of essay, did it even conclude properly…blahdeblahblah.

      So thank you. I’m glad you got something out of it!

  2. Heidi Reimer 23 September, 2012 / 4:39 pm

    The Marriage and Women chapter made me agitated too, all the moreso, I think, because I do have children. It’s such an insightful and upsetting analysis of what society demands of women. Thank you for giving the book such a personal response.

    • Steph 23 September, 2012 / 9:17 pm

      Heidi,

      That’s interesting that we were both upset, and from different perspectives. It seems we can’t win when it comes to society’s expectations! Better to clear our own paths, perhaps.

  3. Penny @ LiteraryHoarders 26 September, 2012 / 1:12 pm

    Just as Therese says above – thanks for putting this out there Steph. Bravo to you.

  4. Steph 26 September, 2012 / 7:33 pm

    Thanks, Penny. :)

  5. Christie 2 October, 2012 / 9:46 pm

    I haven’t read Committed because, while I agree Gilbert is a terrific writer – I just can’t get the taste of ‘entitled’ out of my mouth after reading Eat, Pray Love. But, listen, after reading your considered and wonderfully articulate thoughts on marriage…I just thought I’d let you know that I think you could give Elizabeth a run for her money!

    • Steph 2 October, 2012 / 11:00 pm

      Holy moly, Christie: I’ll take that as one of the best compliments anyone’s ever given me!! Thank you very much. Totally encouraging. I’m going to keep your comment in mind for writing. Thanks again!

      I’m curious about what made you feel she has a sense of entitlement. Regarding what? Do you mean as a writer, or person, or?

  6. Christie 3 October, 2012 / 6:55 am

    Here’s the link to my review of EPL:
    http://theludicreader.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/eat-pray-love-by-elizabeth-gilbert/

    Not entitled as a writer – I guess I just sort of felt like, yeah, sure, who wouldn’t love to be able to take a break to figure shit out. If her writing wasn’t so good, I would have HATED the book. But you can’t fault Gilbert’s writing.

    I think I’d read your laundry list – I just like the way you write.

    • Steph 3 October, 2012 / 9:53 am

      Ah, awesome! I’ll definitely read your review. And yeah, I thought that too, the opportunity and advance she was lucky to receive to be able to travel for a year and work stuff out and write about it. Downright luxurious, even though I wouldn’t wish the circumstances leading up to it on anyone. And then with the whole marriage situation, another opportunity to travel and write about it. I mean!! Yet, it’s her own doing. Because she writes so well, and is open as well about sharing her experiences, she had/recognized those opportunities.

      Haha! You’re awesome. Thank you. Geez, that’s encouraging!

  7. Julia 7 October, 2012 / 12:10 pm

    Hi Steph,
    I loved this post (and I love your blog in general — I’ve been reading for about a year but never posted a comment) so much for your honesty and the story of your own second marriage, which so resembled the story of my own second marriage that the similarities are uncanny! I haven’t yet read Gilbert’s book, but your review/essay makes me want to dip into it. I love the image of you slipping out of your rented wedding gown and into something more comfortable/casual for the rest of the “event,” (again, I can relate!) not in any way because of a lack of respect or commitment to the ceremony, but just a deep understanding that the words themselves are fallible and that love (and its comings and goings, alas) doesn’t “answer to a piece of paper,” as you put it so well.
    Thanks for writing this!
    Julia.

    • Steph 9 October, 2012 / 10:33 am

      Hi Julia,

      Thank you so much for commenting! A perfect comment, too: it’s so wonderful to be understood on such a level as you have, having had a similar experience. And yes, it was more important for me to be comfortable, to fit in among everyone dear to me there and just have a happy time than it was for me to be in that dress and playing the part of the bride. I wanted to feel like me, not bound by “shoulds.” I wanted the experience to be our own, on our own terms.

      PS. Thank you for reading the blog! :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>