Marriage is an institution, and who wants to live in one?
Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
A Skeptic Makes Peace
Traditional marriage is on trial from coast to coast, most recently in a San Francisco courthouse, where same-sex marriage advocates implied that this social institution had been established for a darker purpose, serving as a handy prop for gay bashing. Now Elizabeth Gilbert, the witty and honest author of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, has joined the prosecution—more or less. Her new book isn’t designed for policy wonks, though; it’s also difficult to predict whether her admirers, hungry for the next installment of her engaging memoir-cum-travelogue, will embrace it.
So why should anyone care what Elizabeth Gilbert, a divorced writer, has to say on this vexed subject? Well, recognized expertise on marriage is no longer the preserve of pastors, historians, legal scholars, therapists, or yentas. In the San Francisco trial, and during the hearings preceding the Washington, D.C., city council’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian couples testified to their love—a state of mind and heart that directly challenged a status quo that supposedly devalued their experience. Personal stories have moved to the center of the national conversation on marriage, pushing aside tired arguments based on natural law, historical and cultural precedent, and even human reproduction.
A heterosexual woman contentedly living and traveling with her lover, Felipe—an older but wiser Brazilian with an Australian passport—Gilbert wasn’t looking to join the melee over matrimony. You might say that the subject was foisted on her by the Department of Homeland Security, which informed the couple that Felipe could not reenter the United States unless they married. The victim of a “bad divorce,” the author immediately fretted that marriage would introduce a fatal toxin into her blissful union. However, as the subtitle implies, she found a way to get the job done without sacrificing her principles. The question is whether her expedient solution—reflecting a broad trend to reformulate marriage according to personal tastes—is likely to secure her future happiness, or the survival of an already battered social institution.
Committed begins with Felipe’s ignominious repatriation, following a six-hour interrogation at the Dallas airport. Distraught, Gilbert pleads Felipe’s case to a Homeland Security official, who is unmoved by her personal crisis: “When we have something to tell you about your boyfriend, miss, we’ll let you know.” Gilbert guesses the reason for his dismissive stance: “There is perhaps no more feeble-sounding word in the English language than boyfriend.” Thus commences her painful engagement with the cultural, religious, and legal legacy that burdens and elevates spousal relations—as opposed to the essentially inconsequential status of couples who merely play house.
When Gilbert joins her exiled lover in Southeast Asia, he works on his immigration case file. She uses the time to retrace the missteps that led to her past divorce while addressing the larger subject of marriage as an institution. Her ruminations are punctuated by encounters with ordinary people in Laos and Cambodia, but the snapshots of exotic traditional cultures aren’t especially relevant to Gilbert’s modern dilemma. She also reveals flashes of insight gleaned from self-directed studies in history and anthropology. Readers would be wise to conduct their own research, however, rather than relying on Gilbert’s scattershot approach: Her selective account of the checkered history of Western marriage, for example, encourages the reader both to doubt the motives and logic of its supporters and to shrug off radical new proposals as minor innovations.
Gilbert’s reflections are skewed, in part, by her lack of personal interest in bearing children. The central purpose of marriage always has been the regulation of human reproduction and the education and upbringing of children.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have cautioned that children will be the innocent victims of any institutional redefinition that moves procreation to the sidelines, but Gilbert finds this argument unpersuasive, and predicts that the advent of “marriage equality” will actually reverse the declining status of marriage.
On a personal level, she is more preoccupied with the intrusive impact of marital responsibilities on her comfortable, autonomous existence, and her internal struggle exposes the dividing line between traditional marriage and its beguiling substitutes. In the wake of Felipe’s deportation she maintains her drumbeat of undying devotion, even as she frets over the useless encumbrance of social expectations that come with a marriage license. But as she moves closer to zero hour, the reader perceives an important truth: The specter of permanent public vows injects a measure of transparency regarding personal intentions in romantic relationships. A bit squeamishly, Gilbert negotiates a pre-nuptial agreement that protects her, the wealthier party, in the event of divorce.
There are “committed relationships,” and then there is marriage.
Gilbert’s ultimate solution is to “subvert” the institution by ignoring practices and expectations that don’t suit her rugged individualism or modern notions of commitment. Pointedly using the term “subvert,” she acknowledges an almost outdated notion: An objective state of marriage exists beyond the couple’s emotional life, and they ignore the demanding, inconvenient truths embedded in the institution at their peril. In other words, advocates of traditional marriage would press the point a bit further: All things being equal, an earnest commitment to wedding vows secures personal dignity and the common good for the family and for society. Gilbert doesn’t spell this out, precisely, but her honesty contributes to her appeal as a self-appointed guide.
In the end, the author ties the knot with Felipe. But she finesses the question that likely will complicate her own future, and that of the larger culture: Is it really possible, and quite harmless, to make marriage whatever you want it to be?
Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.
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