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Holy Deadlock

Marriage is an institution, and who wants to live in one?

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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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 Pointedly using the term “subvert,” she acknowledges an almost outdated notion: An objective state of marriage exists beyond the couple’s emotional life, and they ignore the demanding, inconvenient truths embedded in the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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