Tuesday, March 16, 2010

2000 Dollar Budget Wedding Bookclub: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

I participated in the 2000 Dollar Budget Wedding Book Club by reading Committed: A skeptic makes peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert this week.

I found this book generally thought provoking if not a little annoying at times (her story is a bit unique, I'd say). I will say that because I'm getting married in, oh, I don't know, 74 days and 23 hours, I think I found the subject matter slightly more interesting that other people at different times in their lives and relationships might. But that's fine. For me, I found myself reading and thinking a lot about my upcoming marriage and my current partnership. And, as I enter the homestretch of getting married, I think that is a very good thing.

I'll just go ahead and admit that I have been a marriage skeptic most of my life. In a lot of ways I still am and I'm still in the process of negotiating my skepticism with the excitement/joy/peace I feel about marrying T. Some of my own skepticism can be blamed on the ridiculous pressure we are all put under by (American) society and such to get married. In a number of Scandinavian countries in particular, marriage is considered pretty passe. If I were living there, would T and I be getting married? How much of our interest in marriage is simply society's influence on us and how much do I want to embrace that or reject it? And the other main skepticism lies within the question of if marriage truly is good for both people (and particularly for women in heterosexual couples) in the long run. There are too many examples of couples who I know personally or from a short distance who turn figuratively gray after being in their marriage. They loose their color, or that phrase I love of Alice Walkers, they become juiceless.  I think, when it comes down to it, that is my greatest (irrational?) fear about my own marriage. I do not want to become juiceless and gray and so I want to understand my own draw toward marriage, why I want to be a part of it, and understand what makes a marriage JUICY.

I think that in her own somewhat meandering way Glibert did a good job of addressing similar questions, even though her own situation did tend to dwell a lot on avoiding the pain of a divorce rather that the fear of becoming juiceless. I thought about a lot of things as I processed this book, but here are a few main points:

1.  Marriage as a limiting life variable. And that can actually be kind of awesome.
On pages 44 and 45, Gilbert talks about the somewhat unique situation couples these days find themselves in: the situation of overwhelming choices. She points out that "with these choices comes doubt about the right path and the times when one door closes another." I was surprised to feel this most forcefully when T and I get engaged. Even though I was happy and excited, I was also suffering a sense of loss. It wasn't loss of something REAL though, it was a sense of loss of that which could no longer be. It's not that I was ever going to go take off and live in Italy with my lover named... Mario, but that option was now closed to me. And, it wasn't like I was really going to ever drop everything and jump on a plane to Israel to work in international aid. But, for some reason with our engagement, I felt those rather impractical dreams drop away.

The reason I never would do those things is because I was already with T. I love him and I want to make my life plans with him. If I want to go live in Italy, it is going to be with him. And if I go work in the West Bank, I'm going to arrange it so it doesn't negatively impact his life too much. So, even though I sort of knew those things, there was something about becoming officially engaged that drove those points home for me. I was letting go of those old dreams that I developed as a single person and there was a sense of loss at letting those go. But, there is also something really wonderful about changing those dreams to become more practical. Knowing that T is my partner in life means that he can support me in my decisons and join me if he'd like. It also means that my dreams necessarily will involve a lot more talking. A lot more negotiation. And they aren't quite as wunderlust romantic.

So, I think what this book helped think about is the fact that marriage is the closing of some doors. Sometimes that is hard for independent lil' me to accept this. I don't like shutting doors so my marriage won't include that! But it must and that isn't a bad thing. While some doors close, it also makes the path ahead more intricate, real and possible.

2. Discussing, admitting, and accepting your partner's flaws
 Gilbert, at one point in her engagement walks up to Filipe and presents him with her flaws. All of them that she can think of and some of them aren't that savory. They show a self-knowledge, and an understanding of what she needs and how that sometimes effects those around her. I think this effort of self disclosure takes a lot of strength and ability to be truthful and also trusting of your partner. I'm not sure what I'd put on my list of "faults" to bring to T, but I'm going to think about it. I really liked what she said about the ultimate acceptance that Filipe gives her after she presents him with this list. Of that she say, "there is hardly a more gracious givft that we can offer somebody than to accept them fully, to love them almost despite themselves" (p. 130). I think this might be one of the cornerstones of marriage and so I want to work on this, without necessarily accepting the things that are destructive of course.

Later on in the book, Gilbert is also honest about some of the things she doesn't like about the way Filipe sometimes interacts with people and the way he deals with travel uncertainty. And, what I really appreciated about this was her ability to admit that he has faults, specific things that she really does not like, but that those essentially small parts of him are not going to make their relationship fall apart. Instead she looks at them honestly, admits she doesn't like them, and then attempts to make his experience with their situation a little better without sacrificing her own needs. Another important lesson for any partnership.

3. The Marriage Benefit Imbalance (p. 167) & Children
I'm not sure what to make of this. Essentially, sociologists have found that while men greatly benefit from being married compared to their single counterparts, married women do not experience those same benefits. Compared to single women, married women don't live as long, don't accumulate as much money, don't thrive in their careers, are less healthy, more likely to suffer depression and, here's my favorite, to die a violent death.

I have some questions about the measures and the outcomes of this study-- I'd like to look at them myself--but it seems easy to presume that a large number of these issues stem from being a primary care-provider of children. And, I guess if anything, this just points out the necessity of the parents being partners to each other, including in the raising of kids. I know this is something that we'll probably mostly have to figure out when we get there, but I do want to make sure that we are always working on being kind, respectful and careful with eachother's needs, wants and time.

4. The importance of ceremony
 Here's another thing I've been thinking about a lot. Why are we having a ceremony? I know I want one, but WHY? And, why to do I feel like I want to profess my love to T in front of our friends and family. We already know we are committed so why do we have to make a big deal out of it? Why not simply keep moving forward in the way we have been?

I liked Gilbert's discussion of this. She notes Joseph Campbell (gosh I love him) as pointing out that ceremony is a way to "draw a circle between the momentous and the ordinary" (p. 248). That's true, for me. And later on she goes on to discuss the ceremony's importance to other people in their lives. She affirms that:
marriage is not an act of prayer. Instead, it is both a public and a private concern, with real-world consequences. While the intimate terms of our relationship would always belong solely to Filipe and met, it was important to remember that a small share of our marriage would always belong to our families as well-- to all those people who would be most seriously affected by our success or failure (p. 276). 
The more I think about it, the more I think about the ceremony as 1. a way to mark this occasion from other day-to-day riff-raff, but also by committing to each other in front of our friends and family we are asking for their support in our marriage. In the good time and in the times when we may need the assistance of our safety net with things like kids or our relationship.

5. Marriage as a rebellious act and the power of intimacy
I thought this discussion was pretty interesting. In a nutshell, Gilbert talks about a book by Ferdinand Mount that discusses how the act of intimacy in marriage can actually be seen as a rebellious act. He argues this because political/religious powers have been trying to dictate what marriage is for a long long time. When we get married, but also develop a private intimacy-- what develops in the day-to-day like cooking and eating meals, and in those moments before we fall asleep-- that is untouchable by any institution, and that is rebellious.

Now, I'm not sure if I'd quite go that far. Gilbert seems to be more concerned with the disciplining nature of state and religious institutions rather than the very large forces of society and culture on our way of thinking, but I still found her poetry of intimacy rather touching. And, it makes a nice argument for every relationship being unique because of the intimacy that develops between those two people. It is their own and no one else's. It reminds of Robert Bly's poem, the Third Body (which is rather unfortunately very hetero, but you get the idea):
A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born in any other
nation, or time, or place.

They are content to be where they are, talking or not-talking.

Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.

The man sees the way his fingers move; he sees her hands close
around a book she hands to him.

They obey a third body that they share in common.

They have made a promise to love that body.

Age may come, parting may come, death will come.

A man and a woman sit near each other;

as they breathe they feed someone we do not know, someone we
know of, whom we have never seen.

Overall, I think it is a great meditation on marriage as long as you let yourself think about her points for yourself. Her situation is enormously unique, but for anyone getting married, in particular, I think this is a valuable read.

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