This is the second of a series of Shambhala SunSpace posts in which Andrea Miller — deputy editor of the Shambhala Sun, and editor of the book Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships — takes a look at noteworthy books on mindful loving. In this post, she focuses on Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert.
A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking 2010; 285 pp., $26.95 (cloth)
My parents each had three significant partners over the course of their lives. This means I wasn’t a child of divorce, but rather of divorces. And as a result, I developed a cynical, hard shell around the topic of marriage—a shell that clearly covered up fear. Many of us are in this same boat. We look around us—at our own relationships and the relationships of our friends and family—and we see unhappy marriages and a trail of divorces. We can’t help but get scared.
In the case of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, she was made wedding-bells-phobic when her own marriage crumbled. In her words, she’d jumped into the marriage at the age of twenty-five like a Labrador jumps into a swimming pool. That is, with no preparation or foresight. Unsurprisingly, the divorce was messy.
For those of you who have read Eat, Pray, Love or who have seen the star-studded movie, you know about Gilbert’s post-divorce travels. First she went to Italy, where she dined on pizza and licked her wounds. After that she went on a meditation retreat in India. And then she finished up in Indonesia where she met Felipe, a worldly Brazilian man, also divorced. The two fell madly in love and committed themselves to fidelity forever, yet they swore to never legally marry.
But you know what they say. Never say never.
The couple, post Bali, cozily made a home for themselves in the U.S. Then they were informed by homeland security that if Felipe wanted to continue living in America, a marriage certificate was in order. Under this duress, Gilbert and her man got engaged. Now—in a hurry—Gilbert had to make peace with matrimony and so to achieve this she wrote Committed.
In equal measure, it’s a book that weaves together Gilbert’s personal experiences with a social, historical, and biological exposé of marriage. In particular, I appreciate this latter bigger-picture material. After all, if you want to have a mindful relationship, it can be helpful, as a foundation, to understand our biological and social impulses. Take, for example, what Gilbert reports regarding the research on infidelity conducted by psychologist Shirley P. Glass.
Apparently, many people who’ve been unfaithful claim that they weren’t looking for love outside their marriage—it just happened. “Put in such terms,” says Gilbert, “adultery starts to sound like a car accident, like a patch of black ice hidden on a treacherous curve, waiting for an unsuspecting motorist.” Yet Glass’s research tells us that that’s not the case—not if you dig deeper. Most affairs are actually predictable. For the most part, they begin in this way: a husband or wife makes a new friend, thinking that there’s nothing wrong with having a friend.
And nothing is wrong, says Glass, as long as the “walls and windows” of the marriage stay in their proper places. All healthy relationships have walls and windows. The windows are the parts of the relationship that are open to the world, the gaps through which the couple interacts with friends and family. The walls, on the other hand, are the barriers of trust guarding the couple’s intimate secrets.
Yet what often happens during supposedly innocent friendships is that you start sharing little intimacies with your new friend. “You reveal secrets about yourself—your deepest yearnings and frustrations—and it feels good to be so exposed,” writes Gilbert. “You throw open a window where there really ought to be a solid, weight-bearing wall, and soon you find yourself spilling your secret heart with this new person. Not wanting your spouse to feel jealous, you keep the details of your new friendship hidden. In so doing, you have now created a problem: You have just built a wall between you and your spouse where there really ought to be free circulation of air and light… Every old wall is now a giant picture window; every old window is now boarded up like a crack house.” You’ve created the perfect blueprint for infidelity, and it won’t be long now before your friend is upset about something and you put your arms around him or her—just to offer comfort—but then your lips meet and you realize you’re in love.
The conclusion we can draw from this research is that we are at least somewhat in control over what happens in our relationships. We just need to pay attention to what’s going on and to draw back when we find ourselves going down a dangerous path. Perhaps you’re thinking that this is basic stuff, maybe too basic. But following the breath is basic, too. Yet somehow we still need to learn it. And if we want to learn the psychology of commitment, I don’t know anyone else who could teach it with the verve of Gilbert. If Gilbert weren’t a writer, she’d make for a top-notch stand-up comedian.
In 2009, I was an elated newlywed when I read Committed and was lucky enough to interview Elizabeth Gilbert about it for the Shambhala Sun. Now, three years later, I’m still very happily married. Maybe I owe Gilbert a little thanks.