Frisky Q&A: Author Elizabeth Gilbert Talks About Tying The Knot

After her hugely successful book, Eat, Pray, Love, was published, Elizabeth Gilbert settled into a lovely life with the man she met on that personal journey. Both she and the guy, known as Felipe in the book, had been married and divorced before, and they told themselves they weren’t going to get married again; just promising commitment to one other was enough. That is, until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided not to let Felipe, a Brazilian with an Australian passport, back into the country after a trip overseas. Sure, the two could have settled down elsewhere, but they wanted to live near family and friends, so the only real option for getting Felipe permission to reenter the United States was for he and Elizabeth to get married.

While they waited for immigration to look into their case — Felipe needed to secure a fiancé visa and wouldn’t be able to return to the States until he was given one — the two bided their time by traveling around the world together, living as inexpensively as possible in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Elizabeth looked into this thing called marriage. What was the big deal about it? Why didn’t many last? How has it changed over the years, and what does that mean for us? Beyond the obvious questions, she considered every possible angle, including points of view I had never, ever considered, and wrote about how she came to terms with the institution (because she didn’t have much of a choice) in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, which hit stores yesterday. She spoke with The Frisky about the joys and trials of matrimony.The Frisky: What’s it like for you to discuss something that’s usually kept so private? Marriage isn’t something that most people share with the world.

Elizabeth Gilbert: I’m not a very private person, generally — you probably have gathered by now from the last two books — so it’s not difficult for me to put that stuff out there. I feel like Committed is not nearly as intimate a book as Eat, Pray, Love was. Eat, Pray, Love came out of this raw, emotional, ripped-open place, and Committed required more of a serious attitude and approach. It’s interesting that you say marriage is such a personal thing. It is on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s this long-running government-influenced, religion-influenced public question. A lot of what I wanted to discuss and examine and explore in marriage was, “Where is that line where this is personal and where this is public?” and a lot of the elements that I wanted to put in the book were some of those more public questions about what constitutes a marriage and what the institution’s role in society is.

The Frisky: Do you feel like there’s more pressure on your marriage since you’ve told the world about the relationship in your books?

EG: I don’t think so. I don’t think we would say, “Oh my god, we can’t get divorced, the fans …” We’re not like Jon and Kate! I don’t think the stakes are quite that high, and we have our own reasons for staying together. I also think I haven’t portrayed us as this golden couple that has the world on a string and has everything figured out. The story of this marriage is that it was coerced. We came into it really confused and surprised and it was quite sudden and it was inflicted on us by an external force at a time when we weren’t prepared for it. A lot of the book is just about us sort of emotionally catching up with the reality of our situation and trying to be truthful about what our feelings were about it. I don’t think I went out out of the way to say “Do as we do” or “Try to be as happy as us,” but, in that regard, I think we can stand as avatars for everybody’s questions and fears and hesitations. A lot of the aversions and panics that we felt about getting married can’t be that different from what a lot of other people must feel in similar situations, even if they didn’t have a marriage that was arranged by the INS like we did. They might come to it with their own bundles of fears and insecurities, and we can sort of represent that to other people in this book.

The Frisky: A lot of people say that getting married changes a relationship. Is anything different between you and Felipe since your wedding?

EG: I wouldn’t say so. What I think is interesting about that is not the way we see each other, but the way that our community and our family see us. That has certainly changed. You read the book, so you know how my niece Mimi felt …

The Frisky: I was just going to ask whether she calls Felipe “Uncle” now! [She wouldn’t called him her uncle until he and Liz were officially married, even though they had multiple, unofficial commitment ceremonies.]

EG: Oh, yeah. He’s totally legitimized. It’s all in the clear now, so everybody’s cool. But it’s not just her. We moved into this really small community, a pretty conservative New Jersey town, and we entered that town as husband and wife, which meant that just by being able to use that language, we were granted this immediate legitimacy in the eyes of this community. It was like this big shortcut to citizenship. People just assume that we’re decent, upstanding citizens, which we try to be, but you get to cut in front of the line toward respectability that I hadn’t quite realized before.

The Frisky: In the book you talk about the sacrifices your grandmother and mother made when they got married. Have you found yourself making sacrifices or do you think not having kids has put the two of you on more equal ground?

EG: Definitely my marriage has far more equality in it than my mother or grandmother could have ever dreamed of. That’s partially because of the fact that I’m the breadwinner, and it’s partially because of the fact that I don’t have children. A friend of mine who’s also a childless writer has put this really well. She said, “The most irresponsible parent in the world has so much more responsibility in their life than I do because of the fact that I don’t have the enormous responsibility of raising a child.” So, I would say that I have a much easier time of it. That said, there is no relationship without sacrifice. If you’re embarking on some sort of relationship without sacrifice, then you won’t be in that relationship for very long. There are definitely deep compromises that both of us have had to make in order to stay together and live together. But they’re not nearly on the level of what my female ancestors ever encountered. I’m not giving up the work I love to stay home to raise my kids because my husband won’t help me with the children he wanted to have, you know what I mean? There are huge, huge ways in which our lives are very different.

The Frisky: Do you have advice for people who want to try to have more equality in their marriage?

EG: Let’s just say that right at the beginning that it’s very difficult. We tend to forget and we should not forget that we are still in the very, very beginning phases of an unprecedented social science experiment that has only recently come to human history, which is what happens if you give women any kind of autonomy whatsoever? It is really new, and I think sometimes we forget how new it is because we think the 1960s was a long time ago. We are all in the first wave of this social experiment that has no precedent in 20,000 years of human history, to see what women will do if you give them literacy, and you give them health, and you give them control over their reproductive destiny, and you give them the right to make money, and all of these sorts of things. A lot of us haven’t totally figured out what we’re going to do with it!

I look at some of my female friends and I think that some of us are a little bit like the East Germans 10 years after the wall came down, sort of wandering around saying, “Gosh, I’m nostalgic for when things were simpler and we were really oppressed. Suddenly I have all these choices. Freedom is really hard.” That’s what the Buddhists call wrong thinking, because it leads to a nostalgia for having no options whatsoever, and that’s just obviously not the answer. The answer is that we all just have to keep puzzling our way through this. All of which is to say that I don’t feel qualified to give people advice on how to manage the really difficult, major life issue for almost every woman I know, which is how are we to balance our autonomy against our connectedness. And it’s difficult enough for me to make that work in my own life and I have enormous advantages that a lot of other people don’t have. I’ll just say, be gentle on yourself if you’re confused because it is an extremely difficult time in history to have decided to be born a woman. But I will submit that it beats any time that came before by a mile. There’s no reason to be nostalgic for the past because it was a lot worse than this.

The Frisky: A lot of my friends who are engaged are struggling over the “Should I take his name or keep mine?” question, and it feels like that debate has been going on forever. Do you think it’s ever going to end?

EG: That’s such a funny topic because I see people take really strident stands on it. I have a friend who not only did not take her husband’s name, but their children have her name, which is an unusual solution because a lot of times the wife will keep her name but the children will have the husband’s name, and she’s really adamant about that. On the other hand, she quit her job to stay home and raise her kids. So, when you look at the big picture, who really gave up more, my friend or someone who took her husband’s name but is out there in the workforce? It’s so complicated in the same way that women are now faced with thousands of grades of options for how they’re going to present themselves to the world, whether they’re going to get plastic surgery and make themselves into some sort of perfect magazine worthy idealized version or whether they’re going to wear Birkenstocks and a long, skinny gray braid and every single option in between. There are the same sorts of questions in intimacy and there’s a point at which you almost have to have a mystical intuition for your own life in terms of what you’re willing to give up and what you’re not willing to give up.

The most important thing is to try against all odds to work on creating a marriage that resembles you so when you look at yourself within it you don’t feel as though you have been lost. You want to be able to say, “I know who I am inside of this.” And that takes a lot of consciousness, but it’s another reason why, and not to hammer home this point, but it is the strongest factor that I found in the research, why marriage should not be a game for the young. These questions are really big and complex, and the best way to solve them is with wisdom, and the best way to acquire wisdom is with experience, and 23-year-olds just don’t have that much wisdom and experience to be tackling these things. I think sometimes questions like, “Should I take my husband’s name?” become a kind of red herring where you allow yourself to get distracted because the stakes of that, to be honest, just aren’t very high and there are much bigger questions you should be asking about who’s going to be raising your children and how you intend to make sure that you have autonomy within this relationship. Those are harder, so I think sometimes it’s easier to get neurotic over what your Christmas cards are going to say.

The Frisky: How does it feel knowing that people have read Eat, Pray, Love and will probably read Committed, and take your experiences, including your mistakes, to make decisions in their own lives?

EG: I don’t think either book is a classic book of self-help in terms of offering solutions or suggestions. I think that in both cases what I’ve done is to say, “With a lot of the same questions you probably had, I went on this particular journey and came up with these answers. This is the best that I could figure out, and this was comforting to me, and this was distressing to me, and this was surprising to me, and this was a piece of pragmatic information, and this is a piece of useless garbage. But here, I’m going to hand it all to you.” What I really want is not so much for people to be people modeling their lives after mine — heaven forbid! That is not what I want people to be doing! — but what I really want is to be a part of the conversation that they’re already having. I mention in the forward of Committed that I wrote the book for 27 readers — friends, neighbors, relatives, who’ve all been struggling to try to get to the bottom of these questions for years — and I know we’re not the only ones who are sitting around talking about this stuff. The difference in my life is because of the position I have as a writer and the luxury of now being a writer who’s had this best seller, I can take three years and do absolutely nothing but study this and then I can present my findings for everyone else. People will have to sort through it and decide what, if anything, is helpful to them, and then they’re very, very welcome to keep it and use it forever in any way that helps.

The Frisky: Are there any questions you think people should ask themselves before they get married?

EG: I think it’s really important that you make sure you have sat down and you have really examined and identified and articulated your expectations. One of the things that I found so fascinating was the fact that every successive generation of Americans for the last 100 years has added to the weight of expectation that they’ve put on marriage in terms of what they expect their partner will be in their life. It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and more and more phantasmal and less and less realistic with every generation. And you know the old adage, “Plant an expectation, reap a disappointment.” The more you expect someone is going to be in your life, the more likely it is that that person is going to disappoint you, even if they’re not abusive or manipulative or horrible or cruel. They might just not bring you everything that you thought it would be. I don’t want to become the mistress of telling people that they must lower their expectations, but I do want to make sure people are at least aware that they have expectations and that they are probably among the highest that any humans have had in terms of what they think their marriage is supposed to be and to make sure they’re looking at that. That’s sort of the biggest emotional piece. As for the biggest real world piece, the three biggest things people fight about in their marriages are money, sex, and childbearing. Those are three questions that are awkward to talk about, especially when you’re in love and picking out the color of your bridesmaids gowns, but I think it’s quite important to make sure you’ve set aside time to really speak candidly and openly with your partner about what your expectations are for all those things, what your fears are, and make sure that you’re really on the same page because those are three issues that can really undo a relationship.