21 April 2017

Elizabeth Gilbert: Committed

This is hands down the most interesting book I've ever read in my
life. I've read it twice through fully now and I go back to specific parts quite frequently. I can see myself reading it ~100 more times. Everybody who has been in a relationship, wants to be in a relationship, is married, divorced, single, thinking about a breakup, engaged, etc. NEEDS to read this. I feel like it should be part of a sociology curriculum to be honest. I found this book by fluke in a used book store, without even knowing about its existence, and it's completely changed how I view my own relationships and other peoples' as well. Settle in this is going to be long as hell.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote this book as the unofficial follow-up to Eat Pray Love. If you haven't already gathered, I'm obsessed with Gilbert. Eat Pray Love is essentially a breakup bible, but Committed is better, more essential reading, and does not require reading Eat Pray Love in advance to appreciate it. For context, at the end of Eat Pray Love, Gilbert meets a man named José Nunes in Bali and they choose to spend their lives together but both are divorced and they agree they have no interest in marriage. Nunes moves back to America with Gilbert and is inevitably deported. The couple needs to get married to help with Nunes' immigration. Committed is the product of Gilbert travelling for months with Nunes while his immigration is processed and they decide if they can bring themselves to get married again for the sake of their relationship.    

Nunes and Gilbert
I should say, and I'm sorry to ruin this right here and now, Gilbert and Nunes are not together today. Just last year she left him and professed her love for her best friend, a woman who was suffering from cancer at the time. Being such a fan of Eat Pray Love and Committed, this was disappointing to me because I wondered if the stuff I related to so much was true anymore... However, as I just said to Meg, if 25 years from now she was suffering from a fatal illness, I may be compelled to leave my husband also and profess my love for her also. People change, I think what Gilbert wrote here still matters. 

I had already made this mistake- entering into marriage without understanding anything whatsoever about the institution- once before in my life. In fact, I had jumped into my first marriage, at the totally unfinished age of twenty-five, much the same way that a Labrador jumps into a swimming pool- with exactly that much preparation and foresight... I reaped the consequences in spades, six years later, in the grim setting of a divorce court."

The novel is non-fiction and very anthropological, and while I do think anthropology can be boring, every single line in this book is interesting if you care at all about marriage or relationships. The book is broken down into topical sections, "marriage & _____ " (history, women, autonomy, etc.). I won't talk about each one of them but I'm going to randomly blab about my favourite parts in a way that is hopefully coherent and intriguing.The historical parts, while still completely fascinating to me, were probably my least favourite. 

One of the first sections I really loved was about infatuation, and how in Western relationships being "addicted to each other" is somehow considered a good thing. In Eat Pray Love, Gilbert talks about a toxic relationship she had with a man named David, born from infatuation. In Committed, she expresses how far from that her relationship with Nunes was:

So, yes, my love affair with [Nunes] had a wonderful element of romance to it, which I will always cherish. But it was not an infatuation and here's how I can tell: because I did not demand that he become my Great Emancipator or my Source of All Life, nor did I immediately vanish into that man's chest cavity like a twisted, unrecognizable, parasitical homunculus. During our long period of courtship, I remained intact within my own personality, and I allowed myself to meet [Nunes] for who he was. 

And then this:

The brain scans and mood swings of an infatuated lover, scientists have recently discovered, look remarkably similar to the brain scans and mood swings of a cocaine addict— and not surprisingly, as it turns out, because infatuation is an addiction, with measurable chemical effects on the brain. As the anthropologist and infatuation expert Dr. Helen Fisher has explained, infatuated lovers, just like any junkie, “will go to unhealthy, humiliating, and even physically dangerous lengths to procure their narcotic.” 

Isn't this outrageous? I have a good friend who once stalked an ex to the bar in her pyjamas then sat in the car and ate two Boston Cream donuts to soothe her emotions because she was going through fucking WITHDRAWAL from a guy who wasn't even nice to her, because infatuated girls are DRUG ADDICTS. I'm no better. I've been in a very unhealthy relationship with someone shitty just because I was literally HIGH for all of it. I think about these passages from this book all. the. time. in my current relationship. I'm certainly obsessed with my boyfriend, I miss him on the drive to work, but I now *thank god* have the good sense to know that this isn't the same as the addiction I felt to attention from someone who I knew was no good for me.

I will now move on to the most interesting part of the entire book for me: infidelity. I apologize because if you have ever spoken to me, even just once, I've likely already told you about this. Gilbert talks about how people who have affairs never quite know how to explain themselves other than "they didn't see it coming, it just happened, they fell in love, they couldn't help it, etc." but when you look at the relationship closely it's so crazy easy to see exactly how it happened:

Most affairs begin, [Shirley P. Glass, psychologist] wrote, when a husband or wife makes a new friend, and an apparent harmless intimacy is born. You don't sense the danger as it's happening because what's wrong with friendship? Why can't we have friends of the opposite sex- or of the same sex, for that matter- even if we are married?"

All it takes is "one nice woman at work" a co-worker once said to me...    

What often happens, though, during so-called harmless friendships, is that you begin sharing intimacies with your new friend that belong hidden within your marriage. You reveal secrets about yourself... 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 friend hidden. In doing so, you have now created a problem... You have just established the perfect blueprint for infidelity without even noticing."

I'll pause while you all text your boyfriends/husbands and tell them they can no longer open snapchats from Jess at the front desk, even if they are just "of her dog"...

So by the time your new friend comes into your office one day in tears over some piece of bad news, and you wrap your arms around each other (only meaning to be comforting!), and then your lips brush and you realize in a dizzying rush that you love this person- that you have always loved this person!- it's too late... And it's true. You didn't see it coming. But you did build it, and you could have stopped it if you'd acted faster. 

This is the 'windows and walls' theory and it makes more sense to me than anything I've ever read. If you have been cheated on/have cheated/have been accused of being overly jealous, you will love this part of this book. I don't consider myself an overly jealous person but after this book, no, I won't date a guy who wants to 'get a drink' with a female friend that wasn't around lonnnnng before me and I don't think this is even slightly unreasonable. What does he stand to benefit from that that he can't do without? 

Unrelated, because infidelity was not a factor, Gilbert spends a lot of time discussing her divorce throughout this book. Not just the emotional strain but the financial, familial, and sometimes physical grief as well. If you are divorced/getting divorced/interested in divorce I highly recommend reading this.     

Gilbert at a Committed signing in Houston
If you're interested in marriage from a feminist perspective (which as a human you just should be) there's a lot of interesting content in this book. Gilbert discusses how females are so obsessed with getting married but statistically we suffer the most in marriages, compared to men who are stereotypically resistant to matrimony but statistically stand to benefit:

From studies, married men perform dazzlingly better in life, live longer, accumulate more, excel at careers, report to be happier, less likely to die from a violent death, suffer less from alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression than single man…The reverse is not true. In fact, every fact is reverse, single women fare much better than married women. On average, married women take a 7% pay cut. All of this adds up to what Sociologists called the “Marriage Benefit Imbalance”…It is important to pause here and inspect why so women long for [marriage] so deeply.” 

Part of what made me so (wonderfully) uncomfortable while reading this book was how much the section on choice related to me. If you know me, you know I am chronically unsure. I am always paralyzed with indecision, it's my worst quality. I could not tell you the last time I confidently made a choice. There are things I've decided in the past that I'm confident now, in retrospect, were right or wrong, but at the time I was in deep turmoil over them. In this book Gilbert discusses the cultural and historical implications of choosing your partner, and how it's one of the most personal and important choices anyone can make. This particular passage really frigging scares me:

We live in danger of becoming paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice... Equally disquieting are the times when we do make a choice, only to later feel as though we have murdered some other aspect of our being by settling on one single concrete decision... Or we become compulsive comparers - always measuring our lives against some other person's life, secretly wondering if we should have taken her path instead... All these choices and all this longing can create a weird kind of haunting in our lives - as though the ghosts of all our other, unchosen, possibilities linger forever in a shadow world around us, continuously asking, "Are you certain this is what you really wanted?" And nowhere does that question risk haunting us more than in our marriages, precisely because the emotional stakes of that most intensely personal choice have become so huge.”

Ugh. This problem affects me everyday, whether it's about jobs or relationships or just what vacuum to buy. Part of the reason why I loved this book so much is because even though Gilbert is right in that picking a life partner is the most terrifying decision you'll ever make, she gives you a different context in which to think about it, to help us overly analytical folks feel confident in our choices.

 People always fall in love with the most perfect aspects of each other’s personalities. Who wouldn’t? Anybody can love the most wonderful parts of another person. But that’s not the clever trick. The really clever trick is this: Can you accept the flaws? Can you look at your partner’s faults honestly and say, ‘I can work around that. I can make something out of it.’? Because the good stuff is always going to be there, and it’s always going to pretty and sparkly, but the crap underneath can ruin you.” 

Gilbert's critical thinking and clear writing here has inspired confidence in my own decision making. I'm confident, for maybe the first time ever, about my current relationship, but I'm still neurotic. Everyday I pose a new, ridiculous situation to my boyfriend showcasing how terrible of a person I can be and ask if he'd still want to be with me. I am annoying, he is annoyed, but I'm still convinced this is a valuable exercise. I'm lucky he is patient, and that he understands my indecision and will offer options like, "if you decide you don't like it, I can change it", or "I know you won't have an answer right now but just start to think about it". He is really the best.

People, read this book. It's honestly amazing and not at all self-helpy the way I may have described it. Gilbert prefaces the novel by explaining her stress following Eat Pray Love. There was such pressure on her to follow it with something great but nothing was coming naturally to her. Committed wasn't something she intended to write, but it came organically and I think it's such an honest and compelling exploration of marriage and relationships. There's nobody I wouldn't recommend it to unless you're male, or you're one of those people who can't think critically and "never had any doubts" about your partner. Blech.


  1. I've been building a collection of carefully chosen books to bring on my vacation in a few weeks... and this sounds like the perfect addition!

    1. I will happily mail it's that important. Library might work also.

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