Tying the Knot in a Meaningful and Memorable Way (Without Losing Our Savings or Sanity)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book Club: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

I'm delighted to kick off the first ever 2000dollarwedding book club discussion about Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert. You all are such an insightful and smart bunch--I just wish we were discussing this book in person over chocolate fondue!

I chose this book for a couple reasons. First, I'm a big fan of hybrid genres. I am engaged by narratives injected with interesting factoids and tangents. I also wanted to immerse myself in the topic of marriage. Before I head too far down the baby path, I want to spend sufficient time holding marriage in the palm of my hand, savoring it, and investigating its nooks and crannies.

All in all, I'm glad I read the book, although I'm not going to gush about it. I'd give it three out of five stars.

Here were my major take-aways:
  1. We should enter into marriage with seriousness and gravity. She says, "I had jumped into my first marriage, at the totally unfinished age of twenty-five, much the same way that a Labrador jump into a swimming pool-with exactly that much preparation and foresight" (19). Now, I'm not saying there's some sort of age cut-off as far as being prepared for marriage goes, but I do believe that we should enter into the commitment much more consciously. There are so many forces at work that can easily distract us from the seriousness of the undertaking: centerpieces, cake-toppers, hair pieces--oh my! It's sometimes hard to clearly see the Marriage through all the Wedding static. Getting married is a big, big deal. It's a commitment that changes the path of your life--for better or worse. It deserves more forethought and consideration.
  2. The poetry. Something about Elizabeth Gilbert irks me. I can't quite put my finger on it (perhaps I subconsciously know what it is but won't admit it to myself because I realize that what I don't like about her is probably something that I don't like about myself--thanks Carl Jung). However, I do love the way she can serve up poetic phrases like stuffed mushrooms at a cocktail party. For example, she said, "Flopping in the meantime from country to country, we came to resemble nothing more than an insomniac couple trying to find a restful sleeping position in a strange and uncomfortable bed" (22). I find her prose enjoyable to digest.
  3. Breaking off into smaller and smaller family units can put a strain on our marriages. I loved her discussion of the Hmong people. They structure their families and clans much more broadly, and they don't expect their partners to be their everything--"your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow" (32). When I was dating and scouring the planet for my one true soul mate, I had unrealistic expectations about finding a partner who would fulfill all of my needs. As Gilbert describes: "For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that perhaps I was asking too much of love. Or, at least, perhaps I was asking too much of marriage. Perhaps I was loading a far heavier cargo of expectation onto the creaky old boat of matrimony than that strange vessel had ever been built to accommodate in the first place." Although Matt does fulfill many, many of my needs, I still need to analyze life with my best friend Andy and talk educational policy with my friend Brent and brainstorm next steps with my friend Alisa. I don't expect Matt to complete me; we both continue to make connections outside our marriage in order to to live whole, full lives. We also go out of our way to build community around us. We host monthly potlucks, we strike up conversations with our neighbors, we make a conscious effort to make new friends. Also, pursing lives apart from each other always helps to renew our appreciation for the times when we are together.
  4. Romantic love is not the most important indicator of a good marriage. Gilbert says, "The emotional place where a marriage begins is not nearly as important as the emotional place where a marriage finds itself toward the end." I agree with the idea that prioritizing partnership over passion can help contribute to a relationship's longevity.
  5. Interesting interludes. I love books that give me something to talk about at parties. For example, her discussion of the vasopression receptor gene and its role in creating men who are "trustworthy and reliable sexual partners, sticking with one spouse for decades, rasing children and running stable households" (107) was intriguing. I also appreciated her discussion of Shirley P. Glass's work on marital infidelity. Glass proposes a very interesting theory about how casual friendship can lead to infidelity (e.g., you start sharing a lot of your emotional self with someone new and that feels good) and how you can be conscious of the signs and intervene before it's too late (e.g., by talking to your spouse about what's happening rather than feeling shameful and keeping it a secret--which causes you to feel even more connected to the new person with whom you share everything). And I was fascinated by her description of the Laotian wedding loan system: "When a Laotian couple is about to get married, they send invitation cards to each guest. The guests take these original invitation cards (with their names and addresses on them), fold the cards into the shape of a small envelope, and stick some money inside. On the wedding day, all these envelopes go into a giant wooden box. This immense donation is the money with which the couple will begin their new life together....Later, when the wedding party is over, the bride and groom sit up all night and count the money. While the groom counts, the bride sits with a notebook, writing down exactly how much money was given by each guest," so that the exact amount (plus a little for interest and inflation) will be returned as a gift to the original giver on his/her wedding day. "The wedding money, then, is not really a gift. It's an exhaustively catalogued and ever-shifting loan, circulating from one family to the next as each new couple starts a life together" (140).
I also thought a lot about our tendency in Western cultures to privatize our marriages, and I want to heed Gilbert's advice to not privatize our marriages so that they become "deoxygenated, isolated, solitary, vulnerable" (145). Yes! We should talk more openly about our common experiences and struggles as a way to support each other.

And I worried about the "Marriage Benefit Imbalance" that suggests that women do not reap as many benefits from marriage as men do (167). Gilbert discusses the research and says, "If there was ever a good moment in Western history...for a woman to become a wife, this would probably be it. If you are advising your daughter on her future, and you want her to be a happy adult someday, then you might want to encourage her to finish her schooling, delay marriage for as long as possible, earn her own living, limit the number of children she has, and find a man who doesn't mind cleaning the bathtub. Then your daughter may have a chance at leading a life that is nearly as healthy and wealthy and happy as her future husband's life will be" (168).

I also loved hearing about Gilbert's mom. She "had been a hard worker her whole life, but this job--this career--became an expression of her very being, and she loved every minute of it" (180). Yes, we should all find jobs that are the expression of our very being and that bring us immense joy.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the book. Although I found myself skimming some of the slow parts, I got a lot out of the book.

So what about you? What was your overall response to the book? What resonated with you? What bothered you? How will your life be different after reading this book? Also, do you have any recommendations for the next book club title? I'm thinking we should do something less cerebral and more practical--something about how to continue to build and develop strong partnerships (something like Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts with the accompanying workbook?). Other ideas?

Do share!

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susi said...

I haven't read the book so I am not a member of the book-club - but THANK YOU SO MUCH for the summary! It was very interesting to read and I am very intrigued about it now.
The book you are suggesting for the next club-session sounds great! I am getting married in May and both my partner and I believe that relationships are something you have to work on in order to have them bloom and grow.
So if it will be this book, I think I will join (I will look into it right now!).

Nicole said...

I think that you're pretty spot on with the summary of it. I felt really torn reading this book, partially because I love "Eat, Pray, Love" and this book is nothing like that. Also, partially because it occasionally made me want to throw it across the room.

I agreed with a lot of it, like being serious about your marriage, and I loved the concept of windows and walls. That's something I now find myself sharing with lots of people.

My complaint with the book, however, is that she doesn't really address how limited and specific her perspective is (read:childless). I will give her credit for spending a couple of pages talking about the "aunties" but overall it felt like she just ignored that one huge and unique fact. Her personal experience is very, very different from the vast majority of people who marry.

I also felt like she wasn't sure where she wanted to go with her book. In some parts, it's incredibly research -- just a huge collection of very, very informative stuff about marriage. But in other parts it seemed so personal, and not sex-life personal, but things like detailing why she wanted to go to Cambodia, or her argument with Felipe.

Finally, I felt like the fact that she drug out this decision because it was her second marriage really enforced the idea that people shouldn't get married again, or it shouldn't be as special as a first. I get that she had a rough first marriage (even understanding that I do not know the details) but it just felt enforceful of that societal belief.

Amy* said...

I loved the book. I like the fact that the author spliced together her personal story and facts/history about marriage.

The big thing for me was the idea of windows and walls. I know that the theory is about how people end up being unfaithful, but I think having walls between spouses could lead to big marital trouble, even if there isn't infidelity.

I was also particularly touched by the information about the author's grandmother. It really is interesting how much we sacrifice, almost unquestioningly at times, for our family/spouse/marriage.

Nicole, I defintely see where you are coming from in terms of Gilbert contributing to the stigma of 2nd marriages, but I don't think that was her intention. As she said in the book, she was really unprepared for her first marriage. That failure led her to be apprehensive and much more serious the second time around. I don't know that she would think second marriages shouldn't be celebrated. I think it was just her personal experience that she wanted to do things differently the second time.

Rachael Eisner said...

So I read the book from front to back cover. I did so in a day because honestly I forgot about the book club up until yesterday! Oops.

In the beginning she said she struggled with this book. Because she was trying to write to appease 10,000. She read that manuscript, shelved it and went back to gardening.

When she came back from gardening she realized she needed to write to 27 people. 27 of her closest women friends and family. Her pack. So that is why there is a lot of personal problems, and not global views on things. She was explaining her relationship and her personal issues with marriage, and dealing with them. In a way I kind of feel like I paid her to be her therapist, since writing this book and doing her research helped her in her 30's to accept her situation and move forward.

I also feel like I should go pay her a million dollars on top of the 27.95 I spent on the dang book.

She helped me grasp a lot of the issues I was having about getting married as well. I am one of those childless aunties she spoke of. A walking talking future kindergarten teacher who has absolutely NO desire to have children with the man I have full intention of spending the rest of my life with. Our lives (for very personal reasons which I wont share here due to the windows and walls policy) would be OVER if we had kids. Over. He would make a terrible father simply because he does not want kids. And that is perfectly fine with me.

I feel that if you take some of her experiences (like when she wanted to go to Cambodia) and use them as analogies, they are applicable to everyone.

As far as being helpful after the marriage? Not so much, since the story ends AT the wedding.

Before it definitely helped me come to terms with Western marriages/relationships in general. Gave me a perspective historically speaking on the true history of marriage, with un-arguable points. Also gave me an eastern world perspective on how relationships should be run. Also made me feel ok with taking bits and pieces of everything to fit OUR lives well. (p253) Felipe's explanation on his philosophy in life: "I'm Brazilian."
"What does that even mean?"
Felipe laughed. "Nobody knows! That's the wonderful thing about being Brazilian. It doesn't mean anything! So you can use your Brazilianness as an excuse to live your life any way you want. It's a brilliant strategy, actually. It's taken me far."

Rachael Eisner said...

I forgot to add, my girlfriend has a bunch of books she read before getting married, and they helped her a LOT. She didn't email me the titles yet. I'll send them your way on Thursday. They're definitely different from this one, more helpful then memoir (she read this one too and liked these better. I like the memoir approach.) =)

April said...

I have not read the book but I totally agree that marriage is a very big deal and should be taken seriously. These days,people jump in and out of a marriage as easy as changing one's clothes. So sad and frustrating!

Erin said...

I agree that I'd like to hear more about what happens after the wedding. My husband and I have been together for almost five years, and married 3 months. We've had worse arguments, and more emotional pain, in the last month than in our entire relationship. It's heartbreaking and I'm so frustrated that it seems our families were right when they said the first year of marriage is awful.

If Gilbert decides to write a third book, about how her marriage is going and how she's dealing with any problems she's having, I think THAT would be incredibly valuable. We need to know not only how to reconcile ourselves to the idea of marriage based on our personalities and expectations of marriage, but we need to learn how to be in a marriage successfully. I'm learning that it's a lot different than dating, and I'm not sure why, since we've been sharing a home, finances, etc, for years.

All in all, a good book and a good read, but not quite what I'm looking for. Any suggestions on books about the early stages of marriage that are honest and direct, but not religious or cheesy?

Ellen said...

Hey Sarah. After you mentioned Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts in another post, I bought it on Amazon (even though we're doing actual pre-marital counseling). And I HATED it. There were no useful take away messages for me--it seemed simplistic and not very thoughtful, and everything was based on gender stereotypes. Maybe you like it and there's something I'm missing--or maybe you haven't read it yet. If you haven't, I would advise browsing through it in a bookstore before spending the money on buying it.

Ellen said...

Woops, sorry for adding an "h" to your name...

alloallo said...

I have to say I sort of hated and enjoyed this book at the same time. I also feel like her perspective is really limited, not just because she doesn't have/want children but also because she has a really annoying tendency to 'read' all the other cultures/places she encounters through her own myopic lens.

That said, I took away a few things from the book, about the windows/walls (which, to be fair she actually is summarising from someone else's book!) and about how couples fight. Sometimes you really do just want to shake her and say 'get it together!'

Plus, was it just me or did anyone else find it sort of grating how un-fun Felipe was, just sitting around not wanting to do anything? Am I being really ungenerous?

Nicole said...

Amy: I wasn't saying that she was trying to do that, I'm sure she's a lovely lady who wants happiness for all (at least that's what I take from her). I just felt like that was the unintentional take away.

Rachel: I totally agree! I loved that she challenged me to think with her writing, and allowed me, through her research to come to terms with the way I looked at getting married, and my role in said marriage. I loved all of the information which she provided... it was great.

Erin: I totally agree with you too! :) I want something that talks about the actual marriage -- my husband and I are in the same boat, argument wise: some of our most passionate and painful fights have been since we got married, which is frustrating. Unlike you, I was told the first year was supposed to be the best, so I immediately jumped to "What am I doing to cause my marriage to fail?!" It's been a real struggle, and I would love to have someone to chat with about it.

Alicia: I did find Felipe un-fun as well. I guess because I kept referring back to him from EPL, he was just so... distant in this book. But, that's probably because she was writing about herself and her issues - not so much about him.

Stephanie said...

I agree with the mixed feelings you other folks have talked about with the book. At times it seems a little too personal, and I got frustrated that this is a non-fiction book (albeit memoir) and she doesn't include any of her sources. Maybe that's the (ex)grad student in me, but I wanted to check some of them...

Overall, though, I found the book pretty useful for me as I get ready to marry in a couple months. I've historically been rather a skeptic about marriage, myself. Although, my skepticism lies largely in wondering WHY we feel compelled to get married in the first place-- what's the difference between this commitment and just sitting on your couch and telling each other you want to make this happen forever? And, I wonder why I see so many couples that get married and then sometimes slowly, sometimes instantaneously become seemingly gray and juiceless. Gilbert didn't seem that concerned with keeping the marriage juicy-- instead she seemed outright terrified of getting divorced. But still, her meandering research and thoughts about marriage provided good company to me as I thought about my own issues alongside hers.

Two of the main things I took away from the book were that, contrary to my feminist instincts that want to reject this, marriage really does limit you. But, that's also okay. I tend to bristle any time I think about being a caged woman through marriage. But, that's not what marriage should be, ideally. As I give up some things which for me tend to be imaginary situations anyway (traveling at the drop of a hat, for instance), I also gain, with my partner, someone to actually plan a REAL trip with. And I'd get to go with him which would be waaay better than going on my own. And, with marriage, I'm never going to go to a party and make out with someone I barely know. But, I never did that anyway, and I certainly never did it when I was with my fiance. And, what I feel I am gaining through that commitment that we are making to each other ends up being so much greater than the limits I am putting on my life through the marriage.

Second, I felt challenged and interested by her discussion of her flaws on p. 130. She brings Filipe a list of her flaws. She is brutally honest with herself and states them to him. I think I would have a hard time with this. It shows really good understanding of self, but also lots of trust in your partner. I don't like being wrong (a flaw) so that makes it difficult for me to admit my flaws (Catch 22). I think this would be a good exercise for us. Kinda scary, but ultimately worth it.

Brenna said...

Sorry for the late arrival to our meeting! I am also on spring break and apparently am seeing deadlines as flexible. Hopefully some folks will wander in with me.

I read the book a while ago (before Sara invited us to the book club) so I had to review some of my notes and highlights to remember what I was thinking about. If I leave out anything major, that's why.

I liked a lot of this book. I agree with some of the ambivalence other readers had, but overall, it brought some of the issues I've been thinking about to the surface. Like others, I think the Glass theory of walls and windows is really helpful, especially to someone like me who forges new relationships with others all the time. I like meeting people and talking with people much more than my partner does, and this gave me a VERY concrete way to check myself and my conversations.

I, too, loved the discussion of the Hmong people and the way that our isolated marriages could be putting too much strain on our relationships.

Mostly, this book made me glad that I feel like I know myself well and I know what I want my marriage to bring to me as an individual. I've thought before that I have been too pragmatic about this partnership. My fiance and I have been together 5 years, and there is so much about the cores of us as individuals and our relationship that made me know very early on that he was someone I wanted to spend my life with. I'm reminded of the friend's grandpa's quote early in the book: "Sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes life is too good to be alone." I have always known that I wanted to try to spend my life with someone. This book reinforced to me through the variety of examples of marriage that while of course I love my partner, it is good that there is much more than romantic love that makes our relationship strong.

Finally, some aspects of the book reminded me of the humility with which I must approach marriage. My parents divorced when I was nine, and while it was amazing amicable, I have always declared with certainty how I never want to get a divorce. This is still true. But another line that really struck me was from the acquaintance at the cocktail party who knew she would never abandon her husband, and Gilbert commented that "the question was not entirely up to her. She was not the only person in that bed." When we choose to marry, we are surrendering lots of things, including absolute control over our choices and paths in life. This has at times terrified me as I approach marriage. As we get closer to our wedding date, I have to come to terms with the balance of how much work is necessary in a long-term relationship and how much my partner has to do, and how much the support of our community of family and friends has to do, and the energy of the universe has to do, etc. I must be humble and give up some control, with my faith fully invested in the idea that it will work out. Any other "children of divorce" experiencing these thoughts?

Overall, I liked it, and I really enjoyed reading all of your comments. I agree--too bad we can't do it in person!

Chelsea said...

This is my first ever stop to this blog, and I found this book club discussion. I'm thrilled by this lovely post you've written, and am totally intrigued by the book. Now, let's see if I can find the remains of that Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas...

Rachel said...

Sorry so late on my response, I was recently married (one whole month!) and I'm still in cleanup/thank you note/gift card spending phase. Please excuse me and note that I'd love to continue being a part of the marriage book club. I think that learning about how to flourish in ones own marriage is so important!

Let me respond to previous comments:

Abivalence and Likeability - Yes, there were some slow parts that I just had to grind thru. She covered so many topics that not all will be of immediate interest to everyone. I tried to take something away from each example, even if I felt it didn't apply directly to me at this time. I find her to be very likeable. You are right Sara, maybe it is a personality type thing. I am a shy, reserved, and self-doubting soul and I find her charisma absolutely charming. I might feel differently if I saw more of myself in her.

I also marked the windows and walls discussion. This seems to be something that really stood out to us all. I wonder if its because this is the terror of happy marriages. I guess unhappy marriages have their own struggles, but I'll admit that this is my top worry. My husband is a steadfast man, not a flirt, and he doesn't take our bond lightly. But this sneaky intimacy, when one window is shut, then a wall is placed, and a slow infrastructure is built between partners who don't know how to stop it, this is a terrifying prospect. I enjoyed the way she addressed it, and the solution she proposed. Open communication, even in the most uncomfortable situations, can save a marriage. I believe that.

I found myself focusing heavily on the motherhood discussion in 'Marriage and Women'. Motherhood is something I consider daily, because we just don't have it figured out yet. Is parenthood for us? What will our lives look like with or without children? Particularly I struggle with the toll motherhood will put on me, and my husband who is honestly not so sure about fatherhood.

The last concept that stood out as a takeaway, something to be practiced in marriage daily (which is something, thankfully, that my partner and I have been focused on since day one) is arguing with tact. Focusing on not 'going universal' by using the words 'you always' or 'you never'. When you are frustrated with each other and might say something hurtful, instead say 'lets be careful right now' and bite back harsh words.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to people who haven't yet found a partner, to people who are looking forward to a marriage, and to those who have already made their commitment and are looking to maintain or rebuild their bond. I found it very informative and interesting.

The Normal Studio said...

Actually, I'm Hmong ... and I'm curious to see what Gilbert actually rights in this book about my culture. It's not all roses and potlucks.

The Normal Studio said...


I meant to say, "writes", not rights. Bah, it's late.

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