Elizabeth Gilbert’s pleasure-infused, spiritual memoir Eat, Pray, Love spent fifty-seven weeks in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list and was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Elizabeth Gilbert talked with me about passion, her spiritual path, and her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. Committed is equal parts social and historical exposé of matrimony, and the intimate story of how Gilbert made the transition from a dreamy romance in Bali to a solid marriage in New Jersey. Thinking about tying (or untying) the knot yourself? Read this first.
You’ve been married for three years. How’s it going?
Really well. We’re lucky to have a natural compatibility. I say that with fingers crossed because I know unexpected things can arise, but we have a nice time together. We are very careful with each other.
What’s the most difficult aspect of marriage?
Any thought you have going into marriage that you’re not going to sacrifice something is ignorant. Depending on who you are, different things might feel painful. I have a friend who has been happily married for twenty years. She’s a terrific mom and she loves this guy but she feels this amputation, as she calls it, of monogamy. She feels there’s a part of her that died with the marriage, which isn’t to say they don’t have a sexual life together. There are just limits on what that is and what that can be. She’s willing to make the sacrifice, but it hurts.
Monogamy doesn’t strike me as problematic. I’m more likely to think about the loss of independence, which isn’t to say I don’t have a really supportive and encouraging husband. There are simply restrictions I place on my comings and goings because I’m married—I’m not going to travel around the world by myself for a year, and there are moments when I feel that loss. Yet you can’t expect to get anything without giving something up. It’s the beginning of maturity to understand that. So although marriage involves sacrifice, that’s not a deal breaker, because the rest of the deal is pretty great.
What’s the greatest joy of marriage?
It’s being known so intimately and being given the option to love and be loved with very few conditions. You’re not auditioning, which is how I felt about dating. I remember something my husband said to me early on. We were sitting at dinner eating pizza and I had gorged myself. There was one piece left and I was wavering. I said, “God, I really shouldn’t have this because it’s not good for me. I don’t want to put on weight.” He looked at me and said, “I’ve got a really good idea. Why don’t you just be yourself?” It was such a call of liberation to discover there was somebody with whom I could—without any consequences—be myself.
What constitutes a healthy relationship?
I know what constitutes an unhealthy relationship for my particular psychological makeup. It’s anything that has the taint of infatuation; that is, where you use somebody else as your host body, where you want to disappear in them. I’ve had a tendency to fall madly in love. It’s very romantic and exciting, but it’s also degrading, devastating, and ultimately aggressive to the other person, because you’re not seeing or permitting them to be who they are. You’re insisting they fulfill this fantasy you’ve created. I think what constitutes a healthy relationship is anything that allows you to be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.
How do you view sex?
I went to a yoga conference once where somebody asked a monk, “Do you think sex is good or bad?” That’s a very narrow question. Many energy sources, including sex and money, are neither good nor bad. They’re tofu—they take on whatever flavor you add to them. The important thing to remember is to not make a judgment as to whether sex is good or bad, but just to know it’s extremely powerful. A person you have sex with will walk away and take a piece of you with him, and you will walk away and carry with you a piece of him. There’s an exchange that happens on an intangible level, which goes beyond the exchange of bodily fluid and phone numbers. That being the case, choose carefully with whom you have sex. Promiscuity is leaving pieces of yourself all over the place in careless hands.
How important do you think sex is in a relationship?
It’s really important to me. But one of the dangerous expectations people frequently have going into marriage is that their sex life after twenty years together should be what it was after twenty days. That’s a huge burden to put on two people. I had somebody ask me recently, “Do you still have hot, animalistic sex with your husband?” And I said, “In New Jersey, animal sex is illegal!” But the bigger point is that I won’t inflict on him the requirement that he provide that for decades on end. That said, if passion is gone completely, that’s a problem, unless it isn’t. I have a friend who’s seventy. She married a man fifteen years younger than her and they’ve been married for thirty-five years now. Though it started off as this enormously passionate sexual relationship, she says, “We’ve kind of dried up in that way, but we’ve expanded in others. We express our love in other ways.” I think that’s fine, as long as it’s okay with both parties. The problem is when somebody is filled with longing and frustration and the other person has no desire left.
In what way is marriage a practise?
Marriage is a wonderful practice ground for becoming a better person. Where better to hone patience, goodness, tolerance, kindness, and passion than with a person who knows you well enough to push your buttons? I think that’s something that goes missing in spiritual teachings, which call into question whether you can become an enlightened person while in a relationship. Marriage can pull you away from your higher focus, but it can also be the ground upon which to place your spiritual practice.
How have people’s expectations for their spouses changed?
Drastically and dangerously. With every generation over the last one hundred years, people have escalated their expectations. In the early part of the twentieth century there were surveys done with female college students, asking what traits they’d most like to have in a husband. Repeatedly, these women would list virtues. They’d say they wanted someone who was honest, kind, trustworthy, a respected member of society. But by the 1950s, that started to change. College girls asked that same question said they wanted love. They were thinking about the thrill they wanted to have with this person more than who might constitute a good partner over the course of forty or fifty years. Today when you ask young women in college what they look for in a partner, they say they want somebody who’ll inspire them every day, which is a tall order. Imagine if every morning you turned to your husband and said, “Inspire me!” You can see the poor guy being like, “Can’t I just be trustworthy?” When you come into marriage with expectations so heightened, it increases the divorce rate. But to this day I’m not sure how to use that information. It would be hard for me to advise a young woman to lower her expectations.
What would you say to someone considering marriage?
People spend a lot of time choosing the color of their bridesmaid dresses, but it would be a much easier path if they spent that time thinking about what they’re entering into and having serious conversations with their partner about what each one of them is expecting. I would follow this wonderful old Polish adage: “Before going to sea, pray one time. Before going to war, pray twice. Before getting married, pray three times.” Marriage is serious. Take it seriously.