What do we humans and porcupines have in common?
Apparently we both have intimacy issues.
According to the pre-Freudian philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, the behavior of porcupines on a cold winter night represents the ultimate dilemma of modern human intimacy. To keep from freezing, porcupines huddle together, but as soon as they get close enough to receive and provide crucial warmth, they get poked by each other’s quills, so they withdraw, to avoid the pain and annoyance of that excessive closeness, until they’re cold again, and then they huddle together again, and withdraw once more, and on and on it goes.
Elizabeth Gilbert presents this story in her newest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, to illustrate that much of marriage—or any love relationship—boils down to striking a balance between interdependence and autonomy.
Committed begins with Gilbert and her now-husband (who goes under the pseudonym Felipe in the book) being detained by the Department of Homeland Security upon their return from an overseas trip. Felipe (born in Brazil and a citizen of Australia) was informed he would not be allowed back into the country. (He had been using three-month visas for consecutive visits to America, something for which the visas were not intended, unbeknownst to him). Their only option, then, since America was Gilbert’s home and Felipe’s base of business as a gem and jewelry importer, was to get married. This wouldn’t have been so bad for the lovebirds if they hadn’t sworn off marriage, both having gone through painful divorces and having no desire to make their commitment to each other a legally binding one.
Essentially “sentenced to marry,” Gilbert and her beloved, mired in immigration red tape, spend the next frustrating months traveling across Southeast Asia, Gilbert seeking to unravel “the mystery of what in the name of God and human history this befuddling, vexing, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is.” She limits her investigation to monogamous marriage in Western history and sets out to discover something about marriage that might comfort her skeptical heart while also trying to discern why people continue to marry despite the fact that half the cards in the deck are stacked against them.
Anthropologist Lionel Tiger wrote of his utter astonishment that marriage is still legally permitted. “If nearly half of anything else ended so disastrously, the government would surely ban it immediately. If half the tacos served in restaurants caused dysentery, if half the people learning karate broke their palms, if only 6 percent of people who went on roller coaster rides damaged their middle ears, the public would be clamoring for action.” Not so with marriage.
But maybe that dispiriting statistic we’ve all heard—that one-out-of-two marriages end in divorce--is a bit misleading. After poring over a twenty-year-study of American marriages by Rutgers University, Gilbert found that eighteen year olds who marry, for example, have a divorce rate closer to seventy-five percent, throwing off the curve for everyone else. And for couples who wait until they are in their fifties to marry, their statistical odds of divorcing are almost nonexistent.
Still, there is no question that divorce is rampant in our society and marriage is on the decline. Perhaps one of the greatest contributing causes of this is what Gilbert calls the “marital freedom movement,” which began around the mideighteenth century and involved a social push for more personal freedom, privacy, and pursuit of happiness. This movement really picked up steam in 1849 when a Connecticut court ruled that people could leave their marriages because of unhappiness, implying for the first time that at least one of the purposes of marriage is to create a state of happiness for the partners involved. Marriage, then, gradually shifted from what had previously been a business deal (a clan- or asset- or convenience-based marriage) to, truly, an affair of the heart—or, as the Victorian scientist Sir Henry Finck called that fickle organ, “such a tissue of paradox.”
One of the most interesting things Gilbert found during her research is that everywhere, throughout history and across cultures, whenever a conservative culture of arranged marriage is replaced by a culture where individual choice reigns supreme and love-based marriages are the norm, divorce rates increase dramatically.
This point really hit home when Gilbert interviewed a group of women in a Hmong village in Vietnam about marriage. When she began firing away questions to one of the elders--How did you and your husband meet? How did you know he was the one? What is the secret to a happy marriage?--the woman looked at Gilbert as if she were crazy. Gilbert soon realized that Hmong women are more interested in the role they play within their family and community than their individual happiness. What’s more, they receive a lot of their emotional support from other women, taking the brunt of that delicate business off the males. They aren’t raised with the expectation that the man or marriage or their children should, or will, make them happy, or that they should even be happy in the first place. But in America, as Gilbert points out, happiness is not only considered a natural birthright, but also a national one.
Besides marrying for love and happiness, we Americans seem to have added another expectation to marriage. A recent survey of young American women found that what women want more than anything in a husband is for him to inspire them. In the 1920s, women of the same age, responding to that same question, wanted their husbands to be decent, honest, and good providers. Today, we tend to want our spouses to be our everything, to support us on every conceivable level. In essence, we are looking for our missing piece, someone who will miraculously make us whole. Gilbert writes, “This is the singular fantasy of human intimacy: that one plus one will somehow, someday, equal one.” Looking to another to make us happy, to fulfill us, to complete us, nay, to inspire us, will always spell trouble. As the old adage goes, Plant an expectation, reap a disappointment.
(Speaking of wanting it all, the other day I was listening to the radio, and the question posed to female listeners was, “Do you want something flashy for Valentine’s Day or something meaningful?” Almost every listener who called in replied, “Both!” And those who didn’t said they wanted the bling. I have to say, it made me a bit embarrassed for my gender.)
So do we Americans ask too much of marriage, of love? Gilbert wonders. The poet Jack Gilbert wrote that marriage is what happens “between the memorable.” Looking back on our marriages, we tend to remember the high and low points but not what often comes between: the mundane, day-to-day sameness.
Just to make sure her sweetheart knew what he was getting himself into, Gilbert composed a list of her worst character flaws and shared it with him. I love Felipe’s response to this. After telling her that he loved her regardless (and that she wasn’t giving him information he didn’t already know), he tells her a story about when he used to buy gemstones in Brazil. Stones are sold in parcels, a random collection of gems, which are supposed to be cheaper for the buyer. But buyer beware. The gemstone seller is trying to pass off his bad gemstones with a few beautiful ones. Felipe learned quickly that he had to completely ignore the near-perfect stones, because those are easy to fall in love with, and instead carefully examine the bad ones, asking himself honestly, “Can I work with these? Can I make something out of this?” Same with relationships. The true trick is being able to ascertain if you can accept the whole package.
Real love is based on deep and genuine affection and respect. It is about really seeing the other person and not just an illusion or fantasy of that person (as in the case of infatuation). The word respect, Gilbert notes, comes from the Latinrespicere (to gaze at). “To be fully seen by somebody, then, and to be loved anyhow—this is a human offering that can border on the miraculous,” writes Gilbert. The movie Avatar conveys a similar message, the Na’Vi greeting each other with, “I see you.” I teach English to elderly refugees. My Bhutanese students always greet me at my classroom door with their palms pressed together in prayer fashion, bowing, and saying, “Namaste,” which is derived from the Sanskritnamas, to bow, and te, to you, as in, “I bow to you,” a form of reverence. It can also be interpreted as the light (the spirit, the divine) in me honors (sees, bows to) the light (spirit, divine) in you.
The Buddhists and mystics teach that the path to enlightenment comes through nonattachment and self-denial. Even the early Christians, like John of Damascus, preached that people should “Renounce marriage and imitate the angels.” But Gilbert sees some limitations in the teachings of nonattachment and monastic solitude: “Maybe all that renunciation of intimacy denies us the opportunity to ever experience that very earthbound, domesticated, dirt-under-the-fingernails gift of difficult, long-term, daily forgiveness.” This reminds me of Barbara Wood’s gracious take on forgiveness: “Forgiveness is not simply the absolving of an enemy, or one who has done us wrong. Forgiveness must encompass all those things which disturb the tranquility of our soul: the barking dog that robs you of sleep, the heat of summer, the cold of winter. Forgive the ingrown toenail, the flea that bites; forgive the cranky child, wrinkles, a forgotten birthday.” Gilbert believes that when all is said and done, forgiveness might be the only practical antidote we are given in love, “to combat the inescapable disappointments of intimacy.”
So why does the institution of marriage persist? Gilbert believes marriage endures chiefly because it evolves. (Think interracial marriages and the present debate over same-sex marriages). Marriage has changed with every century in the Western world, adjusting to new standards and ideas of fairness. Gilbert began to see marriage not as an arcane institution thrust upon the masses by those in power, but rather a malleable institution that we, the people, can and do mold and define (for better or for worse, some might say).
Gilbert was also surprised to find that marriage, in some respects, is a revolutionary act--and maybe this is part of its ultimate appeal. The one thing that has threatened the powers-that-be across the course of human history is the human bond. Early Christianity wanted its followers to lead celibate lives. The communists and fascists tried to undercut the family unit. American slaves weren’t allowed to legally wed. “What passes between a couple alone in the dark is the very definition of the word ‘privacy,’” Gilbert explains, “And I’m talking not just about sex here but about its far more subversive aspect: intimacy. Every couple in the world has the potential over time to become a small and isolated nation of two—creating their own culture, their own language, and their own moral code, to which nobody else can be privy.” Yet despite the many efforts throughout the centuries to thwart two people in love from getting married, people still keep finding ways to do it, keep wanting to do it.
Gilbert insists that the human heart, for whatever its mysterious reasons, craves private intimacy, intimacy with one special someone. And, if we are honest, doesn’t part of us relish the idea of being chosen by that one special someone out of all the other someones in the world? Or perhaps it’s as simple as one of Gilbert’s friend’s grandfather suggested: “Sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes life is too good to be alone.”