A skeptic discovers that marriage ought to be taken seriously

I’ve had a lot of conversations about marriage over the last couple of months and in many of them, I am asked to defend what people call the outdated, antiquated teaching of the church. I am always looking for ways to show how in the two thousand plus years of experience the church has had with marriage it has learned some incontrovertible truths. I am always looking for help in making the connection between culture and faith. One of the gifts of truth is that it makes sense yesterday, today and tomorrow.

 Help from the most unlikely places

Much to my surprise, help has come in the recently published book by Elizabeth Gilbert. Imagine this—you are an acclaimed author, you write a hugely successful book in which you conclude, among other things, that you will never marry again. However, than man with whom you fall in love with at the end of the book and with whom you imagined being together, forever without the benefit of marriage, needs to get married in order to be able to live happily ever after–legally– with you in the U.S. What’s a woman to do?  If you are the author you write a book. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage is the story of how it all works out happily ever after. But let’s go back to the beginning.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Love Pray was an Oprah Book Club sensation. It hit a cord with millions of women as she explored with honesty and humor her difficult divorce, her awful rebound relationship, and her year-long journey of “spiritual seeking” through Italy, Indonesia and India. Why the tour through the three “I’s?” She chose Italy for pleasure, India for its spirituality and Indonesia as a place to explore the balance of the two. I believe a lot of the book’s appeal is that it speaks to so many people who have lived through the pain of a failed marriage and a divorce and it speaks to a common longing for a chance to escape it all in a grand way.

To Gilbert’s credit, when faced with the real question of marrying though having publicly stated her rejection of the institution, she chose to spend 10 months research and studying the history and meaning of marriage so as to be able to honestly enter into another marriage. Though I have not read Committed, I have been reading and watching a number of interviews with her and have gained some insight into her thinking.

 Marriage Fundamentals

Let me state clearly that Gilbert does not espouse a Christian understanding of marriage. Why I find her insight helpful is that she realizes that certain fundamental concepts are critical to marriage and make the institution of marriage beneficial to couples and society. She asks many of the right questions and her answers provide the makings of a very interesting conversation.

Before she began work on her book she thought of marriage as a “repressive tool, suffocating and irrelevant.” In a recent interview(wsj.com), when ask about what she thinks of marriage now, she writes of marriage “as having a capacity to evolve and adapt(over thousands of years) in a way she finds miraculous and kind of inspiring.” Furthermore, she believes that we carry into modern marriage the expectations and social memory of thousands of years of history…” In Christian language we talk about the concept of marriage existing from the very beginning of God’s plan for creation.  We talk about marriage as a private relationship with a public significance and indeed Gilbert writes “marriage is both a public and private concern, with real-world consequences.” She writes wisely of how easily people confuse marriage with weddings. Marriage requires a maturity that thinks about life beyond the wedding day. She writes however of how she has come to respect the public significance of marriage beginning with the importance of ritual and ceremony for people, families and societies. She believes that the vows publicly recognize that the status of the couple has changed and they are moving into a new phase in life. As Catholics we use the language of the grace of the sacrament and the commitment to be a sign of God’s love and fidelity to the world. We insist that marriages take place in a church building because the church building symbolizes the role the couple’s marriage will play in the life of the community.


One area in which her interviews have engendered a lot of conversation is that she claims that marriage is not for the young! She suggests that one needs a certain maturity to endure the disappointments, and even contradictions, one discovers about marriage. It seems to me that it is not so much age as the ability of spouses to grow together that enable one to navigate the ups and downs of married life. More importantly, it is the model of Jesus’ self-giving love that teaches us the most about married love. While Gilbert, in no way embraces this nuance, she does admit that one thing she fears– and the one thing which every married person with whom she spoke talked about—is how critical the act of self-sacrifice is to marriage.  Marriage, she finds provides the space needed to learn how to live this self-giving love.

It is interesting to see that in a time when popular culture seems to reject the teaching of the church on marriage, one critic of marriage, especially Christian marriage, appears to have re/discovered some of the church’s age-old wisdom.  We can only hope that this discovery will eventually lead to a full understanding of sacramental marriage as the fullest expression of married love.

13 Replies to “A skeptic discovers that marriage ought to be taken seriously”

  1. A skeptic discovers that marriage ought to be taken seriously

    You mean some marriage/annulment tribunal in the United States?

    OK, that was snarky, but given the Pope’s recent comments in defense of marriage to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, I couldn’t resist. As he said there, “One must avoid pseudo-pastoral claims that would situate questions merely on a horizontal plane, in which what matters is to satisfy subjective requests in order to reach a declaration of nullity at any cost, in order that the parties may be able to overcome, among other things, obstacles to receiving the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. . . . existential, personal and relational considerations of the conjugal union can never be made at the expense of indissolubility, an essential property which, in Christian matrimony, achieves, with unity, a particular stability because of the sacrament (cf. CIC, can. 1056). Moreover, it must not be forgotten that matrimony is favored by the law. Therefore, in case of doubt, it must be considered valid until the contrary has been proven (cf. CIC, can. 1060). Otherwise, there is a grave risk that one does hot have an objective reference point for pronouncements on the nullity of the marriage, by transforming every conjugal difficulty into a symptom of the failed realization of a union whose essential nucleus of justice – the indissoluble bond – is in fact denied.”

    1. I had some troubles in my marriage and spoke to my pastor about the situation. Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t really looking for advice as much as I wanted a “safe” person to speak with. Anyway, after explaining my situation, my pastor informed me that I had grounds for an annulment. I had been thinking about a temporary separation but wasn’t considering divorce or an annulment, until he said it. Though I was pretty sure it wasn’t what I wanted (for a number of different reasons), the thought that it was a possibility stuck with me for a long time- I had an out, and in those tough times, it seemed like a golden ticket. In my troubled mind, I actually began to think, “Well, if the Church thinks I shouldn’t be married, then I probably shouldn’t be.” Though my marriage is far from perfect, I took the advice of another friend who told me, “This too shall pass.”

      1. It doesn’t do anybody any favors when, in the zeal to be “pastoral,” someone like a priest offers you a false mercy. Often, it only exacerbates the problem.

      2. How important, prayer and discernment is to the process! Education, formation, the ability to be wise, are gifts that we need to nurture in our people and priests.

      3. I had a similar experience with a pastor a few years ago. I approached him with some frightening personal concerns and he totally just twisted everything I said and I walked out of there feeling worse than when I went in. And it wasn’t like I was asking for some major counseling or therapy or anything. I had a legitimate concern that needed to be addressed by the pastor. Never went back to him again. Glad you stuck out your marriage, anon!

  2. I really like that more women are speaking out about their experiences with marriage and life. I would eventually like to speak out and help women who have been in similar situations as me. And at age 22, while I am nowhere near marriage, I am always looking for input on how to make things work. Because marriage is essentially a relationship that is forever. I do think the Church’s view on marriage is the correct one: marriage is forever, sex should be saved for marriage, etc. And if I get married, it will be only once, and to a guy that genuinely loves me for me. But also in this culture it is difficult to live out the Church’s view on things. And many of us have learned the Church’s lessons the hard way. I know I have for many things.

    This is a great post, and thank you for sharing it!

    1. Katherine, thanks for your honest comment. We are fast losing sight of the very idea that marriage can last a life-time and that is a completely different starting point–when the going gets rough, you don’t ask “hmm, “is it over?” but rather, O.K., what do we need to do to get through this because we are in this forever! That said, I want to be sensitive the the reality that in some cases, the married couple may not be able to stay together, those sad and difficult situations however does not mean we change the ideal.

  3. “She suggests that one needs a certain maturity to endure the disappointments, and even contradictions, one discovers about marriage.”

    The average age couples marry seems to be getting older and the divorce rate keeps growing. So not being “young” isn’t a good measure of determining when one should marry. In fact, I would think it might be harder, in some cases, to mesh your life with another’s after many, many years of being accustomed to being alone; the self-giving thing might be a big shocker, don’t you think?

    Things like self-giving and sticking it through the tough times are simply choices. I do agree that maturity is an element that helps one make those choices, but how many of us had grandparents who were married and loved each other from the ages of 19 to 90? Even those who lack some maturity can work though issues if properly guided and supported, but instead the pressure from others is often greater to leave a troubled marriage than it is to stay and work out issues. Marriage has become acceptingly disposable.

  4. As someone who is a late vocation to marriage and married ten years, to be sure you do come more set in your ways, I think that very act of giving yourself to one another and fighitng the urge to make it all about me is part of the process at every age. What we sometimes forget is that married life changes as kids are welcomed or serious illnes sets in, or jobs change, so what is asked of each person changes as well. You last sentence hits the nail on the head, soceity does not think of marriage as permanent

  5. Susan
    Thank you for this intelligent, sucinct and reflective post which has generated great dialogue.

  6. Amazing! It gives me joy and hope that more Truth seekers will find the beauty of Marriage in the Church. Or like Christopher West said last week speaking about Natural Family Planning at St. Peter’s in Olney: “Maybe the Catholic Church isn’t crazy after all!”

    I heard that Elizabeth Gilbert grew up in a small family and that because they didn’t have a TV she spent a lot of time reading. I wonder if she was raised Catholic.

  7. Thanks for the post. What I have seen in marriage is to be a successful couple we should have a strong sense of “we,” acting and making decisions as one unit. I am sure all married couples fight occasionally. But we need to make sure that we fight or argue fair if we had really had to. Having respect for your partner will avoid bad arguments and discussions with them. Also finally I have seen that forgiving each other is one of the fundamental needs in any marriage. Thanks, Emma. [Read my latest post on husband having affair]

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