February 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
A skeptic makes peace with marriage

Marriage is either an anachronism or it isn’t.

But maybe that’s too simplistic. Maybe it’s anachronistic for many — at least, the kind of lifelong monogamy of the “happily ever after” romantic ideal.

But maybe for others, it can still work, imperfectly at times, demanding compromises always, but still, the righteous goal of one lifelong commitment, till death do us part. For me, however, the not entirely healed survivor of a bitter divorce, I remain resolutely unsure about remarriage — ever mindful that the 18th century literary giant Samuel Johnson once famously defined it as a triumph of hope over experience.

So mark me down about marriage, gay or straight, as a definite maybe.

After all, what are the odds of hope ever trumping (sometimes) bitter experience? The answer I guess is quite simply contingent — it depends.

But now comes Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the 2006 mega-blockbusting best-seller “EAT, PRAY, LOVE,” a feminist’s bon-bon with 7 million copies sold, still high on the sales charts after more than three years and her two appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show. And in August Julia Roberts will star as Gilbert in Hollywood’s retelling of her saga of a nasty divorce at age 30, followed by a journey of depression, disastrous rebound affairs and then eventual recovery while visiting in Italy luxuriating in language and cuisine and then chanting and sweating and meditating at an ashram in India and finally traveling to Bali where she met the love of her life, the man she calls Felipe in her new book, just published, titled “COMMITTED: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage.”

But Felipe — she attempts to keep him veiled by a pseudonym but she also acknowledges he is, really, Jose Nunes — is from a different culture and generation. He is Brazilian-born but an Australian citizen and he is 17 years her senior. But like her, like so many of us in fact, Felipe is a survivor of a bitter divorce. And “EAT, PRAY, LOVE” ends with them in love but each vowing never, ever to remarry — each other or anyone else. The pain, quite simply, of that marital experience is too awful still for hope to flower in its ashes.

Fate intervenes, however, in the form of a U.S. Homeland Security agent when the two try to return to the U.S. where they have sought to live without benefit of a marriage license as a couple swearing never to write down personal vows on a legal document. For marriage is an instrument of the state, replete with fine print concerning property and offspring, but in the modern era a vessel also for soul mates finding one another and mating with a sacred vow — let no man or woman tear asunder — for all eternity.

Felipe is barred re-entry at the Dallas International Airport and the only chance he has of returning to their home in New Jersey is as her husband. Therefore they are, in her jokey aside, “sentenced to marry.” But until the necessary papers for such a visa can be obtained — something that will take months — they decide to travel mainly in Southeast Asia and live cheaply while getting to know one another as they each contemplate taking the step neither had wanted, namely wedding vows and a marriage license. The result of her quest for an answer is this new book.

But what does the book have to say about same-sex marriage. It turns out, a lot.

Recently Gilbert addressed the issue head-on in a D.C. book tour appearance, as well as on the Diane Rehm public radio show, but it also leaps right off the pages of her book. “Legalized same-sex marriage is coming to America” she declares and then adds, “in large part, this is because NON-legalized same-sex marriage is already here,” noting also that the 2010 U.S. Census, in forms arriving in our mailboxes next month, will for the first time document same-sex couples alongside heterosexual married couples.

This is true, she says, even though right-wing homophobes will obtain, as in the California vote on Proposition 8, temporary victories, and though traditionalist Christians claim to want to strengthen marriage by denying it to gay people.

National Marriage Week, in fact, was Feb. 7-14 for these marriage-revivalists but no gays need apply. Except sometime next month, thanks to action by the D.C. City Council and Mayor Fenty, it is coming to the District anyway.

And nationwide, says Gilbert, “the federal courts will eventually get fed up,” just as happened in 1967 with Loving v. Virginia when the Supreme Court unanimously struck down laws against interracial marriage. She sees marriage as “a secular concern, not a religious one,” noting that “the objection to gay marriage is almost invariably biblical — but nobody’s legal vows in this country are defined by interpretation of biblical verse.”

“Ultimately, then, it is the business of America’s courts, not America’s churches, to decide the rules of matrimonial law, and it is in those courts that the same-sex marriage debate will finally be settled.”

Legal marriage, she concedes, may be hard for individuals to endure successfully but it “restrains sexual promiscuity and yokes people to their social obligations” and as such “is an essential building block of any orderly community — and is also good for children who ideally at least will be reared in intact families.

But speaking in D.C. last month on her book tour she also said that “we’re entering the era of ‘wifeless’ marriages, where every woman I know wants to be married but nobody wants to be a ‘wife.” In addition, she is unalterably opposed to the idea of “soul mate” — what she calls the “Jerry Maguire fantasy” of “you complete me.” Instead she proudly declares, “I own my incompleteness.”

But is there a difference between completeness and wholeness? Listen to the song “In a Very Unusual Way,” from the 1982 Broadway show “Nine,” as sung by Nicole Kidman on screen: “Since the first day that I met you, how could I ever forget you / Once you had touched my soul? / In a very unusual way, you make me whole.”

Suppose it’s true that unlike completion, wholeness differs in that it is neither confined nor static but open, growing, organic, emerging. Suppose, indeed, that marriage proponents can learn something from gay men — for it is gay men and not lesbians that are relevant here. Suppose gay men are in fact leading the way — as Gilbert opines — in saving marriage for at least some straight people by reframing it as an open relationship?

True, the fetishism of monogamy may persist forever for many, and its hold seems deeply embedded in some cultures — though not in others and certainly not in what is sometimes quaintly called “the animal kingdom.”

On the verge of attaining legal same-sex marriage in D.C., let us conclude with findings from recent social science. Two studies reveal that many gay men appear to thrive in open relationships. One of the studies, just published by San Francisco State University, looked over the course of three years at 556 male couples, of whom half had mutually agreed to outside sexual experiences. The other study (2009) looked only at gay male couples in long-term relationships (together for eight years or longer) who maintained consensual open relationships. Three quarters of those couples felt that outside sex had no negative impact on their primary connections.

In other words, the monogamous model itself may eventually crumble for some (but not all), and marriage may become redefined by gay men for all people as an open door to a different option (for some at least): that is, enduring love made “whole,” yet not complete, with emotional primacy but also sexual variety. Call it still marriage, then, but also “open” — in other words, just “in a very unusual way.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, by the way, would agree.

David J. Hoffman is a local writer and regular contributor to DC Agenda. Reach him at djhoffmanscreen@aol.com.

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